Its been an interesting month for online retro gaming communities, to say the least. ROMs, best explained as digital copies made from video games, have always been a divisive issue but now it seems like big publishers may be taking steps to stop them being spread. After Nintendo took legal action to shut down two ROM sites the well-known EmuParadise (Emu as in Emulation – not the big flightless birds) voluntarily shut itself down as a precaution. Much virtual ink has been used to advocate the use of sharing ROMs online, as well as the evils of doing so, and just about every stance in between. The BBC news coverage of the story includes all the essential facts and is about as an accessible and succinct account as you’re likely to find. The threat of legal action seems to have had to wanted success , with even a set of tools for making Pokemon fan-games has been preemptively taken down. It is the reaction to Nintendo’s action that has been the most interesting, though, speaking volumes about the intrinsic value we place on old video games.
The end result, why this is purportedly a terrible approach by Nintendo, is the ‘bad feeling’ it has generated. The upcoming release of the, still mysterious, Switch online service that includes access to a limited quantity of NES games is thought to be the main reason for Nintendo’s sudden interest in ROMs and sharing sites. Nintendo has been characterised as greedy, seeking to stamp out the free alternative before selling their own service with limited functionality. The implicit opinion throughout many of these debates is that NES and SNES games should not cost much simply because they’re old. Even labeling games as ‘retro’ performs a function we rarely apply to other media – you’re unlikely to find Jane Austen on the ‘retro’ shelf of a bookstore. Just because a game like Chrono Trigger or Super Mario World is old enough to vote does not mean it should be free or practically free – they’re classics for a reason and ascribing a financial worth to a game is the clearest recognition of that.
There are legitimate concerns here, of course, with game ‘preservation’ being the most oft-cited. The concern that some titles could be lost to history entirely is valid, but is much overstated in these arguments – its an excuse a lot of people repeat, but its highly unlikely that even a fraction of the people who download ROMs are worried the game is going to be lost to the ages. And there are places better prepared to and more dedicated to archiving old games than these sites – they’re archives. The one argument much harder to dismiss is that much of these communities are fan driven – hobbyists performing skilled work for nothing simply because they want to. If communities like this start getting broken up and individuals get dissuaded from starting projects that wouldn’t be financially worthwhile for a company like Nintendo then who knows what titles may slip through the cracks. The main issue is one of access. While for many this means free access, being able to try out any old game their favourite Youtuber is talking about, there are still a huge amount of titles that are currently unavailable for any amount of money.
The other side to this coin are ‘remasters’ – re-releases of old games for newer systems, usually with graphical and game-play enhancements to make them more in-line with newer titles. The timely release of Shenmue 1 & 2 on PC and consoles is an excellent example of this: a pair of cult games that were trapped on past hardware that have been made available to a new generation. It’s impressive performance in the UK sales top ten shows people are willing to spend money to play a good, old game. The game is being sold at a pretty attractive price-point, around £25, less than a new retail release – whether people would have paid more we’ll never know. Metal Wolf Chaos XD was one of E3’s best surprises and is another fine example of an obscure game seeing a wider audience due to being remastered. Originally only released in Japan you could have imported it, but its the exact type of game that emulation would have provided the best opportunity for trying.
The second hand market is a great reflection of what games are worth playing – even better than aggregate scores. Want to play a bad Gamecube game? You can pick one up online for a few pounds on eBay. Want to play a great one? Those will run anywhere from £20 to over £100 depending on how many copies are in circulation. Taking Gotcha Force as an example, it got inexplicably poor reviews, sold badly and I got my copy brand new for £20. Nowadays word has gotten round – most copies sell for around £60 on eBay. Clearly there’s some type of demand here, and most people will not have or be willing to pay £60 for a Gamecube game. So where’s the remaster, or the digital version? The real answer here is not to produced another video essay on copyright law, fair use, or to reiterate to everyone you know that you only download things to try them and buy them later. The answer is for companies like Nintendo to get faster at anticipating and meeting fan demand, and make sure legal alternatives are in place – most people are happy to a fair price for a good game whether its old or new.