I’ve had the idea for writing this article for a long time. I think the thing that got me going on this was a certain podcaster’s seemingly hardline stance against sellers making reproduction carts (much less making money off of them).
Reproduction creations have been and remain illegal if not licensed or sanctioned by the original copyright (for content) or trademark holders. I’m not going to deny that. I might question those laws in some regards (I question any laws that came from the DMCA – given the age of the law), but for the most part I totally agree that companies should make (at least for a few decades) profit on their creations. It’s only fair and necessary for a healthy market to reward content creators. And I’m not going to deny that piracy has actually negatively affected the game market – say with the Sega Dreamcast and with various computer gaming companies. And if you are playing a game that you could pay the content creator for and choose not to (unless maybe you’re checking it out before buying), we’re probably not going to be good friends. But my article here is to pick up the argument supporting repros existing (I could obviously argue both sides somewhat effectively). I’m choosing here to list reasons why the community benefits from reproduction (cartridges and discs) – and for why we need them to keep the community healthy.
Reason 1: Preservation
Gaming companies don’t have the best track record of maintaining their creations from an archival perspective. Once a game is released, the company likely doesn’t keep producing the physical media. They’re typically off and on to better things.
Take Dragon’s Lair – a laserdisc game by Cinematronics from 1983. This was historically a huge breakthrough from the stance of video playback in arcade cabs. But the laserdiscs don’t hold up well over time and are subject to bit-rot (and the drives also fail).
Many owners of Dragon’s Lair cabs now use hardware with the game stored on solid state memory. This is effectively taking broken arcade cabs and making them work again. The same holds true of the Capcom System 2 phoenix boards – which essentially died once the on-board batteries ran out – a short-sighted scheme used as copy-protection. Those boards are having to be rewired and re-written to be usable again (essentially becoming reproductions using original hardware).
There are also cases where a game wasn’t finished or made fully commercial and was scrapped due to costs or other reasons. Many “repros” involve either taking the prototype and making it public in cart form or having tweaked it to be playable beforehand. This is a form of preservation. Sure the rom image could just be dumped and then used with emulators and flash carts, but making and selling a physical copy is an option also.
Yes many of these games are terrible (“Steven Seagal is The Final Option” for example), but they’re also interesting.
And I don’t think that media should remain locked up behind glass in museum – especially gaming media. It’s meant to be played. Games are works of art but are created to be experienced. These days even museums use reproductions en lieu of the real item for cases where (even careful) attendees will harm the items over years of use.
Reason 2: Tangible Availability
There simply aren’t enough original actual physical copies of rare games to go to every interested gamer/collector.
Nevermind the normal scarcity driving high prices; there are games where only a few copies are known to exist period (Air Raid for Atari 2600 for example).
I believe in inviting more people to appreciate and enjoy retro gaming. And part of this is to make the collecting available to those people. Finding copies of games at flea markets and pawn shops is what got me into this hobby. Now, with NES cart prices going through the roof (and being highly desirable), it’s harder to get newcomers involved in the hobby (especially when the prices drive up scarcity rather than the other way around). Pawn shops now rarely have retro games (they’re unreliable technology in their eyes and cost too much to maintain or stock). Flea markets rarely have good stock now either (as resellers and game hunters have soaked up whatever was there in the first place).
Video game stores also have trouble keeping in popular titles – with games like Contra selling out almost immediately. It’s not that the game is rare. It’s just that the supply can’t keep up with demand.
When someone only plays a game digitally (like through a virtual console) they rarely have any historical or personal attachment to the game. It’s just a file on a file system.
When there’s a cartridge and a case, the game becomes more of an experience to them. This is true even when the game is a reproduction. Some companies even take this to the next level and go all out to create reproductions (such as Rose Colored Gaming and the now-defunct Timewalk Games).
(This is a physical cartridge of a SNES Zelda rom-hack; technically not a reproduction. But I wanted to display the quality of work being done on these limited edition reproduction carts.)
Timewalk games even did a Ducktales NES reproduction (as a gold cartridge) before they folded up. This project was done for Capcom as part of a marketing promotion (as a limited press kit).
These press kits (reproductions) are now quite the collectible themselves and have fetched over $1000 on ebay recently.
Reason 3: Price
Cost is indeed a barrier to most newcomers into the retro-gaming scene.
