A Conversation With Zophar of Zophar’s Domain

Zophar's Domain

I spoke to Zophar earlier this year for the Forgotten Worlds episode on emulation in the early 2000s, but not much of the conversation made in it into the video. Here is the full interview, which paints a detailed picture of the development of Zophar’s Domain in the late 1990s.

merritt: How did you get into emulation in the first place?

Zophar: We’d have to go back to late ’95 or ’96, so I would have been somewhere around 15 or 16 years old at this point, in high school. I loved video games as a kid, played Atari, Nintendo, Sega Genesis, all that stuff. And somewhere around ’94 or ’95, a lot of my systems just stopped working. The Sega CD stopped reading disks, the Sega Genesis became a little iffy on some of the cartridges. They stopped working, just from age and me not really taking care of them properly. So I found out from a friend that there was something called an “emulator” that you found online that would let you play a video game on a computer. And I was like, oh, that’s cool, I wouldn’t mind playing some of the old Nintendo cartridges that don’t work anymore on a computer, that’s a neat idea. 

I asked him which one I should get, and he said Pasofami. It was written by a Japanese programmer, so all of the menus were in Japanese and you had to tinker around to figure things out. I figured out how to load games into it, and the Pasofami format was a really strange format, it was a split format where some of the data was in a program file and some was in what was called a .CHR file, which was all of the sprites and graphics for the game. So you would have them both named, say, Mario.prg and Mario.chr. It was really confusing. And when I finally got it working, it played the game with no sound at like eight frames per second. Not to knock on any programmer, this was the mid-90s and nobody really knew how to do this at the time, so programmers were just trying to reverse engineer things. 

NESticle
NESticle

I went looking for other emulators. At that time I was still doing the BBS thing, and there wasn’t a lot of emulation stuff on there, so I had to get the internet. I found an internet service provider through my old dial-up modem, and I started looking around. Back then it wasn’t even Google, it was like Altavista and Yahoo, and the search engines were not what they are now. So I’m trying to figure out how to find other emulators, and I came upon one called iNes, and that was by a gentleman named Marat Fayzullin. And this emulator did more — it actually had sound — but you had to pay. It was $35, and again, I’m a kid and I don’t have $35. There was a shareware version, but it had no sound.

So I’m trying to find different emulators, and finally after trying Pasofami, Super Pasofami, iNes, and others, I realized the problem was that there was no single site with a list of emulators for different systems. None of that existed. So I got into emulation out of a love of old games — Nintendo and Super Nintendo. When I was 15 or 16, they were old to me, and now looking back it’s funny thinking about that, but that was old to me in 1995. I got into it out of the need to be able to play games that just stopped working, but then I realized there was a need for something that didn’t exist yet, a single resource to find emulators for different systems, when they were coming out, and what the features were.

m: So you started Zophar’s Domain in ’96?

Z: Yeah, the official date if you look it up is November 9, 1996. In reality it was a little earlier than that. I was playing around with Geocities, that was technically the first foray into website creation. But I was basically just testing the site and playing around with ideas in September and October of ’96. So I’m on Geocities and the URL was impossible to remember, I couldn’t even tell you now if you asked me. Letters and numbers, houses and streets. But I had my own little corner of the internet, and could make it whatever I wanted to make it.

And when I started with Geocities, they had a template creation tool where you could make a site without any knowledge, but it was really sloppy looking. It was a good start, but I needed to get something that would work for me. I saw other websites out there using frames and tables, which were big in the 90s, but I had no idea what I was doing. That was when I went on IRC and I started meeting different people. There was an emulation scene, there were channels like #emu and areas like that on EFnet where you could talk to the programmers of some of the programs. 

There were some websites out there, like Archaic Ruins and Node99 in particular, those two websites were very influential for me. Because neither one was a one-stop resource, but together they were. Archaic Ruins had some of the emulators there, and Node99 was really good at getting news updates on emulators but didn’t actually archive any of them. Each site had one thing, but I wanted it to all be in once place. So what I ended up doing is I recruited some people — and remember, I’m 15 or 16 years old at this point, I have no money. I think I had my first job at this point, working at a deli for $4 an hour under the table. I was like “wow, I’ve got $20 this week, this is great! I can buy a used video game, if I trade one in.”

I found this gentleman named Alan — he went by Infe — and I said, I’m thinking of making an emulation website, would you like to join? I don’t really know what I’m doing, but it’s going to be great, would you like to program for it? And he said sure. 

