When people talk about piracy, it’s a contentious topic to be sure. When it comes to emulation, which certainly can be used for piracy, the issue is a bit more complicated. Lately, Nintendo has found themselves at the center of that conversation.
It isn’t that I am totally without sympathy. Piracy can hurt a company financially and this is definitely the case for Nintendo. Its systems have been routinely hacked and modified. While I hesitate here, because I don’t want to condone piracy, I do want to say that it isn’t as simple as protecting the intellectual properties. To an extent, we have to protect video games as historical objects.
The reason Nintendo is at the center of this is because it was its lawsuit that annihilated the largest rom site out there. As a result, roms, which are the digital copies of games, became harder to find for all systems. Some people still have full collections, which is good because they may come in handy for the sake of preservation.
Nintendo also closed its digital storefront on the Nintendo Wii in 2019. It doesn't have a way to buy classic games on the Switch, though Nintendo Switch Online lets you access a digital library as long as you subscribe. A ton of games disappeared into the ether as a result. That’s a scary prospect, especially as games err towards online. Some don’t receive physical copies at all.
Limited Run games is a company that tries to preserve games by releasing physical copies of digital only games. However, as the name would suggest, these copies are limited. They are also representative of only a small set of what gaming has to offer. Not every game could get a Limited Run release.
Most of the profit a game will make is near the point of its launch. Many years later, a company may re-release a game and make a bit more money, but this is also a small slice of gaming. It does, perhaps, incentive remakes which aren’t something I want to lose. But is it worth trading for roms? Especially since these copyrights only last as long as they do as a result of Disney; it wasn’t always this way.
It’s also true that sometimes remakes happen because of roms. It is easy for a company to grab a copy off the internet and modify it slightly. The emulation community also benefits the traditional gaming companies. The PlayStation Classic, for example, runs a popular emulator. Roms also facilitate speed runs, generate buzz around games, and allow access to older games for younger audiences.
This is important, because games can become very hard to access without roms. Rare ones that nobody is remaking are prohibitively expensive. Now, I don’t believe we’re entitled to these games but I think making them accessible does more good than bad. Unless, of course, you run a retro video game store. That would put you in a complicated position.
The thing is, game developers aren’t as careful with their old games as you would expect. Square Enix, for example, lost valuable art assets for Final Fantasy IX. The cost for preserving these games is relatively low since it is exceedingly uncommon for people to make emulators that can handle modern gaming. Basically, they are just decreasing profit of remakes but is the ability of a game developer to cash in 20 years later worth the inaccessibility they create? Can we really justify losing part of our history? The way I see it is that we are currently putting too many eggs in too few baskets. Roms, in this analogy, are the eggs and the baskets are the people that collect them. So let them be our archivists so I can rest easy at night. Well, until I remember that most modern games are in a precarious position in terms of preservation anyway.