At last there's a working emulator for PS4 games

Emulation can help preserve game history by making it possible to play old games even after they've long been pulled from shelves.

Detail of a Sony PlayStation 4 video game console, taken on February 14, 2020. (Photo by Neil Godwin...
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An emulator first announced in 2019 has been updated with support for more PlayStation 4 titles, making it possible to run games designed for the console from any Linux-based computer.

The emulator is called Spine, and in layperson’s terms, it functions as a piece of software that mimics the console hardware of the PlayStation 4, allowing other hardware to run games that were specifically built for the console. The developers behind Spine list about 300 titles that work at present, and they’re mostly 2D games that don’t require intensive performance.

Many classic consoles like the SNES and Dreamcast have already been emulated, allowing older gamers to play their favorite retro titles from a PC or even on the go with a smartphone.

Historical preservation — Legally a gray area, proponents of emulation argue that it’s necessary to create these tools in the interest of historical preservation. New consoles are released, not always with backward compatibility. Older titles then fall out of circulation, and physical media like discs degrade over time. By pulling the files off a release copy and making it compatible with an emulator, generation-defining games are at less risk of disappearing forever.

Granted, the PlayStation 4 is still receiving new game releases, despite the launch of its successor in the PlayStation 5. Many of the games compatible with Spine, like Persona 5, are still available for purchase. And the ethical thing to do is purchase a copy and support the developers. But developing an emulator, proponents say, is not bad in and of itself.

It’s better to develop the emulator as soon as possible before games are endangered or lost. Eventually, these titles will no longer be available for purchase, and then there’s no real excuse not to have an emulator, just because the business incentives aren’t there to continue giving a game any resources.

Preserving the past — Besides independent preservation projects like Spine, the non-profit Internet Archive has worked to preserve old games including popular early-2000s Flash-based games like Helicopter Game. Adobe Flash was discontinued several years ago, and most browsers no longer include support for the defunct programming language.

If you want to see a full list of games that work with Spine, there’s a full list here. More titles should be added over time as the developers continue to reverse engineer the original console. The source code powering consoles is compiled before it’s run on a console — meaning it’s been converted into machine-readable text — and cannot be viewed by outsiders, so developers of emulators have to write code that approximates the function of the original software.