Archaic Ruins
Archaic Ruins, as it exists today

Then I found someone to make graphics, because I do not have a lick of graphical ability in me. The first art project I remember doing was in middle school, and I got a C for my first test where I had to color in a color wheel. I couldn’t keep the damn paint inside. I have no talent when it comes to art. So I found this gentleman, his name was eV|Lh0mEr, and I liked some of his graphical and animation work, and asked if he wanted to make a logo. He said sure, what are you calling it? And then I realized damn, I have to have a name.

At the time I had been playing an RPG I really enjoyed, which was Lunar 2: Eternal Blue for the Sega CD, and in that game, Zophar is the final villain and I had decided to name myself that. And Zophar was like the fourth name I had chosen in six months, I kept changing my nickname every few months. So I said, without skipping a beat, it’s going to be called Zophar’s Domain, and it’s going to be great.

So I was armed with a person who could do graphics and a person who could program — and that was the start of it, the core team of just the 3 of us at the end of 1996. There’s also one other person who joined ZD in 1998 — Ernie Smith, who went by Stick_Figure_98. At the time, he was an aspiring writer, and I also could write, but not very well. I was thinking that we could have a section for articles, and I said hey, you could write articles on games, emulators, whatever you want. And he said yeah, I’ll definitely contribute. So he joined up as well and, along with many others, was a key contributor during the formative years of Zophar’s Domain.

I found web space on an old ISP, Ziplink, and we went ahead and uploaded the first six pages of Zophar’s Domain. It had a Nintendo section, Super Nintendo, Genesis, Master System. It had an arcade section before MAME existed. Back then, the way arcade emulation worked was that there was an emulator for each game, and none of them emulated more than a couple of games each.

It was those sections, it had a little area for news, there was even a version of it in 1997 when I added a little news ticker at the bottom. You look at this stuff now and you laugh, but I was trying to find cool ways to differentiate the site from every other site. I knew even then that the important thing was, what do you have that others don’t?

I decided very early on that as long as I ran the site, there would never be any kind of commercial game on there, there would never be any question of copyright. It’d just be tools. Like, you buy a VCR, there’s nothing wrong with that, but what people do with a VCR is up to them. So it was going to have emulators, utilities, and news items, but no commercial games. Homebrew games were fine, like if somebody chose to create their own game, that was fine. And we had no problem putting ROM patches up there — the first translation project I can remember was DemiForce for Final Fantasy V, we had a whole translation section. Every section we would add, I would find somebody that would be willing to contribute to keep it up to date.

I didn’t really like Geocities’ utility, so I ended up switching to Notepad. And what I would do was look at sites that I thought had really nice layouts, like Archaic Ruins and Node99, and I would study their code and try to reverse engineer how they did things like tables and frames and try my version of it. And I would test it live, just editing index.html. And I’d just keep uploading and overwriting and overwriting until it looked right. Once I was happy with a section, I’d find somebody to run it.

So at one point, we had as many as 19 or 20 people working on Zophar’s Domain at one time. And in the beginning it was all volunteer work, because there was no money, it was just a fun little project I had started because I wanted to play my old games that stopped working, mainly my Sega CD, because I went through several of those. And the irony was that the entire four years that I ran Zophar’s Domain, there never was a Sega CD emulator that really worked.

We changed servers multiple times. And I moved from dial-up to DSL, 300 kilobits a second. Ultimately, around ’98, I finally went to Internic.com and purchased Zophar.net, because Zophar.com was taken. I couldn’t tell you who or why.

m: What was the attitude towards emulation at the time? I remember arguments in the late 90s and early 2000s about deleting ROMs within 24 hours, or it being ok if you owned the games, but it was always kind of contentious.

Z: That’s how it was. You had a bunch of different sites that would say different things. And when you see different people all saying different things about the same topic, it usually means that the vast majority of everything that’s being said is a total crock.

I realized that the law was pretty clear that you could not steal, but it was less clear on whether you were allowed a digital copy of a game you owned. It was very vague. So I didn’t want to get into that gray area. And I understand, Zophar’s Domain operates in the gray. But to me it was not gray when it comes to commercial games. Like, if I put the game on the site, I’m basically saying I own it. So just trying to get them on the site was problematic. And then even if I took every game that I owned and got a digital copy and put it on the site, how do I know that anyone who’s going to download it actually owns it? It didn’t make sense.

And I wasn’t having issues finding games. The problem was, what emulators work well on what systems? Which emulators are the best for this purpose? What utility might I use if I run into this issue? So we had a forum section where people could post about this stuff, that didn’t really exist before. I wanted a vibrant community where you could go in and talk about the new ZSNES or SNES9x features, like wow, it does save states now? This was all cutting edge stuff back then.

