Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A silent nation hooked on emulation


When I was in high school, more or less, I had one great concern that caused me no end of grief (and this tells you A LOT about the kind of adolescence I had): and THAT was that I'd NEVER EVER be able to play all these classic NES RPGs because I didn't have an NES and the system was receding further and further into the past and IT JUST WOULDN'T HAPPEN WOE IS ME. It's sort of embarrassing when you write it out like that (if I could go back, I'd tell myself: dude. Your priority right now REALLY needs to be getting laid. This other shit will work itself out), but there it is.

I believe I first heard about the concept of emulation from a brief blurb in Newsweek, of all places. I seem to recall that it was specifically about MAME and that there was a screenshot of Donkey Kong, though I could be making that up. Naturally, that fired my brain in all different directions, and when I got to college, where I had a personal internet connection for the first time, you'd best BELIEVE that was one of the first things that I wanted to figure out. Of course, in those early days of the form, emulation in general was wildly inconsistent and unreliable, and combined with my absolute technical ineptitude (seriously, I'm not any kind of electronics wizard now, but you should've seen what I was like THEN), it...wasn't that easy for me. But I still remember VERY vividly my first success: the NES emulator was called BioNES, which was simple enough even for me to use, and seeing that opening scroll from Final Fantasy going down my screen for the first time...HOLY SHIT was that ever the world's purest magic. And from there, it was on; naturally, I quickly figured out how to emulate other eight- and sixteen-bit systems.

It's hard to remember what a Wild-West environment it was, nowadays. Emulators, as noted above, were wildly inconsistent in terms of compatibility; these were basically things coded by teenagers without a lot of expertise, so you could really see the nuts and bolts sticking out. This was NOT elegant stuff. And hey, remember rom sites back then? Nothing like the reliable and totally comprehensive things we have now; if you wanted a game, you prayed you could find it via a yahoo search on some kid's geocities or angelfire site, and then you FURTHER prayed that the site wouldn't turn out to have exceeded its bandwidth already (rom distribution was NOT a purpose for which these sites were intended), in which case, you'd be out of luck. Ah...good times.

No one, or almost no one, was thinking in terms of "preservation" at the time. We just wanted to play classic games, for free! Still, I think my initial concern, about how I'd NEVER EVER &c, at least hints in that direction. And it really IS a valuable thing: without knowing what they were doing, hobbyists saved a whole hell of a lot of games from being well on their way to being, if not non-extant per se, then so totally inaccessible that they really might as well be. Here's the thing: a big company like Nintendo cares about its classic gaming library to exactly the extent to which it can milk it for some extra cash. No more, no less. Thus, you'll see popular titles rereleased in very inconsistent and unreliably-present (those e-stores don't last forever) formats, and that's about all you'll see. Not that I even blame them for this, really, but it's absolutely true. The preservation of their legacy really, really is in the hands of pirates. If it were just up to Nintendo and other companies, a lot of games (like, seriously, probably 90%+; this is not an exaggeration) would never see the light of day again, and as far as things like prototypes or fan translations or other rom hacks (which have advanced light years from the days when you'd just draw a dick on Mario and leave it at that)--forget about it. I think this is especially important; none of this should be construed as a legal argument, of course, but the ability of fans to creatively reinterpret these works is an important part of fandom, and while Nintendo of course has the legal right to be assholes, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that they're being assholes. There is no "moral" argument to be seen here.

So yeah. I know perfectly well that this is well down the list of Things To Be Concerned About In The World Today, but this is why it pisses me off to see Nintendo going after big rom sites, as they have been recently. They're certainly not going to make their old games unavailable on the internet--"mildly more difficult to find" is the best they can do--but it's the whole attitude that's misbegotten. It's just total dog-in-the-manger stuff. You can't expect Nintendo to endorse emulation, but if they were less idiotic, they would continue their policy of basically just ignoring it. They're attacking their biggest fans and pissing them off for the dubious possibility of making a negligibly-greater sum of money.

But let me address another point. We must not be disingenuous here, after all. Whenever you see an article about one of these legal actions, you'll inevitably see comments to the effect of "please let me pay for your old games! I'll happily give you money! Why won't you let me do this?!?" I find this attitude kind of disturbingly servile (although, I suppose, more comprehensible than the other people you always see, making comments about "ROMs are piracy how dare you steal from Nintendo! If you want an old game, you should find a used copy, which also won't benefit Nintendo in any way but is nonetheless better for some reason that I decline to even try to articulate!" That kind of grovelling is really just...). Not that downloading Leet Rhomboidz makes you any sort of Cool Rebel or anything, but just the same...my offer to Nintendo is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license (huh. That actually almost fits the context). And I have a reason for this. Pay close attention; try to follow my subtle, nuanced argument here: I'm not going to pay you any money for your old games because I want to play them for free in whatever format I want to.

