Imagine if I told you that there was a legal alternative to GameTap that nearly nobody knows about, costs half as much as GameTap (yet is partly free), and beat GameTap to market by at least three years. Well, I guess that was a dumb way to start this, because you don't have to imagine — I'm actually telling you: such a service exists, and it's called Console Classix.
Console Classix could best be described as "the world's first online video game rental service." Its creators have found an ingenious way to circumvent all the usual legal hassles associated with providing classic games for legal play over the Internet and on your home computer. How did they manage this incredible feat, you ask? Well, they take advantage of a loophole in copyright law that all movie and video game rental stores use: it's legal to lend a legally obtained (i.e. bought) copy of a movie or game to someone else, as long as you don't transmit or distribute new copies of said movie/game to others. By extension, Console Classix dumps the ROM data from unique copies of games it physically owns on a one-to-one basis and lends out the cartridges in digital form to users of the service. When a user plays a game through the Console Classix service, that copy of the game is "checked out" and no one else can play it while the first customer is using it. However, if Console Classix owns more copies of the game, other customers may play the same game until all the copies are occupied. It's just like a video game rental store, but in digital form.
Not too surprisingly, Console Classix has already had a minor showdown with Nintendo over the legality of their service, but Console Classix actually lived to tell about it. Since that incident, they have not received any further threats or notices from any game company about the service they provide.
Playing the Games
The Console Classix (CC) experience consists mainly of custom client software (Windows only) that is available for free download by anyone. The client serves as a "front-end" or game launcher for a number of different emulators that allow you to play games for the game systems available. Users have to register for a free account on the Console Classix website and login to the client with a name and a password before they can use the service.
Once you're logged in to the Console Classix client, you're presented with a choice of video game systems at the top of the interface (currently Atari 2600, NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega Master System, Game Boy, and Game Gear, with Colecovision and Nintendo 64 coming soon), and a list of games for the currently selected system in a box below. It's easy to browse through the games by the first letter of the game's title, search for a specific game title, or just see all the games available for a particular system in one long list. Upon selecting a game to play, an emulator launches, the game temporarily downloads from Console Classix's servers, and you can play the game. There are thousands of games available, from the well-known to the obscure. CC's game selection is truly impressive (for a complete list of all titles available, click here), so fans of any game genre will have a lot to choose from.
Each game system on Console Classix uses a different open-source emulator that CC has appropriated for its use, which means that each is subject to the same faults or features that are present in their independent releases. For example, Console Classix's NES emulator is currently based on Nester public beta 4, which means that if there are any games (ROMs) that don't work properly with Nester, they won't work with Console Classix's emulator either. In general, this isn't a problem, as most of the games work pretty well on all of the emulators that Console Classix uses. Unfortunately, the differing interfaces that you'll encounter while switching between each system (and thus, each system's emulator program) is a major drawback of the service.
Another drawback of the way CC works is that each game has to download each time you play, which for classic ("retro") systems is not too bad, since the average size of older games is small. But if Console Classix hopes to expand to more modern games, it needs to address this feature somehow. Also, I encountered some games that didn't work at all with the emulators that CC provides. It shouldn't be that hard to check for bad games when some of the games obviously mess up at the title screen. Console Classix does not modify any ROMs of the games it provides — that would be illegal without a proper license from the game publisher — so they can't tweak each game to run perfectly as GameTap does. And since the quality of the emulators vary, the authenticity of the gameplay experience can vary drastically between games and systems.
Some advantages of the CC's choice of emulators is that most are feature-rich and familiar to use for anyone who has used emulators before. Each emulator retains all of its original features like screen shots (or movie capture), save states (which save on your local machine, by the way, for later play), SRAM save data management, game controller definitions, and so on. Each emulator will save any settings you change between games, so you don't have to worry about that. I played the NES games on CC with an authentic NES pad (courtesy of RetroZone's FourScore USB interface), and it worked flawlessly. I also tried my Super Smart Joy unit (which allows me to use an original SNES pad as a PC joystick) with CC's SNES emulator (they use ZSNES), and it worked just fine as well. It's probably worth nothing that I really don't like MEKA, their choice for the GameGear / SMS emulator, as it's a bit confusing to use. Still, given the time and effort, players can get used to the quirks and traits of each emulator. This situation is one of the drawbacks of Console Classix's business model, but considering the price, I believe most gamers could live with it.
Of Accounts and Money
As mentioned before, new users of Console Classix have to at least sign up for a free "Lite Account" to use the service. The Lite Account lets you play all of the NES and Atari 2600 games available through the client as many times as you want, which is a really nice preview of the service. If you'd like to take your account a step further, you can upgrade to a full account by either donating physical copies of games to Console Classix, or by paying $5 (US) a month via PayPal. As a full member, you get unlimited access to the rest of the Console Classix library (SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega Master System, Game Boy, and Game Gear games, with more being frequently, and more systems on the way). Full members also get access to all of the copies of the games that Console Classix has available, which means less waiting to play those popular games like Super Mario Bros. 3 (although I haven't had to wait yet).
Overall, Console Classix is an impressive service for the retro game lover who also wants to stay on the right side of the law. Putting the legal advantage of CC aside, the convenience it offers by collecting so many thousands of great games in one place, making them easy to quickly play without worrying about where you put your ROM files (or your cartridges), or which computer they're on, or so on, makes the service really worth it. Also, for $5 a month, the price is right. And for the free portion of the service — the Atari 2600 and NES games — the price is definitely perfect! Console Classix, like any service, has plenty of room for future improvement. But for what it offers and what it claims to be, Console Classix does its job very well.
By the way, I recently interviewed Console Classix's president, Aaron Ethridge, as a companion piece to this review. If you'd like to check out what its founder has to say about the service, click here.
|The Skinny: Console Classix|
|Good Features:||Excellent game selection. Great price (free or $5/month). Easy to use. Original, unmodified games. Allows advanced emulator features (savestates, etc.) and joystick control. It's legal!|
|Bad Features:||Disparate emulator interfaces to deal with. Must download game each time before play. Though rare, a few games don't work. Emulator choices could be a bit better.|
(10 Being Best)
|[ 8.5 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles - Great +|
||This service was reviewed on December 6th, 2006. Due to the dynamic nature of the service, its quality may have improved or degraded since then.|