Frankly, price scares away newcomers (and rightfully so). Collecting old games used to be an every-man’s hobby where you could grab a console and a bunch of games for $10 at a thrift store or yard sale. Those days are long since past it seems.
Now I’ll be the first to agree that everyone can access any old game through emulation (and that’s usually the beginnings of those interested in the hobby). That’s very true and emulation is an asset to the community in that regard (especially regarding MAME). But not everyone can access games using original hardware (or hardware using FPGA that is true to the original). And there’s still a noticeable difference with playing on the original system versus playing through emulation.
And this is where it becomes really tempting for someone to grab a cartridge (say M.U.S.H.A. on aliexpress for $4) instead of $400 or more on ebay. It even becomes tempting for someone that actually owns M.U.S.H.A. to grab and use this cart instead of their own if it truly behaves the same in the console (to reduce wear and tear on the authentic cartridge). This is the same reason collectors often use flash cartridges – for convenience (not having to go find and carry around a cart) and to protect the games they want to preserve.
But reproductions (even the really shoddy Chinese ones) are more fun to view, handle, and collect than flash carts are. And, being mass-produced, if they’re chipped or destroyed, reproductions are expendable in a way that original carts are not (i.e. throwing into a duffel bag for a convention).
Simply put: if we’re talking about price, reproduction carts are usually the way to go. If I wanted to get a friend hooked up with M.U.S.H.A. on a Sega Genesis, I would need to spend roughly $50 for the console and $4 (free shipping) for the cart off of aliexpress.
(Bam! You’ve got a lean-mean-MUSHA-playing-machine for the cost of $54 or less)
That’s only $54 and now he has a platform to start collecting other games (real games) or to buy more reproduction carts from China. If he decides this retrogaming scene is not for him, he can simply sell the console and toss in the reproduction cart or toss it in the trash (say in the case of selling to a store).
Do reproduction sellers have any responsibilities?
Something that keeps coming up is regarding reproduction carts (fakes) flooding the market and leading to misleading purchases by unsuspecting enthusiasts.
First, is this calamity true?
Well certainly a new collector might not be aware of reproductions, but almost everyone is. And we all know what we’re buying when we buy them. If you see a listing (heck.. 5 of the same listing) for 5-piece lot of GBA Pokemon games on ebay for $15 (when the average price for a single game is $20+), you know something is up.
And I believe the oncoming death of the collector scene is also quite an exaggeration. Reproduction and pirate carts have existed all along – even in the early eighties.
Not to mention that most reproduction carts were and are made scaled down to a price. This means cheap labels or cheaply-molded cartridges. This isn’t one of those deals where the master forger creates a perfect replica of a Monet painting. In the case of Dreamcast games, the CD label will most likely be totally different (a cheap CD-R with a printed CD label stuck on it). For cartridges, the plastic will look cheap or be a different color (a lighter gray on NES for example). And the label will be someone’s cheap attempt in Photoshop rather than a copy of the original.
And I’d argue the “flood” has already happened with GBA Pokemon carts (it was taking place the entire time they were in production). Nearly all the carts I see out in the wild at flea markets are fake (even though the owners claim they’ve had them for years). And I’ve even seen fakes in stores (who should really know better). While the average buyer might be fooled, any discerning eye (especially that of a collector) can tell these apart quite easily. And the more expensive the game, the more scrutiny a store or buyer should place on them. If it’s a $100+ NES cartridge, the buyer (in this case the store before the customer) should examine the PCB inside and compare it to other cartridges or known databases of PCBs (i.e. http://bootgod.dyndns.org).
Next, how responsible are reproduction creators and what are seller’s responsibility when listing these items? Again, most reproduction cartridges are very simple to recognize (even the low price itself is a tip-off). I’m sorry, but I really don’t think the seller needs to do anything when listing these items (outside of describing them as reproductions) when selling them. And although it certainly wouldn’t hurt for the creator to put a “reproduction” on the label (tastefully), even that isn’t necessary.
(Fake cart on the left.. real cart on the right.. pretty simple).
Will there being so many fake M.U.S.H.A. carts out there drop the price of the actual carts? Why would it? If someone is a hardcore Genesis collector (which they’d have to be really to want this), they’d want to own the real thing. Really the only people that wouldn’t buy the real cart are those that wouldn’t have anyways. This cart has become too expensive to just be a gaming purchase.