We all would like our games to be free, but they rarely are. Even consoles can be expensive. Throwing peripherals and extras can quickly turn a $200 console into a $400 one. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just play games online, for free, whenever you want?
You can. There are some limitations, of course. There’s no such thing as a truly free game. But there are some websites that offer an in-browser console experience. Some even let you play newly released titles.
This oddball service seems to work as an in-browser game emulation launcher. As the name implies, the service focuses on classic games instead of new titles. You’ll find a full section of titles from the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era. There are even Nintendo 64 titles available. When you want to play a game you simply launch it. The Console Classix client automatically downloads the proper emulator and installs the game.
It’s a technically elegant solution that works without flaw and simplifies the process of downloading an emulator and then finding the right ROM file. Only some games are available to play without signing in, but even this cross-section of titles fat enough to keep you entertained for months. The entire NES catalog, for example, can be played without ever creating a user account.
A new service, Core Online seems to use a server model similar to OnLive and Gaikai. It differs from those competitors with its business model, however. Instead of selling subscriptions or making money from affiliates, Core Online makes money from advertisements that pop up during gameplay. You can earn free gameplay by watching ads or you can pay to make a portion of a game ad-free.
The current game selection is a bit thin. There are only two games available the time of this writing – Mini Ninjas and Hitman: Blood Money. Several more games are on the way. It’s clear that this site is still an infant, but the basic concept works. This is the only (legal) way you can enjoy unlimited play of relatively new games.
Cloud gaming service Gaikai is a bit odd. Unlike OnLive, which focuses on selling full games exclusively through its service, Gaikai provides demos. These demos can be played quickly and freely in your browser.
If you enjoy a game you can buy it through a variety of different services that are listed by the service (this is apparently how the service makes its money, at least for now.) But you also can just go and play another demo. There are lots of triple-AAA games available, most of which are console ports, though some are PC only releases like The Sims 3.
I’m not sure who runs ROM Sharing or how it started. There’s no information on the site itself besides a page that lets you “donate your games.” Apparently the owners are attempting pseudo-legality by owning all the games the site makes playable.
Whatever the case, you can play games quickly and free of charge. Advertisements exist, but only as banners and sidebars. The ROM Sharing site also does not require a client-side download like Console Classix, nor does it ever require that users sign in or sign up for anything.
The only downside is the site’s difficulty handling high-resolution monitors. Games seem to display at their native resolution, which means they’re extremely small on a 1080p monitor. Most can be put into full-screen mode, but this makes them blurry. It’d be nice to have an in-between resolution option.
It’s simple. You go to the site, you sign up, and pick a game. Then you get 30 minutes with it. As far as I can see, there are never any restrictions or changes from the normal title. The game is the game. Which might not be great if it has a huge tutorial, but otherwise is plenty of time to start having some fun.
OnLive also provides “PlayPass” options. This let you enjoy the game in its entirety for 3 or 5 days in exchange for a small price. It’s basically an online rental, but it works out great for modern console games, as they tend to have 10 or 15 hours campaigns.
On the other hand, you do have to sign up and download a client that launches from your browser. But perhaps this is for the best – in my experience, OnLive games are smoothest of the cloud gaming crowd.
Playing games for free is still a tradeoff. Old games are not hard to find, as evidenced by ROM Sharing and Console Classix – but, uh, they’re old. New games aren’t that hard to find, either, but you have to pay. Core Online will let you play for free, but you have to watch about a minute worth of ads for 10 minutes of free gameplay. You end up paying with time instead of money.
What sites do you like to visit to play console games in your browser? Do you think it’s preferable to spending a few bucks for the real console? Let us know in the comments!