As someone who has always been interested in learning as much as can about video game history, when looking back at what that was like before the emulation scene and afterwards, the difference is staggering. It could be a fun thing to discuss.
Back in 1994, when I was a 19 year old college kid, I sent in a mail order to buy my first proper video game history book, Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Home Videogames from the address given in Electronic Gaming Monthly. While anxiously waiting for it to arrive, I discovered some more historical gaming books available at the library: Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari , and the ridiculously titled Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children .
Although some of their flaws and limitations are more apparent in retrospect, at the time these were amazing windows into the past and for learning about stuff behind the scenes. Still, they were mostly focused on the industry from a business/general overview perspective, and didn’t go into much depth on the games themselves or design evolution. They were also all by American authors and focused pretty much just on the North American market and related parts from Japan. The only access to PAL history for me was from some imported UK magazines sold at Chapters book stores.
These were only a few pieces of a giant puzzle, and the only other ways to fill in the gaps of gaming history were to buy as many old games and gaming magazines as possible. I did what I could in the mid '90s, amassing Atari and Intellivision games from thrift stores and garage sales, but there was only so far random purchasing could go. I had followed video game magazines closely from the late '80s onwards but my early '80s collection was more patchy and it was really hard to find old issues in a pre-ebay world.
Like most people, I didn’t have the internet at home in 1994 but, even if I had, this was still a time before the emulation scene really hit its stride. There were some impressive commercial compilations of emulated games appearing such as Activision’s Atari 2600 Action Pack on PC/Mac in 1995 and Atari Collection 1 on Playstation in 1996 but these were still limited to a relatively small number of greatest hits.
In 1997, my cousin gave me a bunch of floppy disks to use on my 486 DOS PC. Nesticle was the first emulator I used and it blew my mind having a console like the NES (mostly) accurately cloned on a PC. Pretty soon, I had some free AOL internet trials at home and began exploring emulation for ColecoVision, TurboGrafx, arcade, etc. before getting permanent internet at home.
The emulation scene was an enormous breakthrough for anyone wanting to research video game history. Much like a public library provides you with a wealth of literary history to explore, analyze, and compare - emulation did something similar for video games. Sure, for some people it just meant “free gamez!”, like a classic gaming version of Napster. But, for those of us actually interested in researching and wanting gaming history to be presented as objectively as possible, it was and still is an incredible resource.
Tons of historical articles and visual archives on the internet started using emulator screen grabs for their pictures. It’s an easy, crisp-looking way of showing the viewer/reader what the games look like, and the easiest way for an author to quickly compare versions of games that came out on several formats. Especially in the pre-Youtube age, these screenshots were excellent for walkthroughs.
In my experience talking to people on the internet in the last 20+ years, anyone that has gone and sifted through stacks of games via emulator has stories to tell about discoveries that they found interesting that they hadn’t seen mentioned before.
For example, No told me back in the day that Quartet on the Master System was altered from its Japanese/Korean version. They changed the protagonist Mary’s character design from Asian to white. It’s not something Western magazines were likely aware of in the '80s but with emulation, it became so easy to come across and compare many regional differences like that. There are lots of instances.
Also regarding Sega, prior to emulation, I (and likely many others) wasn’t aware there was a Sega console older than the Master System. It wasn’t until coming across SG-1000 roms dated from 1983-1984, that I realized it existed. The SG-1000 console was briefly mentioned in Game Over but at the time I assumed it was the Japanese version of the SMS. If it weren’t for emulation and the internet spreading information, notable historical stuff like this might have remained hidden longer.
Discussion on the internet spreads these type of personal discoveries and eventually a lot of more obscure info becomes wider knowledge. I spent a lot of time researching what was the first side-scrolling platform game. I went through hundreds of roms from the '70s and early '80s on various formats. The oldest I found was Jump Bug, an arcade game from 1981. I was talking to a game writer friend about it on a message baord, and he included it in an IGN article on early pioneering games. That article is linked to in the platform game section of Wikipedia. It’s possible that people besides me came to the same conclusion about Jump Bug (and there could be an even older game; I don’t know) but I imagine they would have used emulation like I did to help narrow it down chronologically. I’m sure there are tons of bits of info like on the internet that are related to using emulation. It’s the tool of the emulation scene itself and the collective sharing of information that helps give us a broader and more accurate view of history.
And in the case of obscure games with very little chance of being commercially re-released again, it definitely helps in preservation. As a kid, I owned several cassette games for the Commodore 64 by a very small publisher called Aardvark Software. Even after browsing flea markets and ebay for decades, there are some games I have never seen resurface physically for me to re-buy if I wanted to, and there’s no guarantee they would even still function today anyway given the degradation of magnetic media. Yet, every one of those games I had has been converted digitally and exists on the internet to be used via emulation thanks to someone making sure these games don’t disappear off the planet.