Without piracy, the history of video games is lost

1. Hobby Consolas Nº 21 2. Sega Canal Pirata 3. Periódico Holandés Leidsch Dagblad, 16 Septiembre de 1994

According to a groundbreaking study by the Video Game History foundation, 87% of classic games remain unavailable for purchase. This figure, which could be considered optimistic, is only one of the many obstacles preventing us from enjoying the history of the medium. Technical issues, a lack of translations and even censorship still hold us back. Worst of all, the only way out is beyond the law. Without piracy, the history of video games is lost.

WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY

No matter how dire, a two-digit number fails to illustrate all that’s missing. Think of Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. It defined, not just dungeon crawlers, but the entire genre of role playing games. However, it’s not sold anywhere. Neither is the original Flight Simulator, nor Simcity, much less The Sims. The company behind Angry Birds went as far as to make it unavailable on purpose, lest it take away sales from their other titles.

The Nintendo DS remains the second best selling console of all time. But what’s left of it? Its unique control scheme and portable status cannot be easily translated to newer platforms. As we near its 20th anniversary, its library is gone. The popular Nintendogs, the unique Trauma Center and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, one of my all-time favourites, remains exclusive to it.

Less popular platforms fare even worse. The Commodore Amiga, one of the most significant computers of its time, has been wiped out. To my knowledge, not a single store offers its games. I can’t find much for the ZX Spectrum or the Commodore 64, either, and the Sega Saturn seems to be forgotten about by its copyright holders. Nothing for the Virtual Boy has ever been released, shrouding Gunpei Yokoi’s Nintendo depature in myth.

While the filmographies of Buñuel and Hitchcock are only a few clicks away, the same cannot be said of game designers. Let’s use Shinji Mikami as our example. How many of his games are for sale? I count four, all Resident Evil games except for Vanquish. Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Goof Troop are unlikely to receive an official release. Dino Crisis sold over 2,4 million copies, which doesn’t seem to be enough for the Playstation store. P.NO3 is gone and so is God Hand, despite being much beloved.


As a last recourse, we might go back to the original hardware. But access here is also limited. Much of our history only exists in digital releases or in expensive arcade cabinets. Even standard titles have grown in price. Supply is limited and technical knowledge is required. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to buy our own projector and store two kilometres of celluloid in order to watch Citizen Kane, why would it be any different for games?

Physical media won’t last forever. Floppy disks, magnetic tapes and diskettes may have lost their data. Disc rot and scratches are a growing concern and even electronic components such as capacitors and laser heads are well beyond their expected use. However, no publisher provides replacements. Worse of all, spares remain protected by either patents or copyright law, preventing any legal alternatives.

LICENSING & PRICE

Still, even if companies were interested in preserving their work they might find themselves unable to do so. Elements such as names, music or actor’s likeness are protected by copyright. And if their owners refuse to sell those rights, or put too high of a price, then those games won’t be published.

A few examples of this are OutRun 2 SP (Ferrari), Daytona USA (Racing circuit), Battlestar Galactica (TV Show) and Chaos in the Old World (Warhammer). Dune, one of the best games ever made, went unavailable for 30 years. I had to make my own copy, with cardboard and glue, just to play it. Even personal issues can be a problem. According to the defunct French magazine Jeux sur un Plateau, Full Metal Planeté hasn’t been reprinted due to “irreconcilable differences” between its designers.

If you have ever wondered why Crazy Taxi, Tony Hawk Pro Skater or Quake are sold without their original soundtrack, this is the answer. Even knowing who owns the rights can be a problem. No One Lives Forever is owned by either Activision, Warner Bros or 20th Century Fox, which is now a Disney subsidiary. Which one is anyone’s guess because they have all refused to check if it’s theirs. Most recently, Specs Ops: The Line was pulled out of sale due to licensing issues.

Gaming hasn’t always been on the best side of the law, either. Bootlegs and hacks are also part of its history. Ms Pac-Man was not an official Namco product but a sequel of its American distributor. Some of the innovations of fighting games, like super moves and turbo gameplay, can be traced back to Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition, a Taiwanese bootleg. In some countries, hacks, clones and variants were more popular than the official products could ever hope to be.

Musical plagiarism, in particular, was extremely common. Donkey Kong opens with the theme of Dragnet, the main theme of Metal Gear Solid was copied from a Russian composer and Streets of Rage is a mix-tape of contemporary club music. Back then, few noticed, or cared. But with commercial success comes increased scrutiny. Publishers are no longer as willing to take risks, much less over their older titles.

VERSIONS

Few would accept the 1998 film Psycho, shot in colour and with a different cast, to be the same thing as Hitchcock’s classic. Yet, in video games, that approach is the standard. Games are considered to be available if a variant is “good enough”, regardless of their historical or artistic importance. Most notably, we often lack access to the source, as it was created by the original artists.

One of the most egregious examples might be Warcraft III. Available for years, it got forcefully replaced by its Reforged Edition. Its art style got butchered, dialogues were replaced and entire animations went missing. The ending of Portal was also changed to accommodate its sequel, replacing a successful escape with one that ends in failure. Radios now litter every room, too, ruining the atmosphere.

These kinds of changes are common in Japanese classics, often as the result of censorship. In The Legend of Zelda, Link carried a Bible and Christian cross in his shield. Yet, we’ll only get a “Book of Magic” at retail. Earthbound, Super Mario World and other titles we hold as the zenith of our medium are similarly affected. Even the plot of Gunstar Heroes and the difficulty of Castlevania III are different between countries.

