Your failed business model is not my problem: On ROM sites and Emulators
I think by now everybody knows that the retro gaming market is a complete and utter dumpster fire. Anything retro seems to work like through a process of sorts. The product comes out and is loved by many when it’s new, it’ll become irrelevant after a few years and flood thrift stores (The 360, PS3, and maybe even the Wii are at this stage, and you can still find cheap PS2s, PS1s, or Sega Genesis consoles), then suddenly interest will pick up on it again. Retro gaming YouTubers will make videos obsessing over some obscure tech worth nothing because nobody wanted to buy it, some common as dirt game console, or some old video game, and interest goes up massively. You’ll see people paying $200-300 for some disc, for some failed game console, and when it gets real bad the market will start to respond in interesting ways. Bootleg Nintendo cartridges will flood resale sites. Third party accessory makers will make clone consoles, either hardware based or in many cases now emulation based. Pricey flashcarts made by enthusiasts will become a hot item, promising gamers a way of playing the entire library of a console on one cartridge. With game consoles that have nothing like that, your closest taste of it might be in some museum, or with some YouTube video or Twitter post involving some rich hipster flexing it for views, or in an emulator.
And then there’s the emulator scene. Emulation serves two purposes nowadays. The first purpose is preservation, and that’s the endgame of products like MAME, BSNES/Higan, Nestopia, and similar accuracy focused emulators. These emulators are designed to preserve both the games and the hardware first with cycle accurate emulation, and the MAME project is perhaps the most preservation focused of these. Many drivers will have board diagrams, and ROM files are labeled not something cryptic like “Sonic the Hedgehog 2 [!] (U).smd” but they’re zip files with the actual names of the ROM chips and the PCB locations in them. People have used MAME to repair arcade boards as well, from using it to test behavior of bad ROM files to seeing boot up sequences of circuit boards. The MAME people take this to extremes, trying to dump every component of the system and with systems they can’t simply dump easily, they’ll decap components. You also see the same deal with many vintage computer emulators, designed to emulate computers that are nearly impossible to get nowadays.
A subset of that is the commercial emulator market for older computers, designed to allow one to replace an older system with no upgrade path forward (like a DEC Alpha or HP 3000 for instance) with a faster PC doing the same thing. Parts for these machines cost more and more, full systems can cost a lot of money (like $1000) if you’re not buying them off some hobbyist or getting them for free, and they tend to be harder to repair in many cases. For example look at the AlphaStation 200 I bought from someone. There’s nothing like a multi-layer PCB with corrosion, chewed up PSU wires, and a motherboard replacement costing $200. Or you could just emulate said machine on a modern computer and run your old software faster.
The second purpose of emulation is to play older video games, games you might have played as a kid or games that are iconic. In some cases, such as when a current generation console is being emulated or with modern arcade games being hacked to run on normal PCs, it borders on piracy. With older consoles though, it all depends really. Sometimes you have games being rereleased on download services, and last gen was the peak of that IMO. The Wii had a Virtual Console library that was vast and included just about all the big hits, the Wii U was 100% backwards compatible with the Wii’s VC and it even had a few games of its own that were not on the Wii like Earthbound. The PS3 had PS1 and 2 classics, backwards compatibility with nearly every PS1 game on every console, and the early PS3s had the whole PS2 implemented in hardware allowing you to run nearly every PS2 title. The Xbox 360 had a few original Xbox classics on the digital store, along with backwards compatibility that despite being dodgy, allowed a lot of big Xbox games to be played (but not all). The PC was probably the best at this, as GOG popped up to resell older PC titles with no DRM and all, while Steam added quite a few old titles as well.
This gen though? Well, 2 out of 3 console makers have put that on the backburner. The PS4 still lacks PS1 classics and only has a handful of PS2 classics, with zero backwards compatibility. Nintendo has straight up said they’re not going to bring Virtual Console to the Switch, despite Virtual Console being seen as one of the Wii’s standout features. The Xbox One is the only console to have this, and while it works with a lot of the blockbuster Xbox 360 titles there’s still a few that people demand, and original Xbox backwards compatibility has been all but neglected with a list far shorter than even the 360’s list. You can’t even play Halo on the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility mode. Still, Microsoft is the only one out of the three that has the right idea. While the PC is still backwards compatible, Windows 10 muddies the situation a bit breaking compatibility for many games, Linux has no games, and OS X keeps breaking compatibility with something every few updates (just look at Classic, Rosetta, and now 32 bit software support).
