Back in the 1990s, portable consoles were expensive, underpowered and came with terrible battery life. That Nintendo’s first generation Game Boy (born 1989) lasted for so long, with its chiptune sounds and monochrome display, is an indictment of the technology of the period — the Game Boy Color didn’t arrive until 1998. But what of those old games today? Can we take the cream of the old school on the road? Why yes, and if you have a tiny netbook, you (almost) have everything you need.
As it turns out, the MSI Wind (or any Atom-powered netbook) is easily up to the task of emulation. For this quick project, I downloaded SNES9x, which appears to play most things and gives quick and easy controller configuration (more on that in a moment). The emulator is free and works on the Mac (or Hackintosh). There are other emulators for Linux and Windows which are easy enough to find online.
First, legality. Emulators allow the original game ROMs to run on different hardware. The emulators themselves seem to be immune from prosecution, but the ROMs are just the same as music and movies: somebody owns the rights. In theory, if you own the original game cart, you’re good to go. I did own all of the games I’ve tried out here, but no longer. That said, many of these old games no longer exist in physical form, so the ROM download sites are often the sole custodians of video game history.
Some ROM sites are better than others. Many have complied with takedown requests and have nothing but junk (Altered Beast, anyone?). I won’t provide links, but one site that has everything is pretty dope, and offers ROMs. Happy hunting.
First, go to the local gaming store and buy a USB joypad. These emulators all allow you to use the keyboard, but that gets old fast. SNES9x has a nice, easy pictorial method to set up the pad, as you can see below (and in the video). Next, grab the software and your legally acquired ROMs. There is minimal setup: You just open the game like you would any other file — double click — and then start playing.
The best thing about emulation is that you are playing the exact same game as you would if you used the console. There are a few shortcomings, though. Less powerful computers have trouble with more advanced consoles. The 1.6GHz Atom processor in the Wind will run the Nintendo64 emulator SixtyForce, but it’s a little choppy. With the old 16bit consoles, though, you’ll be fine.
Also, all emulators are not equal. Some support special add-on chips. The big example is the SuperFX chip found in StarFox, a digital signal processor which allowed 3D. Check to see if the games you want to play are supported. There are advantages over the originals, too. You can save the game at any point, or “freeze” it to disk, picking up later from exctly where you left off instead of waiting for an in-game save-point.
In the video you can see how well SNES9x works with Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter 2 Turbo. It’s just how I remember it. The crappy controller I bought has some trouble with some more intricate special moves, but as you can see, I pulled off Ryu’s Fireball, Dragon Punch and Hurricane kick. In short, I kicked Zangief’s ass.
These old games might not look as good as good as the new ones, but they’re still a lot of fun. Best of all, you can take them with you. Finally, the Wind has three USB ports, better than the SNES which required an expensive Multitap to connect more than two controllers. Four-player Bomberman on a plane here we come! Highly inappropriate, yes, but lots of fun.