Shocking! A SHOCKING admission! Yeah, here's the thing: too many people seem to have this unconscious idea that a company like Nintendo is, in fact, a person. Here's an extremely important thing to keep in mind: even if the twenty- or thirty-year-old game you want is commercially available, it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone involved in its creation is seeing money from sales. These ain't like books. What you're saying is that you desperately want to give the corporate entity that holds the legal rights to these lines of code money because...um. Let me ask you: before it became public domain, do you think Warner/Chappell Music had a moral right to receive thousands of dollars every time someone public performed "Happy Birthday to You" in public? If so, then I guess this argument is meaningless, but if you're a normal person...come on. Videogame companies have never expected to earn significant amounts of money from their back catalogue. That's not how the industry works, and it's not a reasonable expectation for anyone to have. And, I mean, REALLY: practically speaking, I now have the ability to play almost any old game on a computer, on a portable system, or on a TV screen. But Nintendo wants me to, instead, pay them money to play a narrow range of games in a very restricted way? Um...that doesn't seem like a good deal. Forget about legality; this is just the reality of the situation. It would be difficult or impossible for them to actually offer as good a deal as emulators do, but they're not even trying. Who wants to reward that behavior? Although, really, we shouldn't give in to the framing that this is actually hurting Nintendo in any measurable way: it's very easy to overestimate the number of people with the inclination and technical savvy to do take these legally gray avenues; it's more or less inconceivable that rom sites actually impact the sales of NES minis or whateverthefuck to any measurable extent).

Can I imagine a scenario where I would be willing to pay to play NES games in this day and age? Well...sort of, in a very pie-in-the-sky way: if the company were to release its entire library as a reasonably-priced bundle, including all revisions and known prototypes, in unrestricted, unmodified, copy-protection-free rom format; and if purchasing this included free rights to modify said roms and redistribute those modifications freely...well, okay, fair enough, that would demonstrate an extremely tangible commitment to doing the right thing, and as such, it would be something that I would consider (though come to think of it, maybe it would be easier for us just to each send them ten dollars, and in return they stop bugging us--that's a price I'd be willing to pay). But the fact that this is never, ever going to happen, both because they wouldn't be legally able to do it even if they wanted to due to byzantine rights issues, and because they'd prefer to endlessly resell a small handful of games in restrictive formats...well, this just emphasizes the whole problem, dunnit?

I have spent a fair amount of cash on Nintendo products over the years, and will doubtless spend more. I love my Switch. But if they think anyone should respect their right after all these years to make people pay money to play Super Mario Bros, they can get the heck outta here with that silly bullshit.

4 Comments:

Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

I honestly have no clue how royalties work in the video game world.

I recall many games (some very good, best sellers etc) that after two-three years where already a free extra on CD that came with some video game magazine, so one would asume that the creators don't get much of $ from it anymore. As I mention once here back in the 90's there where plenty of companies that only made 2-3 games (plus some smaller related projects) and then shut down... Obviously not the case in the name of Nitendo.

But I think you make some good points. It's not like if companies would release super old games today they would make any money out of it anyway. I did admire Al Lowe who is still trying to do new things with his Laisure Suit Larry series and remade the first game with new-fresh graphics, but that felt like one-time experiment for nostalgia sake (like Duck Tales game remake) I recall how Al Lowe complani that some re-release Larry collection - which had all Larry games on one CD - didn't included the first version of the very first game and said it's a shame as games from that time take "less then cell phone photo" so it would be easy to .

1:23 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

P.S.
I recetly played "Super Marioland - six golden coins" on-line... BOY, THAT TAKES ME BACK ^_^

1:23 AM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

Ever played Super Mario Land 2 DX? It's a really impressive ROM hack that colorizes the whole thing and lets you play as Luigi with different physics. AND IT WOULD NEVER HAVE EXISTED WITHOUT EMULATION! TAKE THAT, DOUBTERS!

1:34 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

No, but after you mention it I watched clips on you tubue and looks realy nice. My favorite boss was always the three pigs - it was just most fun to beat ^_^

4:08 AM  

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