In breaking with tradition, I’m posting an article a week right after my previous one rather than waiting two weeks. That’s because in my last article, I decided to talk about two issues: piracy and emulation. Also in breaking with tradition, today’s article is a direct reaction, or rather a stronger, more thought-out reasoning for the second half of a different article. While a lot of people were perfectly content with my first half about how piracy is generally something we should frown upon, I tacked on a bit about how emulation is something I’m not fully behind. So today, let’s continue that discussion. More on emulation!
To recap my argument from last time, I made some quick generalizations that I regret simplifying, and one example I’m about to utterly backpedal on. First, I laid out the quick reasons people use emulations as thus:
- The games are out of print and emulation is OK.
- The actual carts are too ludicrously expensive and therefore emulation is OK.
- By emulating games, we keep the retro tradition alive and well and therefore emulation is OK.
The argument I ultimately hung my hat on was sloppy and had to do with a trite anecdote about how games should be played on the system they were built for, with my example being that Mega Man 2 just feels better on an NES. Here, let’s try something:
“A game like Mega Man 2 doesn’t feel right when you’re not holding a NES controller in your hands, and even a port like Mega Man Anniversary Collection feels weird since the GameCube controller is not the NES controller. Call me a snob in this instance, but I want a game to be an experience and part of that experience comes with having to track down a cartridge and a system, sometimes clean one or both to get them to work, and then hooking them up to a TV built to play said game (in most cases I mean a CRT).”
There. That’s my previous, unaltered and poor argument. I’m striking it from further discussion because it was thoroughly debunked in comments. Pats on backs all around and let’s move forward.
So back to that list of three reasons I gave, I want to address those one by one once again, but this time I promise to do a slightly better job. Except we need to understand one very, very clear point here, and that’s that not every game is equal in this discussion. That’ll come up a bit more because it’s where the slippery slope enters the debate and no one is going to want to hear it (and will certainly resist agreeing with it).
Point the first is that emulation is generally OK in instances that the actual carts are out of print and therefore can’t be acquired from the publishers/developers anymore anyway. This is further reasoned that an emulated game is identical in value to a publisher than a game bought at a yard sale or from a collector or what have you. I can understand this line of reasoning, but I also don’t necessarily agree with the final conclusion that a game that’s currently out of print has no value to anyone other than to be given to you, free of charge.
There’s a hint of entitlement at play here, and that’s part of what doesn’t sit well with me throughout many responses to my (sloppy) first attempt at tackling the emulation issue. Games are still at their core entertainment, no matter how old they are, and therefore are never something we should take as a “right” or something we “deserve”.
Much of what I said about smaller game stores still stands and it’s why I’m vehemently against any future consoles that cut used games out of the equation. I don’t care if publishers are frustrated that they get no direct monetary compensation for a used game, but I’m extremely concerned that a mom & pops game store (even if there’s only one single mom & pops game store left) is getting cut out of the equation. The same holds true for emulation versus buying a used game. The publishers are never the only people involved in this. Game stores are a part of this and hopefully always will be. With the rise of emulation (and the easy digital distribution of many retro titles), the more popular chain game stores (GameStop) have reduced the number of older games they carry, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller independent stores cease to exist entirely. If you’re sick of supporting publishers and you hate GameStop, just buy from a smaller game store if you can.
That last part seems to get lost in the translation, so let me repeat it: If you have a good independent game store nearby, you should support it when you can. This doesn’t mean you’re forced to only buy from that sleazy game dealer down the street. This doesn’t mean you have to drive three states over to get to a good game store. This doesn’t mean you have to pay $300 for an NES cartridge when you see it. This means that when you have the option to support a positive local game store, why wouldn’t you?
Point the second is similar, but there’s more to it. I can certainly see the frustration with a game like Flintstones 3 being an outrageous price and that being unfair because everyone in the collecting world is selling it for an outrageous price. I was surprised that Flintstones 3 is the only game we apparently care about, but here’s my first issue with this: Flintstones 3 isn’t every game.
