Published 14 minutes ago April 7, 2023 at 7 :42 am
Microsoft has shut down classic game emulation for the Xbox Series X/S since April 6, and a small but dedicated community of retro enthusiasts and preservationists as well as homebrew devs have taken to the streets. They’re calling on the console maker to reverse course and make legal emulation easy again, even if it means potentially antagonizing competitors like Sony and Nintendo.
The Xbox Series X/S allows users to easily emulate older games, which is a first among consoles. It was launched in 2020 and new owners discovered that emulators could be installed to allow them to play old GameCube and PlayStation 2 games. That’s still possible with paid access to the console’s developer mode, but Microsoft has now locked down that feature in standard retail mode. Where users were previously able to download and run emulators for dozens of old consoles, they’re now greeted with an error code telling them such programs violate Microsoft Store policy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a good run,” tweeted gamr13, who is the developer of the Xbox retail version the RetroArch emulator frontend. It includes emulation cores to emulate everything from the NES and the Wii. They stated that they had no other choice than to tag Phil Spencer, Xbox and Microsoft Gaming CEOs, on Twitter using the #LetUsEmulate hashtag.
Although emulation is often associated with piracy, it’s also a legal way to play copies of games you already own on newer hardware with modern conveniences.
At launch, Xbox Series X/S owners could install various emulators and emulator frontends, like RetroArch, PPSPP, and DuckStation, using links on gamr13’s Github page to install Universal Windows Platform (UWP) versions of these apps via the console’s Microsoft store. As tech giants began to notice, they began to remove these emulators from their stores more frequently.
“Essentially Microsoft would crack down on my uploads where they used to last months, to weeks, to days, until now,” gamr13 told Kotaku. “So I would simply re-upload the apps whenever they were taken down, to get newcomers and everyone back up and running.”
Xbox Series X/S was “like the Steam Deck” for emulation
One way to get the emulators to last longer was to mark them as private and then “whitelist” specific users to be able to download them. This was made possible by Patreon, which helped to coordinate and finance the activity.
“The crackdown started to ramp up around the end of summer going into autumn, where we dealt with daily takedowns for a while, so the day after they went up, they’d be taken down,” gamr13 said. “We managed to find a way to get them to last up to three days since then by not naming them ‘RetroArch’ and instead [using] randomised names.”
However, as long you have already downloaded the emulators you are fine. Until now. Twitter users shared stories about losing access to hundreds or hundreds of classic games that they couldn’t play on the Xbox Series X/S due to the change.
Some have questioned whether Microsoft was being forced to be more aggressive due to the timing. Nintendo is known for being extremely anti-emulation. While a Dolphin emulator for GameCube or Wii has been on Xbox Series X/S since a while, a port made specifically for the console was only released in beta a few months back. Nintendo did not immediately reply to a request to comment.
Running emulators in the consoles’ developer mode remains an option, but access to that feature requires a $US20 ($28) fee and isn’t always available to owners in regions where online payment systems are harder to access. Many are also puzzled by the timing of Microsoft’s crackdown. Emulating other platforms’ games has always been technically against the store’s terms of service, the homebrew devs say, but up until now Xbox emulation enthusiasts felt like the company was content to mostly look the other way.
In a statement Kotaku, a Microsoft spokesperson said, “We continually evolve our mechanisms for reviewing and taking enforcement actions on content distributed to the Store to ensure alignment with our Microsoft Store Policies. Per 10.13.10, Products that emulate a game system or game platform are not allowed on any device family.”
Unfortunately, it seems Microsoft’s new level of policy enforcement will leave a fair few Xbox owners who’d previously enjoyed emulating their old games on Microsoft’s consoles out in the cold. Dev mode remains an option, but adds another layer of complexity and doesn’t always play nice with console updates pushed out early by those enrolled in Microsoft Xbox Insider preview program.
“[Emulation] was the entire reason that I, and many others, bought an Xbox,” gamr13 said. “PlayStation and Nintendo platforms do require some modifications to run this kind of stuff, but Xbox until now has been a really open and welcoming platform for anyone, be it indie devs [or] gaming preservationists. It was like the Steam Deck of consoles.”
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