ZSNES
ZSNES

But back to the commercial ROM issue, it didn’t make sense to me. I knew that the risk I would have been taking to do something like that wasn’t worth it. I was a kid, I was in high school, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And I knew that having a website full of video games that may or may not be illicit was not one of the things that I wanted to do. But I was happy to help those who want to know more about emulation.

Like, you do what you’re going to do, you get them however you’re going to get them. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, if you’re looking for an emulator, here they are, here’s what they do, here’s the latest versions, here’s our recommendations. I made it very clear from the beginning, do not ask about ROMs, do not talk about commercial ROMs, I had no interest in having that discussion and would frequently turn people away who asked those questions.

So it was contentious, because you had these different groups of people. I just wanted to play my old broken systems, other people wanted to pirate every game ever. There were people like that, there were people in the middle. So when I created the website, it was mainly for people looking to have fun with some games from the past but something had happened to their consoles, or even just looking into the things you could do with an emulator that you couldn’t do on a console. Save states started getting big, and sure there were things like Action Replay, but they were expensive and would break. Or hey, how would you like to have anti-aliasing?

It’s so funny, nowadays you have all of these emulators and adapters and hardware that are trying to recreate what a CRT would look like, but back then we were trying to make it look awesome on a computer monitor to get away from how crappy it looked on a tube TV.

But that was what I was going for, and that was why I didn’t have commercial ROMs on the website.

m: Did Zophar’s Domain ever get any cease and desist notices from game companies?

Z: During my entire tenure at Zophar’s Domain, which was from ’96 to mid-2000, we never received a single DMCA takedown notice, legal threat, email, nothing. But after a while this other gentleman came in to replace Infe, and he was a good programmer. But he had a lot more ambition, let’s say. He probably was even more ambitious than I was, and we frequently would clash.

And then when we got to 2000 and I decided that I needed to have a career and start my life, I wasn’t able to find a way to monetize the site to turn it into a career. And that wasn’t why I made it, I made it to have fun and help people. But it was 2000, I was 20 and living in my parents’ basement, and I was like, I’ve got to do something now.

Around ’99, I had an agreement with the web provider at the time — his name was Zach — where we would have advertisements at the top of the page and we would get paid based on views. So, there was money to be had, but I felt and still do feel, that because of all of the awesome work that the staffers did for me and for Zophar’s Domain, I didn’t feel right taking that money. So I took about 90% of the money and I would divide that up and write checks to all the staffers every month. I wasn’t making much, and it didn’t matter when I was in high school, but when I was 20 and needed to start a career, Zophar’s Domain was taking up so much time.

I decided, I love this site and I hate to give it up, but I have to get out in the world and do stuff. So this person, he was interested in purchasing the website. We came to an arrangement and the website became his, and it couldn’t have been more than several months later that the new owner decided to have copying devices on the site that were specifically designed to break copy protection on things like the N64. Well, even in 2000, the N64 was still selling, and it seemed that Nintendo became acutely aware of what was going on, that you could go to Zophar’s Domain for this brief period of time and purchase a copying device. I’m told — though I cannot independently verify this as I no longer was in control of Zophar’s Domain at that point — that Nintendo sent a DMCA takedown to Zophar’s Domain, the only time ever that I’m aware of its in history that a video game publisher got involved and asked for something to be removed from the site.

I try not to dwell on this, because at that point that was his decision to make. He did end up leaving the site several years after that, and transferred ownership to another gentleman. His name is Ed, and he’s an awesome guy who’s the current owner of Zophar’s Domain, and the site is still up today.

m: The landscape has changed so much in the last 20 years. Digital distribution means that companies like Nintendo can now just sell ROMs. On the one hand, old games are more accessible in legal ways than ever. On the other, lots of publishers just don’t support their back catalogs, and sometimes it feels like people doing emulation are the only ones preserving any of this stuff. How do you feel about the state of things now?

Z: It’s a tricky situation, because Nintendo owns the IP, and if they want to have it available at certain times — almost like what Disney used to do — it’s like the Nintendo vault. Like any company, they want to profit. But for me, I’m less worried about things like Mario and Zelda, that’s out there, there’s so many copies of that stuff floating around there. I’m more worried about the more obscure stuff. 

Shining Force III
Shining Force III

Like, I’m a big RPG fan, and the Lunar games are out of print. You can’t buy them, and Game Arts owns the IP, and they don’t want to make any more Lunars right now, which is their right. But if you want to buy Lunar for Sega CD, that game is going on eBay for about $150-$200. That’s a lot of money. Or Shining Force, great series, I own those games, I’m looking at them right now. Great games, also they go for $100-$120 depending on the condition. 

