Did you know that despite all the Nintendo eShops, Virtual Consoles, and “Classics Collections” only around 25% of the more than 700 games ever released on the original Nintendo Entertainment System have been available in some shape or form on new hardware in the past five years? Yes, the emulation software and ROM site debate isn’t an exclusively Nintendo issue but the current legal action against sites that host the files is. Go on just about any search engine and you’ll find a site somewhere hosting a congressional library’s worth of games released from the Atari days up to the Xbox.
I loved games like Maximum Carnage, X-Men for the Sega Genesis, Spider-Man Vs. The Kingpin, Turok on the SNES, and almost every game based on a comic book property. Because of their licensing deals, these titles are likely never to see any sort of legal comeback on a modern gaming means. So what am I to do? Pay a grifter on eBay or Craigslist hundreds of dollars for a game system and game that may not even still work? That does nothing to put money in the pockets of those who created the games in the first place. If Marvel’s Game division were to devote time to buying the rights to the games already created from their licenses and work with a publisher on re-releasing them for the PlayStation, Xbox, or Switch, I’d give them my money tomorrow. But that’s sadly not the case for most old games, especially those of the licensed variety.
For many years the game industry scowled at ROMs (Read Only Memory files from game cartridges) being ripped from Nintendo or Sega cartridges and published on various websites for others to download and play. Recently with Nintendo’s “duhhhh” epiphany that people are willing to overpay for cheap plastic boxes containing merely a sliver of these classic games comes the prison searchlight of the publisher looking for every site who hosts such files. Nintendo is within their rights to do so since it is technically an illegal practice they’d like to see stopped. But what should take precedence here… stopping the continuation of illegal file hosting or the need to preserve the history of an entire art form when those who own it are dropping the ball in that regard?
The reality is ROMS and the emulator software used to run them are caught in the middle of two unethical practice groups butting heads like rams fighting for the last liveable spot on a mountain. As a result, the real victim is the history of gaming itself, cursed to remain in the dusty boxes found at yard sales and overpriced second-hand game shops everywhere.
Part of the problem is the focus of companies who hold the rights to classic games such as Nintendo, with the other part of the problem being the execution of re-releasing them. The virtual console on Wii was a great idea (Nintendo would release its classics one or two at a time for people to buy on the Wii online shop) and made the company a fair amount of revenue for little resource cost considering most of the games were direct ports with hardly any upgrade and no new features. Yet it managed to botch the concept by releasing a pinched iv drip’s worth of its library. It’s not looking as though a full virtual console will ever make it to the Nintendo Switch even though the portable/home hybrid is the absolute perfect system to play classic games on.
The new Nintendo Online service for Switch will only launch with access to 20 classic NES games available with more to be “added regularly”. How regularly? Nintendo hasn’t released any kind of schedule. Nintendo could and should put their entire first party catalog and some of the more popular licensed games on the Nintendo Online service at launch. Even if the company raised or went solely to a higher monthly price point, it would still be an extraordinary value for access to a full major gaming library.
From what we’ve learned from the evolution of the music and film industry to the digital age, the public is willing to pay a fair price for the legal use and enjoyment of entertainment…if they’re presented with the avenues to do so.
Our Netflix and Spotify models of media consumption could at least begin to build a viable solution. A UK company called AntStream is getting ready to launch a retro game, Netflix style service. Not relying on emulation, Antrstream instead uses cloud-based streaming of games to your PC and mobile devices, only requiring you to have an internet connection. At launch, they’ll have such titles as Fatal Fury, Bad Dudes, Burger Time. Basically, an assortment of the easiest licenses to work with. It’s unlikely a service like this will get first-party Nintendo titles such as Super Mario Bros, but the more little known third party games from the NES could become part of Antstream’s library at some point. Even without Nintendo, catalogs from Sega, Atari, Neo Geo, could build an incredibly robust digital platform.
Why would people even consider paying monthly for something they’ve been pirating for years for free? There’s a lot of horror stories concerning malicious software downloads, broken code, and a slew of problems for some emulated games. So if a service is willing to do the work of quality control, testing, and functionality upkeep then I’d be willing to pay $8-10 bucks a month for it.
Antstream isn’t the only active entity trying to solve the gaming piracy problem. Microsoft is rumored to be getting ready to launch their own mega bundle, though it has more to do with newer games, it’s still a step in the right direction. Details are speculated that for a two year commitment between $21.99 to $34.99 per month, customers would get their choice of Xbox One game system hardware along with a subscription to Xbox Live Gold (Play Online/deals service) and the Xbox Game Pass (Subscription that allows you to download and play hundreds of games from its library). If you don’t know what Game Pass entails, it’s a growing library of games from the original Xbox system, the Xbox 360, and the current Xbox One with future titles such as Gears and Crackdown set to also become part of the service.
At the end of the commitment, it’s possible Microsoft would allow you keep the Xbox. It’s a crazy idea with a lot of logistics questions but it’s certainly better than not moving those units. While they may not lead this generation of consoles, the Xbox brand has been experimenting with the industry in a lot of ways which hopefully lead to a better future for them. But that’s a story for another time.
Just like with modifications developed by fans to fix broken launch games, the industry has had to learn a harsh lesson when it comes to emulators and ripped games. If you aren’t going to serve your customers, you better believe your customers are going to find ways to serve themselves. In a culture where we’ve fragmented our entertainment into various subscriptions for movies, music, and television, it absolutely makes sense for companies with vast libraries of anything to mine their gold. So, dear video games, get your sh** together cause I really want to play The Death and Return of Superman again.