While perusing the Windows Store for new tablet apps last night, I came across a surprising find: Microsoft had recently let in a Super Nintendo emulator, dubbed Snes8x, for Windows 8 and Windows RT devices.
The free app lets you play the classics from Nintendo’s 16-bit game console, such as Super Mario World and Street Fighter II, though you have to supply the games yourself in the form of SNES ROM files. Snes8x has touch screen controls, and it also supports keyboard input.
It’s not the only classic game emulator in the Windows Store, either. After searching some more, I also found EMU7800, an emulator for the Atari 7800 ProSystem, which itself was backwards compatible with the Atari 2600. EMU7800 is free as well, and though you can supply your own ROMs, it also includes a built-in selection of games, such as Ballblazer and Joust.
Of course, emulators aren’t a new thing. If you have a Windows PC, you can get emulators for consoles dating as far back as the Magnavox Odyssey.
Snes8x and EMU7800 are noteworthy because they’ve landed inside the Windows Store, Microsoft’s new semi-walled garden for apps. If you have a Windows RT device like Microsoft’s Surface, you can only install new software through this Store, and even on a Windows 8 machine, it’s the only place to get modern-style apps that offer new features like fast app switching and Snap view. I wasn’t sure whether emulators would be welcome.
Emulators lie in legally murky territory. While a U.S. appeals court has held up emulation as fair use, it’s still illegal to download bootleg copies of the actual game files, known as ROMs. Nonetheless, there are dozens of websites that distribute both emulators and ROMs for classic consoles, and the games industry generally leaves them alone. Occasionally, some sites will remove their copies of popular games, such as Donkey Kong or Pac-Man, in response to copyright complaints, but for the most part, the same sites have been up and running for years.
With the rise of mobile app stores, tech companies like Microsoft are in a position to crack down on emulators, but they haven’t taken a hard stance. Microsoft once blocked a Nintendo emulator from its Windows Phone store, but now allows a different one. Google allows emulators, with the exception of a handful that were violating open source licensing requirements.
Even Apple, which has removed classic game emulators from its App Store in the past, doesn’t have an explicit policy against them. It allows emulators like Commodore 64 to stay, because relies on a tightly-controlled in-game store for buying licensed games. Apps like iDOS and Nescaline were likely banned because they allowed users to bring their own ROMs and EXE files, thus running afoul of Apple’s rules on executing outside code.
Microsoft’s app developer agreement for the Windows Store doesn’t mention any similar restrictions on outside code, which makes me hopeful that Snes8x and EMU7800 will be allowed to stay. Although game makers clearly don’t like emulation–Nintendo has a lengthy FAQ where it expresses its displeasure with the concept–they’re a perfect example of history needing piracy, as Benj Edwards once put it. Many classic games would be lost and forgotten if emulators weren’t tolerated, so I’m glad the Windows Store has, for the moment at least, allowed them to remain on board.
But just in case that changes, you should get them while you can.