Then you have Shining Force III. That came out in 1998, when the Sega Saturn was on its way out. And in 1998, I was running Zophar’s Domain, and I wasn’t really paying attention to any of the new stuff. By the time I figured out that Shining Force III had come out, it was gone. So here I am years later, and I’ve started a family and gotten a job, so I’m secure and I have a house and some money and I feel like I have unfinished business in the retro community and now I actually want to play the games. So I want to play Shining Force III. I want to legally play Shining Force III. I have a Sega Saturn, but Sega doesn’t make the game anymore. So I looked to the secondary market — $450. I’m not paying $450.

m: That’s not even the most expensive Saturn game, either.

Z: No, it’s not. And can I afford it? Yes. But I’m not going to spend that. And I understand that there are collectors out there and it’s worth it for them, but that’s the kind of stuff when we’re talking about emulation, if the companies won’t or can’t release it, where does that leave us? And what happens when the last copies of Shining Force III are gone — because there weren’t very many of them made — that game’s just lost forever? That’s the end of it? Like too bad, you missed it?

If I want to enjoy a piece of art, it’s not like, well, it was created hundreds of years ago, you missed it. No, you can go to a museum and see it, or you can enjoy a copy in a book. So why, years after the fact, is that not ok? I’m not saying it is or isn’t, but what’s the solution?

Companies like Nintendo have the right to do what they’re going to do, but don’t we also have the right to enjoy these games? It’s an art form, and years after the fact, when they’re no longer actively selling or profiting off them, why can’t we enjoy them? Why can’t we have an alternative method to access those games? Because you can’t right now, unless you pay inordinate amounts of money.

m: And that money isn’t even going to those companies, it’s going to a collector.

Z: Exactly. And more specifically, it’s not even going to the collectors, because it’s not the collectors who are selling this stuff in most cases. It’s businesses that go to flea markets and then they mark them up and they make a profit. And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with running a business. But where does that leave the person who just wants to enjoy the game?

m: There’s a difference between owning a physical first edition of something and having a having a mass market copy. Most book collectors want other people to be able to read the books, even if they don’t own the leather-bound original editions.

Z: Right. So right now your only choices are spend the very high amounts of money for it or pirate it. Well, I don’t like either of those options. I don’t want to pirate the game and I don’t want to spend $450 on the game. So why can’t there be a legal way to play the game? How do you solve that? I don’t know, because every publisher can do whatever they want, that’s just how the law is written. I don’t have a good solution right now. I just would say, well, let’s take Sega as an example. 

Although here I’m talking about Shining Force, which is a Sega IP, I think Sega has done a pretty good job of getting their stuff out there. They released the Sega Genesis Mini a couple of years ago, and I use that for most of my streams. It’s modded, so it has the games that came with it and games I own that I upload via emulation. And Shining Force is one of those games, a lot of people had never heard of it from the ’90s until Sega started releasing it on the Genesis mini. And then on the Switch, Nintendo has that deal with Sega where you can play Genesis games on Nintendo Switch Online Plus. 

I like to see that, and I wish there was more of that. I’m happy to purchase games, and I’m even happy to repurchase games. But I always hated when Disney used to have the vault, that drove me crazy. I’m glad they don’t do that anymore now that we have streaming. And if you’re asking me what I would like to see, I’d like to see less locking the stuff away and more getting the digital versions out there.

That way, the people who are purchasing the games that are hundreds and thousands of dollars, they’re buying them because they’re collecting the original versions. And the people who just want to enjoy the games, like yeah, would it be cool if I had the original Shining Force III? Sure. But is that my main purpose? No, I just want to play the game, and I want to legally play the game, whatever that looks like. 

So it would be nice if more publishers would release games in a digital format and price them accordingly. That way, nobody loses in my opinion, except maybe the people who are marking the games up. The publisher wins because they’re getting money for a game they wouldn’t otherwise be selling. It’s a digital copy so it doesn’t cost anything to manufacture the game.

How much would it cost Sega to go right now — because there are decent Saturn emulators out there — so how much would it cost them to say, hey, Icer Addis (who created the NESticle emulator), here are the specs for the Saturn and here’s some money, make us a Saturn emulator. Or whoever. So they go, they create it, they package it, and they put it on Nintendo’s Switch service, and there it is, Shining Force III. It took them whatever it cost to pay someone to create an emulator and the cost of copying the files. That’s it.


One response to “A Conversation With Zophar of Zophar’s Domain”

  1. Great interview. A nice recap of the time of my initiation to the internet and emulation in general. So many good memories, so many interesting topics that will remain relevent for a long time. Thank you for sharing the underside of an important part of my online debuts!

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