Then you have the issue of a lot of titles not being on digital services due to licensing and whatnot. A lot of more obscure or cult games are not on digital download services at all whatsoever due to demand and rights bullshit. Furthermore, licenses can expire at any time, leading to situations like that with The Pinball Arcade. That game was somewhat of a digital storefront to buy digital pinball tables licensed from the 4 main pinball companies (in the Solid State era) and their incarnations. Recently WMS’s new owner declined to renew the licensing agreement with Farsight, and this led to 2/3rds of the pinball machines on the game to be pulled from the game if you didn’t already buy them, and this included a lot of the bigger name and more highly regarded pinball machines. Or you’ll have the issue with games not being released in English with the only way to play them being a fan translation patch applied to…you guessed it, a ROM.
So the situation for those wanting to play older games is even worse than it was for Hollywood and the record labels when p2p file sharing programs like Napster, Kazaa, and Limewire popped up. It took them years to adapt to the internet, but now we have legal streaming, DRM free mp3 downloads, and DRM’d movie downloads. It’s not as good as it could be (DRM in movies for example or Netflixes library), but for many “normies”, they’re content with it. Even before that, unless you were trying to get a copy of some obscure album/movie that was out of print it was perfectly possible to run out to a store and buy a CD of said album. You didn’t need old equipment to watch said movie or listen to said album (unless it’s on Vinyl and even then new turntables are being made to this day) and even now a Blu Ray player will play DVDs or CDs.
Game companies are either unwilling or unable to release older games somewhere else, and this leads to the situation we’re at today with retrogaming and emulation.
The ROM site shutdowns
Back during my college days, there was a highly common sight. You’d see a computer; either a school owned one or someone’s personal laptop, or a cell phone displaying an old Nintendo video game. It was illegal of course, since they’re not paying money to Nintendo to play Mario on their Nintendo Wii, or buying an old Super Nintendo and playing a Genuine™ copy of Super Mario Bros on it, or playing Pokemon on an old Game Boy Advance SP. They were playing it on a computer or cell phone. Just like streaming or MP3s, it was convenient. Why carry around an extra device in your pocket that costs money when you can fire up a computer program designed to run the same exact game on your modern hardware.
Nintendo on the other hand is stuck in the old days when their consoles were mainstream, when copyright infringement involved bootleggers making fake cartridges, fake products with Nintendo’s licensed characters on them, or when game copiers popped up. Nintendo’s very notorious for sending their legal team after people for everything, from content IDing footage of Nintendo games to sending lawyers after fangame and romhack developers. Nintendo was also infamous for having insane rules during the NES and part of the SNES era that led to games being censored, limits on how many games a developer could make per year, and eventually this led to developers first making games on other platforms like the TG16 and Sega Genesis, and later packing up and moving to the PS1 when that system came out. Hell, the PS1 feels like more of a natural successor to the SNES if you look at all the third party franchises that ditched Nintendo for Sony. Nintendo’s history of failed consoles after the SNES and low game sales for games ported to the platform sealed the deal. Nowadays it’s common for a game to be on the PS4 along with the Xbox One and the PC, but skipping the Switch. Nintendo isn’t known to be the best company leadership wise whatsoever, and their bad policies and decisions did them in as the #1 console.
Nintendo’s sole remaining strength is their intellectual property, and all the Nintendo games that people want to play. The Switch’s sole driving power are the tentpole releases that Nintendo puts out every console generation that feel more rehashed than sports games do, and the fact the handheld console market is still relevant in Japan. This sells consoles, despite not selling as many as Sony or Microsoft, and despite being a dodgy strategy especially as third parties dump said console.
This also makes Nintendo games very attractive to that demographic I mentioned. With their inflated resale prices and the near limitless demand for Nintendo games, numerous sites that would allow one to “stream” Nintendo titles would pop up, along with the usual ROM sites. Going after emulator makers isn’t something easy, especially as Sony sued two PS1 emulator makers and lost both times. This means that the next logical step for Nintendo is to go after ROM sites allowing one to download 30+ year old games that are hard to find for sale via legal means. For a while Nintendo had a record of DMCAing ROM sites, but this changed when a website called LoveROMs (one of the dodgier ones) got served with not just a mere DMCA, but a lawsuit.
