Meet Me at the Virtual Game Station
I was a child of the Atari generation, growing up when the Atari 2600 and 5200, Intellivision, and ColecoVision ruled the gaming life of the nation’s TV sets. By the time the first video game boom went bust, however, my family had purchased a Macintosh 128 – and even on a black and white 9-inch screen, the sharpness and superior play of games like Lode Runner, Ancient Art of War, Tycoon, and Lunar Rescue convinced me that the future of gaming was on computers, not televisions. As a result, I ignored the second video game boom, the Nintendo craze, the Super NES, and the Sega Genesis.
Then last year, I bought a Sega Saturn on a whim at an odd-lots store to check out some animated role-playing games. I soon learned why the Saturn was on sale for $28 – it was on its way out as a gaming system, games and controllers were hard to find, and most games I wanted to play ran on the Sony PlayStation. Since no Apple-like renaissance for the Saturn appeared to be in the works, I again lost interest.
There had been rumors on some Mac Web sites about Apple working on a way for Macs to play PlayStation games, but even the rumor sites didn’t treat this hearsay with much credence. Then the story broke, a couple of days before Macworld Expo San Francisco ’99: there was indeed a PlayStation emulator in the works, written by Connectix, the masters of low-level emulation. You can read about the excitement this created at the Expo; indeed, Connectix sold out of Virtual Game Station 1.0 before the end of the show, despite bringing more copies than they thought they could ever sell.
Technical Issues — Emulating the PlayStation is exciting from a technical standpoint. Sony’s game console uses many custom chips to provide its fast, smooth, 3D graphics, and sites covering computer emulation had written off the PlayStation as a system that would not be emulated any time soon, if ever.
These technical challenges help explain the steep hardware requirements for Virtual Game Station. According to Connectix’s system requirements, you need an Apple factory-original G3 Macintosh running Mac OS 8 or higher. This includes desktops, PowerBooks, and iMacs, but not Macs with G3 upgrade cards. Virtual Game Station also requires a minimum 10 MB of free RAM and a minimum of 3.5 MB unused hard disk space.
The actual requirements are more flexible, although more complicated and still limiting. Adam posted the following information to TidBITS Talk, based on conversations with folks at Connectix:
Since the real requirements are too complex for a marketing message, Connectix says Virtual Game Station requires a G3-based Macintosh. Virtual Game Station needs four things to run well, and CPU speed isn’t necessarily the most important because (unlike Virtual PC), faster isn’t always better when playing games. The four requirements are:
A fast system bus. Since Virtual Game Station emulates several dedicated co-processor chips in the PlayStation, it has to move information in and out of memory rapidly, which requires a fast system bus.
An ATI video card or video circuitry. Virtual Game Station off-loads some complex graphical tasks to specific ATI graphics hardware, thus freeing the CPU for other tasks. ATI video circuitry comes with all G3 Power Macs and PowerBooks, but an ATI video card is necessary for older Power Macs. Sonnet Technologies disputes this claim, saying that although Virtual Game Station requires ATI drivers, they saw no difference between using built-in video on a Power Mac 7500 or an ATI Xclaim 3D Rage Pro PCI video card.
A CD-ROM drive that Virtual Game Station can control – all Apple CD-ROM drives using Apple CD-ROM drivers fall into this category. PlayStation games use CD audio, which runs at a maximum of 150K per second or "1x" speed. Modern CD-ROM drives are as fast as 32x when reading data, but it takes time to switch from reading audio to reading data – the bigger the change in drive speed, the longer the wait. Virtual Game Station spins the CD-ROM drive to 8x or so for data, thus reducing the delay switching between audio and data.
A fast CPU. Emulating another system is computationally intensive, but PowerPC 604 chips should be fast enough, as would a Power Mac with a G3 upgrade card. In fact, Sonnet Technologies announced recently that their faster Crescendo G3 upgrades in a Power Macintosh 7500 work with Virtual Game Station (see the URL above).
You can see the complexity here. It’s impossible to list the machines that can run Virtual Game Station other than G3 Power Macs and G3 PowerBooks, so Connectix decided to let that be the recommendation. They don’t prevent you from running Virtual Game Station on any other Macs, though, so it might be worth a try if you think your Mac can handle it.
Not Your Standard One-Click Installation — Virtual Game Station 1.0 was justifiably criticized for its complicated installation procedure. To ensure you have the latest ATI video drivers, first you had to run the ATI Universal Installer 3.3, overriding the standard installation and ignoring warnings about incompatible video hardware. Next, you’d run the ATI Driver Update installer, and then you’d be ready to install Virtual Game Station 1.0. Obviously, this was not a novice-friendly procedure.