What I mean by this (and here comes the slippery slope argument!) is that deciding to emulate Flintstones 3 allows you to decide, “Hey, why not emulate this other game that I found at the torrent site?” From there it becomes very easy to justify emulating anything, not just the games with insanely high collector prices. I’m going to get comments from people anecdotally saying that they would never emulate everything, but I’ve only seen one kind of emulator in my life and that’s the kind that finds a torrent with every single game on a system, including poor-quality fan mods that should never have seen the light of day. You can tell me you’ll only ever emulate that one specific curious game that’s too expensive to play otherwise, and I honestly won’t believe you and won’t care because I’ve seen just as many cases not be you.
Moreover, Pat’s video about this topic (which I’m mentioning because comments last time pointed me in that direction) sort of has a final message that confused me with my takeaways being something like, 1. Ha ha! Emulate the game to spite the asshole sellers! and 2. But why do you even care? It’s just a game, and not a very noteworthy one at that (“noteworthy” here meaning “the world is no better and no worse for this game’s existence or lack thereof”). Yes, it sucks when sellers gouge people with obscene prices, but how many games can really be considered righteous endeavors to take back a holy relic from greedy businessmen? In the instance of Flintstones 3 (specifically The Flintstones: The Surprise at Dinosaur Peak), I can see the strong case for emulating or buying a cart reproduction. For a game like Earthbound, absolutely not.
Being mad at one game for being so expensive is not a justification for emulating every single time. The kid that beats you up at school? Sure, I can see you make a reasonable argument for socking that jerk back once or twice. But then deciding to sock everyone that annoys you because you justified socking that other kid? That doesn’t work for me, especially when we’re largely talking about games that absolutely everyone openly admits are bad games such as Action 52 (Pat even said so in his video). If it’s not a good game, why even play it? To get a taste of the bad game? There are videos for every game out there telling you why it’s bad. To get a sense of bad game design for research? You can find dozens of those in bargain bins on any system you could ever own. Because you just have to play it? Just admit you don’t like to pay for things already.
My last big argument here works its way into point the third, as well as an overarching misunderstanding. Emulation (and piracy, which I touched on last time) is less about a loss of monetary gain and more a loss of value to games as a culture. This requires a lot of explaining, so hold off with those furious comments until I’ve fully explained myself here.
What I mean by value is twofold. Half of this is the value we show to a game in a community, such as how we talk about a game like Power Stone or a system like the Sega Dreamcast in general. The Dreamcast has high value because we talk positively about it. As a result, the second half comes into play when companies see value to their older properties, some that, yes, either lapse or disappear for extremely long periods of time.
Let me bring Earthbound back into this because this is one of the hugest red flags people will raise from me when we talk emulation. “It’s out of print.” It has been out of print and we’ve struggled to get Nintendo to give it another shot, which they have now done with a re-release on the Virtual Console for $10. “The company isn’t ever going to re-release it.” Unless they eventually do. Now that it’s readily available for a very reasonable price, emulating it should be unthinkable, especially since fans have been doing everything possible to prove that the series has value to Nintendo from a business standpoint. “The game never appeared in my country.” Unless it eventually does, which by the way, Earthbound is now legally available for the first time in the UK for yet another reasonable price, so emulation should again be unthinkable.
No, I’m not naïve enough to think that every game will someday come back, get reborn, make an appearance, or somehow magically come out everywhere in the world 20 years after it first released in another language. But the problem is since we don’t know, we’re assuming these games have no value and no respect should be given. Services like the Virtual Console, XBLA, and PSN have surprised us again and again with re-releases of older games at extremely reasonable prices, some with features we’re all happy to see (like save-states for Virtual Console titles).
