I feel like I’m holding a chunk of my childhood in the palm of my hand.
And, theoretically, I could get arrested for it.
As a gamer who has been kicking around for longer than I care to admit, I grew up on game consoles that have long since faded into the mists of antiquity. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis, the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System and original Game Boy, and even consoles from before that time – the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision were my introduction to home video gaming.
The fact that now, in 2014, I can carry a device in my pocket that can store and play thousands of games from these bygone consoles blows my mind a bit. Well, part of my mind. The other part – the part that feels guilty about things like taking too many mints when leaving a restaurant – clucks disapprovingly.
The gadget in question is the GCW Zero, a handheld video game machine that launched last year after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
While the Zero is by no means the first handheld designed to play a variety of retro games (in addition to original “homebrew” software), it was designed by a group of gamers who wanted to make a best-in-class device. And they’ve done a pretty fine job.
Available for $150 from ThinkGeek.com, the Zero is essentially a tiny, but relatively powerful, computer with familiar video game controller buttons and a 320x240 pixel screen – low resolution by today’s standards, but more than adequate for playing old-school games.
I got the Zero for Christmas, and I’ve been in love with it since. It’s not exactly an intuitive gizmo, and requires a lot of learning, tinkering and tweaking to fully unlock its potential. But now I’ve got a bunch of game emulators installed on the thing, capable of playing everything from the original Pitfall! for the Atari 2600 to my Genesis faves Earthworm Jim and Mutant League Football to SNES classics like Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario World.
Catch is, playing these games is technically against the law.
In video game terms, emulation refers to a piece of hardware mimicking an older gaming system through raw computational power and clever software design. Emulators aren’t illegal, but ROMs – short for read-only memory, a catch-all term for these old games files – are.
Even though many of these retro games are 20 to 30 years old, they’re still copyrighted material and can’t legally be distributed. Nintendo, in particular, takes a dim view of emulation, with an entire section of their website devoted to the topic.
Are these laws enforced? Given that websites offering ROMs for download operate openly, and with relative impunity, it appears not. I suspect game publishers focus their anti-piracy efforts on people who illegally copy and distribute newer games, rather than tracking down folks playing 1985’s Super Mario Bros. on their home computers.
There are plenty of legal ways to play old-school games, to be sure. Lots of classic titles are re-released on newer consoles (Nintendo’s eShop, for instance, has tons of old favourites), and there’s always the option of buying an old system and tracking down out-of-print games through specialty stores, eBay and the like.
Not exactly convenient and definitely not portable. So when something like the GCW Zero comes along, and offers you the seductive possibility of carrying your entire gaming childhood in a single pocket-sized device… well, we must all look within and figure out which way our moral compasses point.
For the record, I deleted everything off my Zero after writing this. For the record.