Is Video Game Emulation Legal?
Video game emulation is when a computer system is made that emulates or acts in the same way as one console type but allows the game to be played on another console type. This is most often done in the form of a system that makes console games like those exclusively made for PlayStation or Xbox playable on PC.
So, is video game emulation legal? Video game emulation is technically legal. But certain parts of the process can be illegal, so you should be careful how you go about it.
Emulator vs ROM
One crucial bit of info to understand about this discussion is the difference between a video game emulator and a ROM. An emulator emulates a console. It makes the console you have work like the console that you don’t have but that the game in question is meant for so that you can play it on your console.
ROM stands for “read only memory” and is a copy of the original game. You can download it from your computer onto a chip or other storage device that the console you do have can read.
For example, if you want to play Tokyo Jungle, which was released for PlayStation 3, on your gaming PC now, you could get a PlayStation 3 emulator for your PC to read the game and download a ROM or copy of the game onto a chip. Then insert the chip into your computer and play on your PC like it was PS3.
Downloading a ROM is completely legal if you already own the original version of the game. This is most applicable to retro games whose console systems are outdated and difficult to find or maintain. If you have the original Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64, and you want to play the game but cant find the console or get it to work, then you can legally download a Nintendo 64 emulator and a Super Mario 64 ROM and play completely legally.
Since you already bought the game in the past, the developers have received compensation for your use of their product. And since they don’t make that console anymore, they wouldn’t make money if you bought a refurbished used one from a secondhand store.
So Nintendo the business isn’t bothered by you using an emulator and playing a ROM of one of their old games, and Nintendo the individual developers of that game from decades ago would be smiling if they knew you enjoyed it so much that you wanted to pick it back up again.
However, downloading a ROM of a current game that you don’t already own is technically illegal piracy. You aren’t likely to get into trouble for it, but it is illegal and unethical. Dozens or more people spent years of their life creating that game, so they do deserve to be compensated for their untold hours of work and diligence and overcoming frustrations.
What you are more likely to get into trouble for is the illegal distribution of ROMs. Using a pirated item is one thing, but distributing multiple copies is a much greater offense. If you get caught distributing ROMs, or in any way making them available to other pirates, you may face legal ramifications.
Video Game Emulator Legalities
The act of using an emulator, though, is basically always legal. While using an emulator means that you’re not buying the company’s console, which would technically make it a similar situation to downloading a ROM rather than paying for the game, companies don’t tend to care. And that’s because emulators are usually only available for out-of-date consoles.
The PS5 is out now, so if you’ve got that but want to play a PS4 game, Sony isn’t going to be bothered by you downloading a PS4 emulator. If you bought one before and got rid of it when you bought the new one, then you’ve already paid for it, so they’re not being robbed of any of their money. And as long as you aren’t pirating the ROM, you’re acting in a completely fair and legal way.