We can’t have any sort of power as a community if we’re still torn on this issue. Game companies are only just now starting to figure out how to listen to us, but they still haven’t figured out what we’re saying. When they look at us and consider bringing Mother 3 to us at long last, Earthbound on the Virtual Console is going to be the deciding factor, and if they see poor sales there and hear nothing but people saying that they’d rather emulate it because “Nintendo took too long to re-release it/Nintendo wasn’t going to do anything with it anyway/I’m not buying a Wii U just to play Earthbound”, then guess what they’ll decide about Mother 3? Yeah, that property loses all value.
All of this issue compounds further and further with games released in other territories. A lot of this is more an issue with region locking (which a number of us are raging against separately from the emulation debate), but this is where I do sympathize on a more personal level. So many reasons cluster together that can support the arguments for emulating or buying a cart reproduction for a game that was never released in your country, part of which comes down to the reasonable conclusion that “a specific game was never released in my territory, the company that made it is no longer around, the rights of the game are tied to multiple companies now, and ultimately I’ll never get that game in any way.” I could say in a snobby way, “tut tut, just purchase a console from that country and import the game,” but that’s being unreasonable from my stance as well.
As I’d mentioned from my piracy argument, I don’t know what situations every other country is dealing with, so I’m not about to tell someone from Brazil to just suck it up and either pay $4,000 or get lost, but I’m not about to sympathize with a guy from the UK who’s frustrated that he has to pay $100 to get Earthbound and an SNES. In many cases, I’m still going to point out that video games are a luxury and never guaranteed to you, no matter how exciting someone says a new game is. Value is different to everyone. I got bored playing The Last of Us, a high-end AAA title from this year. I blissfully sunk weeks into Abobo’s Big Adventure, a game that was released entirely free in multiple places across the Internet.
I risk running into a wall yet again by introducing another late argument, but I don’t really have a problem with cart reproductions, mostly for the simple fact that they still involve an intrinsic value at their core. You can’t download a cart reproduction. Someone usually has to acquire the necessary pieces to help you with said reproduction, and more often than not, if you’re getting a reproduction cartridge for a game that was never released in your part of the world and likely never will be, you’re probably being forced to play it with help from a fan-translated ROM, which puts it in the realm of user generated mods, which I’m totally OK with. Again, fans added value there. I was fascinated by Derek’s review of Sweet Home partly because of this introduction to reproduction cartridges in the first place.
(Note: Mother 3 can’t be lumped in with this debate. Nintendo hasn’t forgotten or abandoned the series, so that particular discussion is in an entirely different ballgame. For my general thoughts, you probably picked it up with how Nintendo is watching very closely to how fans react to the series in a way that’s financially viable to the company.)
With everything I’ve said, I’m not going to convince even half of you to agree. I realize that and I don’t expect you to agree with me for any number of very reasonable (and some very unreasonable) conclusions. Ultimately, every game is a case-by-case basis here. I don’t like hearing that someone emulated Super Metroid because there are quite a few ways to find that right now. I don’t have a problem hearing that someone found a reproduction cartridge of Terranigma at a local game store for the SNES and snagged it for $60. One shows value to the gaming community and the other doesn’t.
My final word here is that emulation makes me uncomfortable because of how easily it is to abuse, but I will finish with a little story of a time I saw someone using emulation for selfish reasons. The manager at my local Game Crazy knew I was a hardcore fan of Nintendo, so after he had been given a PSP, he reveled in showing me how he was playing an emulated version of Super Mario Bros. on the system. “You’re meddling in powers beyond your control,” I told him. A week later I came back and he explained that his system was corrupted by his rampant emulation and, ultimately, he had lost all his data. I felt more validated in that moment than any other in my life.
Now comes the fun part. Yes, I’m ready to hear your comments on this discussion. I want to hear more stories of people from other countries, because I truly do not know what sort of situations people encounter in other countries. I want to hear why someone is OK with emulation in every instance, or why they aren’t. Support me, berate me, go on and hate me. It’s all good, because Earthbound is selling well on the Virtual Console, and that’s always a positive.