Emulation is time travel

An original PC Ditto (v1) floppy disk.

Some say time travel is impossible. But they are wrong. You don’t need Doc Brown and a DeLorean; all you need is an emulator.

Lately I’ve been using DOSBox, an awesome cross-platform IBM PC emulator, to try some old BBS utilities from the 1990s.

I was Googling some DOSBOX topics when I came upon this thread on atari-forum.com, where user BlankVector explains that he compiled DOSBOX for TOS/MiNT. In other words, he was running the modern DOSBox emulator on classic Atari ST hardware. Obviously it was slow and glitchy, but it worked.

Reading that thread led me to consider my own history with emulators.

My Atari ST desktop, as seen in the Hatari emulator.

My Atari ST desktop, as seen in the Hatari emulator.

I think many people use emulators to relive their past. Certainly I do. Today on my Mac I have Hatari, which lets me run Atari ST programs. In the past I used NoSTalgia and PowerST for the same purpose.

I have also used emulators to experience other platforms and software that I never had access to. In this vein I began using Snes9x, which emulates the Super Nintendo, in the early 2000s. All my childhood friends seemingly had an SNES, while I had an Atari Jaguar. Using Snes9x was a chance to try some classic games that I only ever saw at friends’ homes.

But I was fooling around with emulators even before all this. In the early 1990s, I remember two emulators in particular which I used on my Atari ST:

  • PC Ditto — Released in the late 1980s, it magically transformed your Atari into a slow, but compatible, PC. When I began using our hand-me-down Atari ST as a kid, I tried all the software the came with it from C compilers to games to PC Ditto. But I didn’t really know how to use PC Ditto or what to do with it. It wasn’t until several years later when I wanted to try my hand at creating ANSI art, that I remembered PC Ditto. I used it to run TheDraw, the famous ANSI editor. It was quite slow, but it worked. Eventually I found an Atari-native editor by Eric March called Fansi, and so I switched.

  • Xformer — This was an Atari 8-bit emulator. In the early 1990s my family had several hand-me-down 8-bits as well as our 520ST, so I didn’t really need this emulator. Still, there was something cool about the ability to transform my ST into an 8-bit, and it was handy to be able to transfer files from the older systems onto the ST.

What emulators have you used over the years? What do you get out of emulation: is it a way to preserve or relive your past? A way to experience systems or software you never tried before?

13 thoughts on “Emulation is time travel

  1. Amit Patel

    I’ve used DOSbox but I think the most emulation I did was back in the OS/2 days, using OS/2’s DOS emulation. That’s how we ran multiple lines of a BBS on the same computer. Desqview was also nice for multitasking but OS/2’s DOS emulation was really nice.

  2. Eric March

    Heh. My wife found this article, I guess she was doing some vanity searches on my name and came across a bunch of old links, but also found this one. I’m the erstwhile developer of Fansi for the Atari ST, but since moving to the PC platform around the turn of the century I’ve also been into emulation as well, especially Atari-related ones. I still have my Fansi package installed on a virtual HD inside STeem Engine. 🙂

    1. Josh Renaud Post author

      Eric, great to hear from you! I always loved your software company name: “Tail of the Comet.”

      I wasn’t much of an ANSI artist, but I sure got a kick out of Fansi for a couple years. I have saved a few of my creations, and mentioned you on that page.

      It’s been a long time since I last tried to use Fansi, so I should probably try again. Do you remember if it supported ANSI animations?

      1. Eric March

        Awesome! Brings back some memories looking at those ANSI screens. Not of that particular BBS but of tooling around the BBSes in ANSIterm back in the day. I had a lot of plans for FANSI — predefined big-block ANSI font libraries (something akin to Figlet, but in full ANSI), shape libraries (kind of an ANSI clip-art library), working with layers, etc. I’d considered animation support but wasn’t sure how to approach it at the time and wasn’t even sure if the ANSI standard supported cursor movement/positioning like the old school ATASCII did. Unfortunately other things caught my attention — I was working on writing a game or two at the time, then got tapped to write the music for a game on the Atari Jaguar which never happened because Atari went and died, and then I kinda switched platforms entirely and haven’t really programmed anything in a long time, having moved on to other things.

  3. neozeed

    On the Amiga I used ‘Transformer’ which would let you run very simple PC programs on an Amiga. But it was SLOW. Insanely slow.

    Sadly I got a 286 later on, but it was at least faster than an Amiga with Transformer.

  4. Timothy Miller

    I was talking to someone recently about ANSITerm, which is a terminal emulation program I wrote in the 90’s for Atari ST. That got me nostalgic, so I googled it. Google must do OCR on images or something, because that’s ANSITerm’s executable shown right there in the screenshot. Wild.

  5. Humbird0

    I remember smuggling a SNES emulator into high school many times on a floppy disk with Zelda a Link to the Past on it, or Mario Kart. Zsnes was small enough to fit on a floppy with room to spare. The other kids were definitely surprised.

    I also once “acquired” a copy of Virtual PC for the macintosh by copying the program off of one of the art class’s computers, along with the all-important preferences file that stored the registration information. Again, the entire program fit on a floppy. I mostly used it to play around with RPG Maker 95 and RPG Maker 2000 at home on my mother’s PowerMac G3. They ran wicked slow though.

    1. Josh Renaud Post author

      Interesting! I never would have considered that schools might have emulators running. And I can definitely see the attraction of bringing an SNES emulator to school. 🙂


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