Emulation has made it possible to play some games that were never mass produced on physical media. You may not have been aware that before the release of the Nintendo 64, a Super FX-powered sequel to Starfox was in development for the Super Nintendo. Chances are you'll never get to play the nearly-completed Starfox 2, but plenty of people have launched upgraded, transformable Arwings without flight clearance. A late build of the game was leaked, and some emulators are able to run it in all the splendor imaginable (with a budget of a few hundred unfiltered polygons).
Some traces of this are apparent in Starfox 64
Despite it being an astonishing achievement, the legality of running a game that hasn't been and is not intended to be released is questionable. The IP and game are still the property of Nintendo, and they can choose to release it at any time. Though the chances of this game coming out on the Virtual Console are slim to none, it remains within Nintendo's rights to market the product and profit from its distribution. Of course, that won't be happening if it's making its way through pirate channels.
And that's where emulation gets its stigma. Many people running emulators are doing so to play games they didn't pay for. Older, less complex consoles are more likely to have emulators that support all of their features and provide glitch-free gaming, and with time, the copy protection becomes easier and easier to circumvent. Consoles as recent as the Dreamcast and Playstation have games that are able to run flawlessly in emulation on PCs with average specs. It's even possible to play Playstation games on Dreamcast with software that was briefly distributed in retail. Moreover, there are upgraded Xbox hard drives filled with NES, SNES, Neo Geo and countless other consoles' games. It's no wonder console manufacturers try so hard to make sure that their closed platforms remain closed. (Though it should be stated that Nintendo doesn't seem to be trying as hard as the other guys.)
The inclusion of backward compatibility helps reduce the attractiveness of running unsanctioned emulators. "Acquiring" game ROMs and disc images, and then getting them to run is a hassle that most consumers would rather avoid, but there's no accounting for the value of something that may be perceived as being free. Conversely, there's something to be said for keeping your conscience clear. Piracy is theft, no matter how it's spun.
Now, if you've bought a game and want to run it on something other than a licensed console, there's some debate on the legality of that. Naturally, you can't slot an N64 cart into your computer and play away, so the ROM would have to be "ripped" to another physical medium. That process could involve the circumvention of copy prevention methods, and that may bring the DMCA into the equation. I'm no Johnny Cochran, but I know enough to tell you you don't want to be charged with violating the DMCA.
Seriously, don't try this at home!
So what do you do if you can't afford a game, but have a burning desire to experience it? Well, you could try and find a clone. You'd be surprised how many games have had elements of their gameplay "borrowed." Some clones come dangerously close to violating copyrights, and some blatantly cross the line. It's not always easy to tell what's okay to play, but if you're going to take a chance, you might as well throw in some Wiimote while you're at it. Some clones expand on the features established in the games they're imitating, and customization and modability may even make them more appealing.
As someone who is constantly extolling the virtues of arcade games and the arcade experience, I understand the yearning to have those games brought home, and the frustration in waiting in vain for them to be ported. Times are changing, though. Arcade games that weren't even considered for porting in their heyday are now making their way onto compilation discs and download services. Most of the Neo Geo catalog of console games had arcade counterparts, and are on schedule for VC release. And although we've yet to see a similar service in the Wii Shop, the Xbox Live Arcade is steadily bringing home classics.
A few companies have freely shared their old games after their marketability has run dry, but for the most part, if you're playing a game that hasn't been paid for and isn't expressly labelled as freeware - you're pirating. We must respect the rights of developers and publishers to make money with their products, and pirates are taking food off their dinner tables. Is official emulation and backward compatibility support solid enough to keep you from the dark side? Or are there games that you can't live without but don't foresee getting official support? Leave a comment for discussion.