The Importance of Preservation

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.

For anyone with a substantial collection of ROMs and emulators, Launchbox is an absolutely essential download to keep things organised.

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.

Rare or unofficial titles like Action 52 for NES often command high prices in physical form, regardless of “quality” — but does that mean only the rich should be able to explore them?

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 (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.

16-bit Tim Allen wouldn’t come cheap.

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.

Did you know WayForward made two Sabrina games that very obviously formed the basis for their work on Shantae? Thanks to emulation, you can explore this for yourself.

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.

I’m playing Dragon Quest on original hardware… but you’re damn right I emulate it to take screenshots!

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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13 thoughts on “The Importance of Preservation”

  1. Books become public domain after a while, I think after 50 or 100 years? I wonder if this could apply to games in the future? I think it should. It might be too late for some games, though…

    I use emulators but I don’t use ROMs anymore. As a kid I didn’t know what was going on when my brother was like “hey I got this game downloaded on the computer” and I played whatever we got our hands on. I don’t know if I’d be a gamer now if I didn’t get to play those ROMs in the past. But I think for companies they have a hard time seeing ROMs as more than just stealing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a tricky question. Should it be considered piracy? I mean, you are downloading a game and being them cheaper or more expensive, most of them are still there for you to buy. However, as you said, normally only collectors go for the physical form. I mean, yeah I want to try that game for PS1 that completely went over my head when I played the system. However, I’m not going pay dozens, sometimes hundreds for the game.

    Mreover, there is something you didn’t mention which is, you will have to have a TV specifically to play those older systems. At the moment everyone has a flat TV which means from PS2 backwards you won’t be able to play those games in the system. Therefore, yeah, I think old games should be free to use.

    As you said, that’s what happens with books. Of course, books takes way more time than when these games came out to become available. However, we also need to understand that the gaming industry develops way faster than books. I mean, at this point you just can’t play anything from before.

    Other thing I would love to have in Playstation would be portability. I just can’t understand how we can’t play PS1/PS2/Ps3 physical games in PS4. However, then you can play the games if you buy them in the PS4.

    For my “Should I play” series, I normally have to go and play a little bit of the game for me to remember more of the gameplay and so on. And I’m not going to buy the game (again) just so I can play it for PC or in PS4. I own the platform, I own the game, so why should I have to spend money to play it again? Nope, not gonna happen.

    When it comes to taking screenshots, recording or streaming… Yeah, I’m thinking on recording Final Fantasy 7… I can’t see how that would work with my PS1 xD

    So, Emuparadise decided to go this route and if they sell the roms really cheap maybe they will be able to survive. If not, probably people will just change to another website. However, if they are going like that I hope they add a library like Steam or PS4 because it just doesn’t make sense to have all roms in my pc sitting there.

    Sorry for the long post >.< Great and interesting post Moe ^^

    Liked by 1 person

  3. so THAT’S how y’all take these Nintendo DS screenshots…I’ve always wondered…

    I am really bummed about this, though. There are games that I’ve played through emulators that I literally would not have had access to otherwise. I’m really into survival horror games, and the only way I was able to play Rule of Rose, which was LITERALLY BANNED in the West and can’t even be purchased in any capacity that would give the creators money anyways, was through an emulator. And I’m just not willing to put my computer at risk and do a bunch of backdoor shit to play a game through a sketchy emulator. :/ Really good article, games are art, I wish they were treated as such, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. Only thing I haven’t figured out is how to get my save file from the DS cartridge to the PC so I can load it up in the emulator rather than only being able to take screenshots from the start of the game! Devices do exist that allow you to do this, but I’m yet to find a reasonably priced one.

      Ah yes, Rule of Rose. I believe you can get it in Europe, but it frequently goes for three figures, even second-hand. I’m certainly interested to try it, but I’ve never paid more than £80 for one game and am generally fairly frugal these days… in terms of individual prices, anyway. In terms of quantity of games? Not so much…

      Thanks for the kind comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is sad news. Back when I used to review retro games ROMs were a godsend for easily recording footage. You are right on how easy it is to purchase classic music, books and film. Why can’t games be that way too?

    How can the hobby’s history be preserved when titles can not be played on current machines and are allowed to vanish. This even applies to newer games. I hear that the excellent Scott Pilgrim beat-em-up got taken off the PSN store.


  5. Between reading your article and writing my own on the subject, I keep on thinking of games that simply fall through the cracks when it comes to copyright. Not long ago you reviewed Donkey Kong for Atari 8-bit and identified it as one of the best ports of the game available. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it was produced by Atari. This introduces a quandary: Atari can’t use it because Donkey Kong is a Nintendo title and Nintendo won’t use it because they would consider any non-Nintendo Donkey Kong a pariah. So here we have a great game destined to die as its physical medium (floppy disk or cassette, I imagine) naturally deteriorates.

    And what about Atari 2600 Space Invaders? As the first licensed port, it’s a MAJOR piece of video game history. However, the name is owned by Taito and, again, Atari can’t use it for Flashback systems or apps.

    Liked by 1 person

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