We need a better way to historically preserve video games

If you are a fan of retro games, then you probably heard of Nintendo’s recent legal action against ROM sites. While LoveROMS and LoveRetro were their recent targets, another site Emuparadise was caught in the crossfire. To avoid any future legal repercussions, they have decided to stop hosting all ROMs.

That site was long known as one of the biggest databases of ROMs on the internet, featuring games from as far back as the Atari to as recent as the PS2, and being one of the few emulation sites you could browse without the risk of intrusive ads or malware. Nintendo, of course, has always taken a hard stance against emulation, saying that it devalues their product and that it amounts to nothing more than piracy. Taking down Emuparadise, even though indirect means, is clearly a huge victory for that platform.

The debate is raging once again about whether or not emulation is piracy and whether emulating games is right and wrong, and that’s a philosophical debate we can have until we are blue in the face. However, I don’t think that gets us anywhere. Regardless of what you feel is right or wrong, Nintendo has the ability to shut down emulation sites. It is their legal right and they exercised it. That is just a reality.

And that presents a problem, because the threat of Nintendo didn’t just remove Nintendo’s first party games from Emuparadise. It didn’t just remove games that were made for Nintendo systems. No, it closed the whole site down. So while this may be a victory for Nintendo, this victory comes at the cost of thousands or ROMs for consoles that don’t even have parent companies anymore, consoles like the Commodore 64 or the Amiga and old arcade platforms that are no longer in development. Some would argue that the fault lies on Emuparadise for offering Nintendo ROMS in the first place, but once again, we aren’t here to argue fault.

We are here to examine the effect, and the effect was that a site that served as one of the foremost chroniclers of video game history has been taken down because its existence was illegal. That is the current problem we face, not that emulation is illegal or whether it’s moral or amoral, but that the only way to successfully preserve video game history right now is by doing something illegal.

Retro fans will likely argue that there is a legal way to preserve history through restoring original hardware and, yes, that is possible. You can still play NES games on your original NES, and shell out $400+ on eBay for a copy of Little Samson. However, this presents its own issues.

No one is making new copies of Little Samson, or most NES carts for that matter. The only way to purchase new retro games is via “classic” consoles or virtual console stores. Rarer games, especially games made by defunct companies, will only grow in scarcity as cartridges get lost or broken. You can spend all your time, money, and effort looking for a legal cart, but you would be purchasing one second-hand anyway. Neither Nintendo, the original developer, nor the original publisher would get any money in the first place.

How do we preserve the experience of a rare NES title that suddenly has no more carts in existence? Well, if we were doing the same with a rare movie or book, we could make a copy, especially if the original creator and publisher are defunct. However, that is exactly what emulation is, and it’s exactly what Nintendo (and to be fair, many other publishers) fight against.

So we need a way to play retro video games, including rare ones and even ones you made your own copy of, legally, otherwise many older titles will be lost to history.

There are a couple solutions we could attempt.

Video game museums

Perhaps the best solution would be to have museums dedicated to gaming. We have seen gaming exhibits crop up in places such as The Museum of Modern Art and The Franklin institute, but these are always just temporary exhibits, many of which weren’t hands on.

If we had a dedicated video game museum, then it could be the museum’s job to find original hardware and software and keep them in operating order. Students of gaming history could visit the museum and play this software in its original form, from start to finish. No one downloads anything illegally and everyone is happy.

The only issue is that museums take a lot of money to run and usually exist solely on donations and grants. Until we, as a society, find worth in video game history I sincerely doubt anyone would donate enough money to get enough full time video game museums up and in working order to chronicle all of video game history.

Video Game Libraries

So maybe full-blown video game museums might be out of our reach; video game libraries might be the next best thing. Instead of setting up exhibits, these libraries would keep the original hardware and software in working order, much like a museum would and allow people to play and/or take the hardware home for research purposes. It’s like an old rental store but without rental fees.

Libraries also, importantly, can sometimes purchase licenses to copy the media they own. This would allow them (with Nintendo’s permission) to create flash carts of rare ROMs for the sake of research purposes. It also means that they could use non-official hardware or third party hardware to allow people to play games.

The issue here? Nintendo has to give their permission to whatever library takes up the task, and judging by how they have treated emulation so far, my guess is that they wouldn’t be on board. Similarly, a gaming library would have to get permission from many different publishers in order to lend out parts of their collection and this might present fees in excess of what a library can feasibly manage.

Neftlix-like subscription services

If video games have to be a product, then we have better ways to offer that product than buying outdated pieces of plastic from the 90s. Nintendo could, feasibly, open up the entire NES, SNES, and N64 libraries to be played on practically any modern day console. Nintendo could probably get away with charging somewhere between 15 or 20 dollars a month just to be able to play the entirety of their library. They certainly cannot get away with charging five dollars a game, which is their current model. Perhaps that is why emulation has been such a thorn in their side.

Generic legal ROM playing programs

Many gamers don’t remember that there was a time when you could buy a legal (questionably) emulation program for macs. While technically it would be legal to create one of these again, the amount of legal trouble it would bring with it is likely not worth the risk.

That’s why first parties should do it. You heard me right, Nintendo should sell a legal, licensed emulator. Know why? Because they have already done it! What do you think the NES and SNES classics are? They are just emulators running well-known emulator code. With a minimal amount of jailbreaking you can already get them to run the entire NES and SNES library. Nintendo could charge an easy $60-$100 a pop for fully jailbroken classic consoles and I’m sure no one would bat an eye.

Which of these solutions should we use? It’s not clear. It’s honestly not clear if any of these is the right course of action. However, we cannot continue as we have. Emulation is just a stopgap right now. Unless copyright law changes drastically in the next few years, emulation and ROMs will still be targets for big video game companies. We cannot rest the task of chronicling our video game history on their shoulders alone.

Yes, video games are a product, but they are also art, and art that is not preserved is lost. So if Nintendo doesn’t like emulation, then they should be giving us a better alternative.