Lab 2: Vintage Games in Emulation

The 8-bit consoles of the seventies and eighties obviously could not produce the so-called “immersive” experiences of today. In fact, think back to the categories Nintendo used to systematically design games, and you won’t find “realism” among them. Instead, you have:

  • graphics
  • sound
  • initial feel
  • play control
  • concept/story
  • excitement/thrills
  • lasting interest and challenge
  • overall engagement

Graphics, in this case, doesn’t equal realism. Nintendo especially focused on stylized, cartoonish graphics. Your task for this lab is to set aside contemporary standards of what makes for an engaging game experience, and instead focus on games as-is, as someone in 1982 might have played them. There are two parts to the in-class lab:

Part I: Comparative Pac-Man

Jon Ippolito suggests that emulated games are “copies…spiritually, if not physically, equivalent to the originals” (135). Yet he also notes that occasionally aspects of the original games might be “lost in translation” when played in an emulator (136). In this lab you’ll take advantage of what Ippolito calls “emulation as service” by playing some vintage videogames in a browser-based emulator.

Here are several versions of Pac-Man (and one version of Ms. Pac-Man). Spend a few minutes with each version of the game, talking with your group about the changes to the game across platforms. Think about formal elements such as sound, graphics, mechanics, and the other categories above. Above all, use criteria other than “realism” to think about these games. (And think deliberately about what those criteria should be.)

  1. Emulation of original Pac-Man arcade game (Namco 1980)
  2. Emulation of the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man (1981)
  3. Emulation of the Apple II version of Pac-Man (1983)
  4. Emulation of Nintendo NES Pac-Man (1984)
  5. Emulation of Sega version of Ms. Pac-Man (1993)
  6. If you have extra time, explore some of the other versions of Pac-Man in the Internet Archive’s software collection.

Part II: Super Mario Brothers

As Stephen Kline and his co-authors point out, there are many ways to read the underlying message of Super Mario Brothers (124). The critic Janet Murray calls it a game about exploration. Henry Jenkins thinks about it as a struggle over contested spaces. Kline et al. view the game through the lens of colonization. What do you think?

  1. Take turns playing Super Mario Bros. 3. You can play it in an online emulator (select Super Mario Bros. 3 from the drop-down menu). This works best in Chrome, though sometimes the audio doesn’t work. Alternatively, you can download an offline emulator called Nestopia for Mac or PC. Next, download the game ROM and run it in Nestopia.
  2. As a group think about the dominant metaphors of Super Mario Bros. 3. What is the game about? Exploration? Conquest? Colonization? Something else entirely? How do you know?

Lab Report

This lab report is open-ended. Use the report to delve deeper into questions and insights that came up during the in-class lab. Think about the advantages and drawbacks of emulation. You can follow-up either Part I or Part II—or both. Whatever questions you pursue, be sure to back up your response with specific examples. Also refer back to (and cite) Ippolito or Kline et al. as needed.

The lab should be about 500 words, shared with me as a Google Doc by the end of the day, Tuesday, February 6.

Works Cited

Ippolito, Jon. “Emulation.” In Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon, edited by Raiford Guins and Henry Lowood, 133–41. MIT Press, 2016.

Kline, Stephen, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig De Peuter. Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. Montréal ; London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.