Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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Culture Shock

COMMENTARY

Nintendo puts video game history at risk

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    Tetris, an addictive brain-teasing video game, is shown as played on the Nintendo Entertainment System in New York.

    AP

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    Nintendo recently brought backs its popular NES Classic,w hich features 30 classic titles.

  • Kirk-baird-mug-1

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Wall Street is a video game in which players save suicidal stock brokers leaping out of a downtown office building by catching them in a trampoline and then bouncing them like soccer balls into an ambulance for extra points.

Even for the anything-goes era of video games’ golden age, this obscure 1982 arcade release is implausible and improbable, the prototypical urban legend posted on message boards that cannot be definitively proven but a handful swears is true.

Kirk-baird-mug-1

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But Wall Street does exist. In fact, anyone can play the game and thousands of others through emulators such as MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), which are free-to-use programs that replicate the hardware of classic and newer arcade games, home consoles, and computers including the Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, Commodore 64, and Sony PlayStation.

Emulators have given life to long-dead video games and antiquated technologies, and are gaining in popularity, especially as the programs themselves grow more powerful and easier to use.

And now Nintendo appears willing to kill emulators and, by extension, the global gaming community that exists because of them.

Emulators require files called ROMs (Read Only Memory), which is a game or other software data removed from the hardware and compressed into an archival format like ZIP, much like a song from a CD is converted into an MP3.

Last month, Nintendo filed federal lawsuits against a pair of websites that provided ROMs, including for Nintendo systems. In its suit Nintendo claimed Loveretro.com and Loveroms.com were “notorious online hubs for pirated video games,” and both sites have subsequently shut down.

Whether it was Nintendo’s goal or not, there has been chilling effect in the retro gaming/emulation community.

Last week, the creator of EmuParadise, a popular online destination for classic gamers since 2000, announced his site was no longer offering ROM downloads. EmuParadise has been dealing with similar threats by game makers since its launch, but now finds that “it’s not worth it for us to risk potentially disastrous consequences.”

“We run EmuParadise for the love of retro games and for you to be able to revisit those good times. Unfortunately, it’s not possible right now to do so in a way that makes everyone happy and keeps us out of trouble.”

The announcement never mentions Nintendo’s recent actions, but it didn’t need to.

Everyone in the community knows what’s happening, and many are concerned about where this may go.

To be clear, the concern over Nintendo’s actions isn’t about emulators for gaming systems by Nintendo and other companies that are still on the market and have an active game library.

Nintendo maintains that “emulators created to play illegally copied Nintendo software represents the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers. As is the case with any business or industry, when its products become available for free, the revenue stream supporting that industry is threatened. Such emulators have the potential to significantly damage a worldwide entertainment software industry which generates over $15 billion annually, and tens of thousands of jobs.”

Nintendo’s statement has been on the company’s website since at least 2003. (nintendo.com/corp/legal.jsp). So why has it taken them 15 years to be so aggressive?

Well, the company’s NES Classic Edition, a miniaturized NES as a plug-and-play console with 30 classic titles, was the top-selling console in June after its return to the marketplace. And last month the company made its ultra rare 1981 arcade game, Sky Skipper, available for purchase for Nintendo Switch users via its estore. It’s worth noting that Nintendo also worked with a trio of gaming preservationists last year in their quest to create an authentic replica of the Sky Skipper arcade machine, including the art work and the game itself.

Nintendo at least acknowledges the importance of its past, which is what emulators are about for most of us.

The issue is really about the games (ROMs) themselves.

ROMs have been free to download for decades and most everyone knows not to pay for them. Those sites and individuals who do try and profit from them are shunned by the community and, frankly, deserve to be shut down by legal means.

But as Nintendo notes, copyright laws are quite clear that video games cannot be made publicly available from 75 years after their release, so, no, ROMs are not legal to possess much less to distribute.

But what Nintendo and the law fail to note is that video games are not like other copyrighted materials, such as books with long shelf lives that can be purchased at bookstores or online, or checked out at the local library. Video games and software in general are alive until their technology dies.

Also, unlike the music and film industry, the gaming industry hasn’t shown much of a willingness to preserve its history, short of classic gaming collections made available for modern systems as with the Atari Flashback Classics for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

But even those collections are missing most of a system’s titles, often because of copyright issues.

The aforementioned Atari Flashback collections, for example, are culled mostly from Atari’s own 2600 releases, but do not include licensed titles such as the notorious classics Pac-Man and E.T., or Donkey Kong. And the NES Classic Edition’s 30 games are about 4 percent of the console’s more than 700 official titles.

That’s not much of legacy preservation. Imagine future generations having access to only 4 percent of the Beatles catalog, or the collected works of William Shakespeare.

Why should it be any different for Atari, Intellivision, ColecoVision, and even Nintendo?

The copyright issue of video games needs to be addressed. Century Electronics owned the rights to Wall Street, but since the company no longer exists who receives any royalties for the game? Who would, for example, negotiate Wall Street’s release on a Classic Arcade Game collection?

That’s where the gaming industry could and should come together, and work WITH those involved in the emulation and classic gaming community to preserve the past and prevent pirating.

The popularity of the NES Classic Edition is proof that the motive of profit and legacy are not in conflict but are mutually beneficial.

Thanks to MAME, we can play Wall Street. And thanks to MAME, we know why most gamers didn’t.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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