In case you missed the news, one of the biggest and most long-running sources for emulators and ROM files on the Internet, EmuParadise, has announced that it is undergoing some changes.
Specifically, the site will no longer be providing games for people to download free of charge; it will be continuing to maintain its database of emulators and hosting its community features, but the main draw for many — the extensive catalogue of ROMs for a variety of systems — has gone away, with every download link now leading to a page which states “this game is unavailable”.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this is emphatically a bad thing. But let’s talk about it anyway.
Emulation and ROMs have long been something of a grey area for many people. Legally speaking, redistributing games without any financial compensation going to the original creators or publishers is considered a form of piracy, but in the case of retro systems in particular, it is most definitely not that simple from a moral perspective.
With each passing console generation, titles go out of print and become difficult and expensive to find. There’s only a finite number of copies of each game, after all, and while the second-hand market continues to thrive — and you can even come across “new old stock” if you’re really lucky — the cost in terms of time, energy and money can quickly become prohibitive, especially when it comes to games that had a short print run or have attained “cult” status for one reason or another.
At times, the Internet doesn’t help with this. Sometimes all it takes is a popular YouTuber (the excellent MetalJesusRocks is an oft-cited example) to highlight a “hidden gem” or similar for it to suddenly skyrocket in value, and it’s certainly not unheard of for scalpers to artificially inflate the price of supposedly “rare” games on sites such as eBay and the like, putting them out of reach of the more casual (or less financially solvent!) collectors out there.
Well, you might say, it’s just like any sort of creative medium: if you weren’t there for its original release, you missed your chance and it sucks to be you. Except that’s not really how any form of art works these days thanks to the advent of technology — and, of course, the efforts of dedicated archivists. Classic books and plays can be accessed in text form via the Internet; works of visual art can be viewed on your phone or tablet; digital versions of old movies can continue to be enjoyed even as the physical media on which they were originally recorded crumbles to dust.
Of course, consuming these “lesser versions” is, in many cases, not a patch on the multisensory experience of enjoying the original… but they make people aware of these works in the first place. Someone seeing a work of art on Google Images that really resonates with them might inspire them to take a trip and see the original in a gallery; someone hearing a classic piece of music might desire to take up an instrument or start composing themselves; and, of course, countless works of literature have formed the basis of new works, both fictional and non-fictional.
So why shouldn’t it be the case for games, too? Well, there really is no good reason. With the ease of access to high quality emulation software these days, there’s little excuse for still-living developers and publishers to continue sitting on their old properties when it would be a relatively simple matter to sell a reasonably-priced download of a ROM or disk image coupled with a suitable emulator. In fact, this has already happened; the popular digital storefront GOG.com (formerly Good Old Games) primarily exists because of the advent of DOSBox coupled with license holders being willing to redistribute their old games for the first time in decades in many cases.
Licensing issues present difficulties in some instances, however. Consider the case of, say, a SNES game that featured the likeness of an actor who was reasonably well-known at the time of release, but who has become astronomically famous in the intervening years. The fee to use that actor’s likeness would be prohibitively expensive — especially when you consider the audience who might be interested in buying that game in $CURRENT_YEAR would almost certainly be rather limited, and thus it would provide a rather poor return on investment for everyone involved.
Does that mean the game that actor appears in should simply cease to exist, however? Of course not; it’s as much a part of gaming history as the most obviously influential titles. And herein lies probably the most important thing about game preservation: the fact it is important for people to continue to have access to these games for historical and critical purposes.
You can take a stab at writing a critique of any creative work simply by reading the CliffsNotes (or equivalent) of it, but nothing compares to actually taking the time to experience it in its entirety for yourself. This is especially true for an interactive medium such as video games, where we’re not only concerned with the aesthetic and narrative aspects of the experience, it is also essential to analyse the artistry of game design, structure and mechanics for a full understanding of the work in question. In fact, some games even lack one or more of these components altogether — early text adventures lack an audio-visual aesthetic component; mechanics-centric games are often completely devoid of narrative; and traditional game mechanics are completely absent from kinetic novels — making it all the more important that they are experienced in their entirety.
And this doesn’t mean that only the most “important” games should remain available for people to look back on, either — because who is to say what is “important” for any given purpose? Sure, when contemplating the development of the medium in its entirety, it’s essential to look at genre-defining games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders and its ilk — but when performing a more detailed, specialised exploration, you never know what you might find yourself needing (or wanting!) to check out.
And aside from all this, isn’t it just plain good for people to be able to experience the games of yesteryear without restriction? In some cases, exploring emulated titles can kickstart a passionate enthusiasm for physically collecting games, as YouTuber Game Dave argues in a video he posted in response to EmuParadise’s “changes”. In others, those who come to a long-running series such as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest late might be interested to check out that series’ roots — and be in a unique position to appreciate how far it has come in what is, relatively speaking compared to some other media, quite a short period.
And, of course, people like me, running sites like this, find emulators and ROMs a godsend for more practical purposes such as enjoying fan-translated versions of previously Japan-only releases or even simply taking videos and screenshots of systems that are awkward to capture from via more conventional means. Have you ever tried taking a photo of a Nintendo DS screen? It doesn’t work very well.
Where legitimate options for preservation exist — be they physical solutions such as Nintendo’s “mini” consoles, compilation discs, subscription services or downloadable titles — I encourage you to support them. But in cases where that’s not possible — for any of the reasons outlined above — it is extremely important for the gaming community as a whole to work together in order to preserve as many of these experiences as possible for future generations. And, thankfully, at the time of writing, there are several other trustworthy sources of ROMs and emulators besides EmuParadise… for now, at least. Maybe time to invest in that new hard drive you’ve been promising yourself…?
As many people have said over the years, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. So let’s try not to get to that point.
Check out the MoeGamer Podcast episode “This is the Game Preservation Society” for further discussion on this issue.
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