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The architecture of MAME has been extensively improved over the years. Support for both raster and vector displays, as well as multiple CPUs and sound chips, were added to MAME in the first six months of the project. A flexible timer system to coordinate the synchronization between multiple emulated CPU cores was implemented, and ROM images started to be loaded according to their CRC32 hash in the ZIP files they were stored in.

The original program code, graphics and sound data need to be present so that the game can be emulated. In most arcade machines, the data is stored in read-only memory chips , although other devices such as cassette tapes, floppy disks, hard disks, laserdiscs, and compact discs are also used.

Emulation of these chips is preferred even when they have little or no immediately visible effect on the game itself. For example, the monster behavior in Bubble Bobble was not perfected until the code and data contained with the custom MCU was dumped through the decapping of the chip. This results in the ROM set requirements changing as the games are emulated to a more and more accurate degree, causing older versions of the ROM set becoming unusable in newer versions of MAME. Components such as CPUs are emulated at a low level whenever possible, and high-level emulation is only used when a chip is completely undocumented and cannot be reverse-engineered in detail. Signal level emulation is used to emulate audio circuitry that consists of analog components.

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The contents of most of these devices can be copied to computer files, in a process called "dumping". The resulting files are often generically called ROM images or ROMs regardless of the kind of storage they came from. A game usually consists of multiple ROM and PAL images; these are collectively stored inside a single ZIP file, constituting a ROM set.

Examples of these include the Neo Geo, CP System II, CP System III and many others. At first, MAME was developed exclusively for MS-DOS, but was soon ported to Unix-like systems (X/MAME), Macintosh and Windows . MAME has also been ported to other computers, game consoles, mobile phones and PDAs, and at one point even to digital cameras.

For example, Street Fighter II Turbo is considered a variant of Street Fighter II Champion Edition. System boards like the Neo Geo that have ROMs shared between multiple games require the ROMs to be stored in "BIOS" ROM sets and named appropriately. The information contained within MAME is free for re-use, and companies have been known to utilize MAME when recreating their old classics on modern systems. Some have gone as far as to hire MAME developers to create emulators for their old properties. An example of this is the Taito Legends pack which contains ROMs readable on select versions of MAME.

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