Connectix has improved the installation process with version 1.1 and 1.2. You still need to run separate installers for the ATI drivers and for Virtual Game Station itself. However, the ATI installer is customized for Virtual Game Station so it does not force you to do a custom install, warn you about incompatible hardware, or require a separate updater. I would feel comfortable giving the current installer to a novice, while with version 1.0 I’d have expected at least one panicked question.
Configuration and Control — There isn’t much to configure with Virtual Game Station. A simple Preferences dialog enables you to set sound volume, tweak settings for full-motion video (using millions of colors can cause visible screen blinks when switching color depths), configure controllers for two players, and manage memory card files. The PlayStation uses plug-in memory cards for saving game settings and positions; Virtual Game Station uses small files to simulate these memory cards. You can create as many as you wish, which is nice if you’re fanatical about saving every stage of a game. The just-released Virtual Game Station 1.2 can also read saved games transferred to a Windows PC by DexDrive.
I found the Macintosh keyboard extremely usable for playing games. The original PlayStation controller uses a four-direction button pad for controlling movement, which translates well to a group of four keyboard keys. Likewise, the four action buttons in a diamond pattern map nicely to a set of keys shaped like an inverted-T. Pick the keys on either side of the inverted-T to handle the upper and lower buttons on the front of the controller, and you’re all set.
Later PlayStation controllers include analog controls, and even the Dual Shock force feedback system. Because the games I tried supported the original controllers, I didn’t miss these features. For those who do, the JoyPort, by Kernel Productions, enables you to plug PlayStation controllers into your Mac; it comes in ADB and (soon) USB versions. A recent patch to the JoyPort software enables you to use Dual Shock controllers. This ought to give you an experience close to the original PlayStation, though I wasn’t able to test this. Virtual Game Station is also supposed to work with game controllers that are compatible with Apple’s Input Sprocket extensions.
Virtual Game Station 1.1 and higher also include an extension that launches Virtual Game Station when you insert a PlayStation CD. Although it didn’t cause me any problems, you can disable the extension; simply open Virtual Game Station manually to run games.
Performance and Compatibility — This is the big question, isn’t it? How well does Virtual Game Station play PlayStation games?
Although Virtual Game Station is not perfect, its performance and compatibility are certainly good enough in most cases. As I mention below, I was unable to do broad compatibility testing, so I settled on five games: Parasite Eve, Road & Track The Need for Speed (original), Darkstalkers: the Night Warriors, Final Fantasy VII, and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: the Atari Collection 2. The last title contains the arcade games Crystal Castles, Gauntlet, Marble Madness, Millipede, Paperboy, and RoadBlasters, making playing it an emulation of an emulation.
Overall, I was pleased with the results on my PowerBook G3 Series, which has a 250 MHz G3 processor and a 13.3-inch screen. Only two games were unplayable – Marble Madness and Paperboy from the Atari Collection 2 – although they improved in Virtual Game Station 1.2 (which also fills the screen on my first-generation G3 PowerBook). Parasite Eve, on the other hand, played almost perfectly – I only noticed an occasional skip or sound glitch in the full-motion transitional scenes. The Need for Speed also played well, with only an occasional warble in the accompanying multimedia gallery of race cars. Final Fantasy VII and Darkstalkers were somewhere in between. I did poorly in playing Darkstalkers, a martial arts combat game: my timing seemed to be constantly off, and I had trouble making my attacks connect. (Of course, that could simply be poor technique; animated scenes seemed to play normally.) Although this was fixed in Virtual Game Station 1.2, Final Fantasy VII’s "battle cursor" didn’t display during fight sequences, as documented by some of the game compatibility lists available on the Web. Otherwise, the game played fine as far as I could tell.
I’ve found three good online compatibility lists. MacsOnly has the CVGS Watch Page, emulation.net has the Virtual Game Station Compatibility Page, and the PlayStation User’s Group has lists of compatible and incompatible Virtual Game Station titles. These lists don’t always agree with each other or with my own experience – Macs Only reports Atari Collection 2 as incompatible, for example, when I was able to play all but two of the games.
Legal/Ethical Issues — With most gaming software, you have to consider whether your existing hardware and software will work well with it, but in the case of Virtual Game Station, an interesting side issue has emerged. Assuming you have a machine capable of running the emulator, do you have the right to do so?