At first this was seen as another day for the Nintendo legal team, but not long afterwards two major ROM sites shut down: Emuparadise and TheIsoZone. Not because of lawsuits, but because of the genuine fear that they were next. Another lesser known website that billed itself as an archive of data got slammed thanks to the fact they had Nintendo romsets on their websites, with download speeds slowing and IPs being restricted to two downloads at once. This sent waves through the community, as others simply said to use “full gameset” torrents but the damage was done. This scared that part of the internet about as much as the MegaUpload shutdown from the US government, wiping terabytes of data off the internet. Getting individual ROMs was no longer an easy feat, as one would have to download individual ROMs from “full set” torrents or download a whole collection of ROMs to get a few Pokemon ROMs.
Nintendo’s failed business model
Perhaps the big takeaway from this if we put it in prospective with the numerous fangame shutdowns and the content IDs is this: Nintendo is a company operating under an outdated and failed business model. For example Nintendo’s mobile games are all trashy free to play games that die off faster than Nintendo’s flagship games as investors ask how they’re monetizing these games. That’s nice and all, but I can make a proposal that could make mobile gaming feel “legit” like those pushes back during the earlier days of smartphones were intending. Take Nintendo’s games and put them into a single app charging money for this (like Pinball Arcade and a few others have done), or list them individually on the app store. All they have to do is sit back and watch the free effortless money roll in. It’s Nintendo, who has some of the biggest IPs around (especially among their demographic of bugmen and kids), and it’d be a great way to counter ROMs, more than shutting down rom sites would.
Nintendo’s business model on the other hand revolves around barely rereleasing old games on their old systems, and selling marked up emulator boxes designed after old consoles that feature a bunch of ROMs of the more popular games on said console and not a lot of the other big name games (and don’t get me started on the lesser name ones). The SNES classic lacks a lot of big name games like Chrono Trigger, FF 4/5, Shin Megami Tensei, and those are just some RPGs. It only includes 20something titles out of an entire console’s library. The cost? $80. Virtual Console isn’t even on the Switch mind you, and the Wii Shop is being discontinued soonish.
If Nintendo bothered to rerelease their older games, emulators would be a smaller thorn in their side. Oh and you know, full gameset torrents still exist. You can go on a torrent site and download a complete No-Intro set with every single SNES game that might take up a few gigs, but storage is cheap nowadays. I bought a 6tb external for $120 recently.
Nintendo’s business model with older games revolves solely around making you pay for marked up hardware to play a handful of games, a highly overpriced secondary market that gives money only to resellers and that only rich hipsters win with, releasing select NES roms in some download service that’s not out yet (after making online paid, just like Sony and Microsoft), and going after websites that let you download what Nintendo makes hard to obtain. While someone like Sega might rerelease Genesis classics on everything under the sun, Sony seems to have abandoned their ideas for PS1 games on Android after it flopped with zero marketing, and Nintendo wants you to buy expensive hardware to run software. Nintendo has yet to learn the same hard lesson that the music industry and movie industry had to learn: If you can’t beat em, join em. They made digital movies easier to get, digital music DRM is as dead as a doornail, and streaming services are all the rage right now.
This is also why I refuse to support Nintendo as a company. They are not only unwilling to adapt to change, but they will try to sue the reality of their poor decisions out of existence instead of owning up to them, they will attack their own customers, and their consoles are weak and loaded with rehashed games. But hey, as long as they make the same old same old console yearly but with new logos on them, their consoles will continue to sell among a rich audience that wants a secondary console for their favorite mascot games, lazy parents who let electronic devices raise their children, and mentally stunted adults who feel the best solution to their issues is to escape them, even as they live with their parents who will eventually die out and leave them on the streets.
And of course, this whole ordeal is why the copyright law needs reform, but as long as companies like Disney (which helped fund the Mickey Mouse laws) or Nintendo exist, this isn’t going to happen as hard as it is to swallow.