Retail releases may also be lacking in technical quality. Controls are rarely as responsive as the original. Neither is sound; the “harsh metallic beats” the Sega Mega Drive is known for are the result of emulation. Most shops don’t bother to include the original manual, to the confusion of newer players. And, of course, since older games were not meant to be displayed in modern screens, the resulting picture may be inaccurate.

LANGUAGES

As far as access is concerned, few versions are as important as those in foreign languages. Without them, availability is massively reduced for anyone who does not speak English or Japanese. Even then, we may still find ourselves unable to enjoy games produced elsewhere in the world. The industry has a remarkably poor track record as far as languages are concerned, and game preservation is no exception.

It’s known that the original Monkey Island can be played through its remake. What is less known, however, is that this feature is only available in English! The same happens with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. English speakers can download the original manual, which is beautifully illustrated. Everyone else, though, gets a six page PDF, which is almost blank, barely showcases the controls and skips the story entirely.

Translations may also be incomplete. Portal‘s dialogue was indeed translated into other languages. However, the text on the walls wasn’t, and neither was the ending song. Hence, the widely praised “environmental storytelling”, as well as the final plot twist are diminished. Other translations are similarly lacking, suffering from literal phrasing, missing cultural elements or even rewritten scripts.

We can even find games being sold in English but not in their original languages. This is the case of Commandos 2, which is not available in Spanish. Similarly, The Settlers and the Anno series were made in Austria, but can’t be found in German. Often, we are given a devil’s choice. We either play in a foreign language or run games at the wrong speed. Publishers rarely adjusted their games for European televisions standards, causing them to run 16,6% slower than intended.

THE TIME FOR PRESERVATION IS NOW

Historically, the industry has been hostile to preservation efforts. Most notably, it lobbied to keep libraries from archiving and loaning out games. In the same manner, it thwarted efforts to digitize material and share it for research purposes. It has even opposed the right to repair your own video game hardware. This stance, coupled with its own disinterest, has forced preservationists to work without full legal permission.

Preservation includes a large amount of copyrighted material. Gaming Alexandria, for example, stores covers, development notes, magazines, promotional material and even prototypes. Shmuplations translates interviews, a vital historical source. Naturally, games themselves are copyrighted. Making our own copy is not legal in all jurisdictions, particularly if security features must be broken in the process. Nintendo just sued in court over this issue.

While emulation isn’t piracy, it often requires it. In order to run Playstation games, for example, one needs the BIOS, a program protected by copyright. Technical data and encryption mechanisms may also be patented. Source codes are an invaluable asset, but also industrial secrets. Taking them without approval, even from the trash, is a crime punished by prison.

Some draw the line at providing this material to the public. But games cannot be valued, enjoyed or learned from without playing them. Preservation cannot be an abstract goal, it must provide real, quantifiable access to society. Otherwise, what’s the point? After all, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. By the time it’s over, we’ll all be dead.

Super Mario Bros. design documents via Gaming Alexandria

We can’t love what we don’t know. Retrogaming would not exist without the access provided by piracy. If I can say that Dune is amongst the best games I’ve ever played, I can only do so because I got access to a copy. And the fact that others did and also loved it must have played a part in bringing it back. No copyright law will ever manage to cover all that keeps games alive.

Competitive Pokémon is played, not on Nintendo consoles, but on simulators such as Pokémon Showdown. Android: Netrunner might be a masterpiece, but Fantasy Flight stopped publishing it. Instead, it’s supported by Null Signal Games, a group of hobbyists. Projects such as Fightcade give online capabilities to titles that never had them. Because, without the ability to play with others, the code might be preserved but the game would be lost.

Publishers could reduce the need for such things. They could sell ROMs, sanction mods or work together with libraries. If the game industry took a more active role in preservation, piracy wouldn’t be as necessary. Sadly, that’s not the case. In the end, we must resort to piracy. For games, for history, for ourselves. Make what you will of it.

2 comments

  1. Hi Erik! Its MI Dogy!
    A part of me agrees with you, but it’s like I can’t fully embrace it, especially when I see NSO making attempts to bring games back, and I just had tech issues with console emulation like with Playstation (I managed to play SRW Alpha Gaiden) However, –it bothers me that it’s nostalgic favorites or notable titles, such as MArio Land, Golden Sun, Jet Force, DK, Ninja Gaiden, Streets of Rage 2, Strider, Ninja Warriors, etc. — There’s also the Arcade Archives (even though its weird to play Galaga for 6 bucks and you can play for 50 cents if you can find an arcade) with a bunch of SNK games, CAPCOM beat-ups series, etc. I did play MOTHER3 on Emu and I’m glad to see the rest of the series. You can play FFT Advance and Nobunaga’s Ambition online. Probably Pitfall?
    One thing that surprised me is that my little niece (she might’ve been 11 y.o at the time) told me that she played Oregon Trail at school. The old school Mac-PC OT. That’s a start!

    1. Hello MI Dogy!

      Nah, I feel you. In the end, it’s not like we want to do it but because we are forced to. Ideally, we would have the same access as with older films or novels.

      It’s a lot of fun to read your little niece is playing The Oregon Trail! And that she played it at school, no less!

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