MAME: The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator

If you ever spent a childhood afternoon in a mall arcade watching your allowance be drained into the coinbox of Donkey Kong, Tempest, Asteroids or Centipede as the callous on your thumb ached, you should be aware of MAME.As a kid in 1982, if you had told me that one day I’d be able to play all of my favorite arcade games in front of my home computer for hours on end, all without the need to pump quarter after quarter into that slot, I’d have said you were illin’.

But that’s what this miraculous little program can do for you. It’s no secret that the computer in your house is much more powerful than vacuum tube ones which used to fill entire laboratories in the 50’s, but back in 1996, a guy by the name of Nicola Salmoria applied that knowledge to old arcade games. It stood to reason, he deduced, that the home PC of the 90’s was at far more powerful than the hardware which ran those games in the 80’s, so he got ahold of the ROM chips and extracted the program into ROM files. Those files were imported into a PC and a program written to fool that program into thinking it was running on its original hardware. The MAME Project is now carried on by Nicola and a team of dozens of other talented programmers who continue to add drivers for more and more games.

The process is complex, but it’s called “emulation.” This differs from a simulation in that it does not approximate the original, but replicates it perfectly. There are many simulations of Pac-Man, but none were precise. MAME allows you to play Pac-Man exactly as you would standing in front of an arcade machine with a pocket full of quarters. Keeping with the Pac-Man example, Microsoft has a package called Return of Arcade which includes a Pac-Man simulation; not exactly Pac-Man, but a fairly well written approximation of the game. But Pac-Man in the arcade never said, ” Press F1 to Play.” But emulated Pac-Man via MAME is not a random programmer’s reinterpretation of the game, but the exact game, bit for bit.

The differences may be subtle to some, but glaring to the classic video game afficianado — there’s just nothing quite like the real thing.

“So what’s the catch?” you must be asking by now. Well, there are some bumps in the road to classic arcade game bliss, but depending on your tenacity and desire to play, they’re far from insurmountable. Here are some points to consider:

  • MAME is FREE! That’s right, free. You can get the Windows command line version directly from the MAME site itself, or the more robust MAME32, which has a great graphical user interface, from this site.
  • ROMs are not included. This is the biggest bummer. The MAME program alone does nothing without the ROM files extracted from the thousands of various video game circuit boards. You see, the ROMs are in the legally gray area. Though most of them are games more than twenty years old an no longer in production, the copyright holders still have the legal rights to them. The bright side of this is that there are people out there willing to burn DVD/CD sets of MAME ROM files for the cost of the media and shipping, and if you look hard enough you can find them.
  • You’ll have to follow the directions. Yes, I know. But as painful as it sounds, particularly to younger folks who’ve grown up in Generation Gimme, having software that doesn’t just install itself and autostart can be quite inconvenient. But getting MAME running, while not complicated, is far from automatic. It will require reading the directions and placing files in the appropriate folders so MAME can find what it needs to run. If you’re too young and impatient to be bothered, you’re probably not interested in Galaga anyhow.
  • There are literally thousands of games supported. This can be both a good and bad point. In addition to any classic game you remember and love, there are also hundreds upon hundreds that you probably never saw, and in fact, many that were never mass produced at all. So you’ll be wading through a sea of choices finding a lot of hidden gems and also a good many duds. There’s also the storage issue. At the time I’m writing this MAME supports over 4000 different games, and the ROMs and support files fill more than two DVD-R discs! If you want them all at your fingertips you’re gonna need a big hard drive.

If you have any fond memories at all of the video arcades of the past, not the crappy ones of the present which have only three types of games (fight, shoot, drive), you should check out MAME. It’s more than a game, but for me at least, a little slice of my childhood digitally recreated each time I click that icon.

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