The announcement that Connectix would be selling Virtual Game Station at Macworld Expo set off a frenzy of speculation about Sony’s reaction, since reportedly Sony and Connectix had not reached a licensing agreement. Three weeks later, Sony filed suit against Connectix in federal court, claiming that Virtual Game Station infringes on Sony’s intellectual property, doesn’t reproduce the true PlayStation experience, and doesn’t offer the anti-piracy protection of a real PlayStation console. (See "Virtual Game Station 1.1 Released Despite Lawsuit" in TidBITS-465.)
TidBITS Talk, news sites, and forums have featured considerable discussion of Sony’s case. I’m not sure what my layman’s opinion is worth, but I think Connectix has a good shot at winning.
Prior copyright infringement cases involving computer software have found that the actual code of a computer program is protected by copyright law; this includes the code in the operating systems run a PC, a Mac, or a PlayStation. However, a company can legally "reverse engineer" a system. If you take a system’s publicly documented API – the set of function calls that programmers use when writing software for that system – and create a new system from scratch that responds to that API exactly like the original, without using any portion of the original code, then you can make a legal clone. Connectix has a long record of skillful reverse engineering, including the 68K emulator at the heart of Speed Doubler, as well as Virtual PC. If Connectix claims to have reverse engineered the PlayStation, I think they probably know how to do it right.
There may be an issue with patents; I’ve heard that Sony’s patents on aspects of the PlayStation may apply to Virtual Game Station, but I don’t have enough information to say for sure.
Reproducing the true PlayStation experience is a little more slippery, since Connectix makes no claims of 100 percent compatibility. The Virtual Game Station Web site lists games Connectix recommends for use with Virtual Game Station. If they tried to hide which games were compatible and which weren’t, there would be cause for complaint; as it stands, I think they do a reasonable job of informing customers of Virtual Game Station’s limitations.
The anti-piracy issue is probably the biggest reason for Sony’s lawsuit. I’ve read several discussions claiming that Sony makes little money selling PlayStation hardware, but substantial profits on the licensing of PlayStation games. PlayStation games come on CD-ROM, so it’s possible to copy games using a CD-Recordable drive. Sony builds copy protection into the PlayStation console that prevents pirates from playing copied games, and also blocks play of imported games (for example, a Japanese game won’t play on a U.S. PlayStation). Connectix states that they include anti-piracy protections in Virtual Game Station, but Sony argues that since Virtual Game Station is a software product, it can be easily patched to remove these protections. In fact, patches doing this for Virtual Game Station 1.0 appeared on the Internet within a week of Virtual Game Station’s release. Connectix says it has improved piracy protection in both the 1.1 and 1.2 releases.
However, there’s a fairly simple modification chip that can be installed in the PlayStation console to circumvent piracy blocks. Using Sherlock to search for "PlayStation mod chip" on AltaVista, Excite, GoTo, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo, I pulled up 103 references in about a minute. Yahoo has a category called PlayStation Modification Chips, listing nine companies, and my local video store offers a cartridge-based modification chip for playing imported games and rents a number of imported games. I have trouble seeing how Virtual Game Station would make a significant impact on piracy in this environment.
However, there are dissenting views. I spoke with the owner of the video store I mentioned above, to see about arranging to do quick, five-minute compatibility testing with as many games as possible. He was extremely dubious about the idea, seemed to view Virtual Game Station as a pirate product, and wanted nothing to do with it. In addition, David Lawrence, the host of Sony’s PlayStation Underground Radio Network, had strong words on TidBITS Talk about both the quality of game play on Virtual Game Station and Connectix’s motivations in releasing the product.
Sony lost the first round of the legal battle on 04-Feb-99, when a federal court in San Francisco refused to grant an injunction to block shipment of Virtual Game Station (see "Connectix Wins First Round of Sony Lawsuit" in TidBITS-466). However, the issue will probably remain in the legal arena for some time, unless the companies agree to a settlement. In the meantime, Connectix has announced it is proceeding with development of a Windows version of Virtual Game Station.
Emulate, or Play the Real Thing? If you have a native G3 Mac and an interest in PlayStation games, Virtual Game Station is well worth a try: the RAM and disk space requirements are quite reasonable. [And several TidBITS sponsors have offers for it this week – see the sponsorship area at the top of the issue. -Editors] I wasn’t able test the theoretical playable configurations Adam mentioned, but if you have a machine that meets them and don’t mind gambling $50, it might be worth testing. Not all PlayStation games work, and not all playable games work perfectly. However, I found those that worked to be quite playable and a good bit of fun.
The legal and ethical issues do cast a cloud over Virtual Game Station’s potential, but I believe Connectix has the right to sell Virtual Game Station. Hopefully, Sony and Connectix can reach an agreement whereby both parties profit from the popularity of the PlayStation platform.