Have you shelled out for the NES Mini yet? Are you waiting for a Black Friday deal? Or are you on the fence about spending $60 (USD) for 30 games and two retro controllers with two-foot cords?
The NES Mini offers 30 classic games, two classic controllers, some save slots, and zero memory for expanding its library beyond those 30 games. It is a delightful piece of fan service. At the same time, it represents a tiny portion of what made the NES great.
The NES Mini and Emulation
The NES Mini is, in part, Nintendo’s response to the emulation phenomenon, the illicit practice of playing NES games on computers and other devices.
How does Nintendo feel about emulation? According to its American and UK sites, Nintendo is not a fan. “The introduction of emulators created to play illegally copied Nintendo software represents the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers.” Incidentally, the law agrees. NES emulation is tantamount to piracy, and piracy is illegal.
So, that settles it, right? Sure, but a little context could help to explain emulation’s popularity.
The NES was officially discontinued in 1995. Ever since, indie devs and amateur coders have been testing the limits of cross-platform emulation of old-school NES games. Interest in retro gaming led to a thriving underworld of ROMs and emulators, a phenomenon built on DIY-innovation and, if we’re being honest, some occasional unsanctioned file-sharing.
For a rebel subset of intrepid DIY indie devs whose emulators have helped to maintain interest in the NES through the years, each new gaming technology presents a new challenge. Just this year, Yahoo Tech News reported on the N3S, an NES emulator (currently in alpha) that makes use of Microsoft’s HoloLens, converting 2D 8-bit graphics into an augmented reality experience. How this innovation works is incredible, I think. It would be nice if Nintendo’s legal team could see it the same way.
Owning and Sharing Unauthorized ROMs: Not A Good Idea
Nintendo has a hardline official stance on what it considers to be software piracy. The company considers it software piracy to own unauthorized ROMs of its games, regardless of the game’s original release date or present availability.
Looking past the panic-flavored legalese and sidestepping emulation altogether, I buy into Nintendo’s argument against software piracy — for the most part. Modern capitalism ties up paying for goods, services, and properties (physical, intellectual, and otherwise) in the language of ethics. Buying new games is only “right,” you know. I am on board with all of that. That said, copyrights on books expire and they become public domain. Old games should become public domain, too.
Nintendo Seal Sets Precedent for DRM and the Anti-Piracy Panic
As reported by The Motley Fool in 2014, anti-piracy efforts (proprietary software designs, proprietary hardware designs, avoidance of online multiplayer functionality) have been at the forefront of Nintendo’s mind for some time now. I would add one more item to the list, The Nintendo Seal of Quality.
The Nintendo Seal of Quality was attached to official titles and third-party games which had been given permission by Nintendo’s control freakish higher-ups to develop for the NES. As reported by MTV in 2008, Sid Meier (Civilization, Sid Meier’s Pirates!) points to the Nintendo Seal of Quality as one of three major moments in gaming history, the other two being Maxis’s Sim City and IBM’s invention of the PC.
By emphasizing the difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” software, Nintendo established a precedent for contemporary, draconian End User Agreements, absurd anti-software modding clauses, and invasive Digital Rights Management software.
The Apogee Model and Nintendo’s Current Mobile Model
I would argue that the fourth major moment in gaming history is the rise of shareware games. As Nintendo sought to stifle third-party innovation with the Nintendo Seal of Quality, PC gaming companies such as Apogee (now 3D Realms) found success by following a business model that relied on file-sharing, word of mouth, and modding. It was called shareware.
Shareware is software that has been explicitly licensed to be copied and shared among users. A game would be cut into episodes, with the first episode being shareware and the rest of the episodes being available for purchase. If you wanted the next episode, you could send a check or money order to the company. The episodic shareware model came to be known as the Apogee Model.
The Apogee Model’s influence is still felt. Telltale Games’ current episodic style owes a debt to the Apogee Model. With built-in DRM functions and in-app purchases which expand free-to-play gameplay, contemporary “freemium” games, such as Nintendo’s own Pokémon Go, are the logical next step from the Apogee Model.
Software Modding: DIY Innovation or Criminal Activity?
There is one big difference between the Apogee Model and the Nintendo-approved “freemium” model that dominates contemporary mobile gaming. With shareware, the full versions of games were sold through the mail, not online. Thus, shareware games featured no DRM-related constraints, making modding them extra easy.
Id Software’s world-changing titles Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) were released as shareware using the Apogee Model. Is it any surprise that the most modded game of the 1990s, Doom, was a shareware title on PC?
Who could forget the notorious Barney the Dinosaur mod? Ah, those were the days…
In contrast, Nintendo’s authoritarian take on software modding reflects its console roots. Per Le Miiverse’s Wikia, Nintendo considers it “criminal activity,” punishable by a permanent ban, merely to discuss the Project M mod for Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the social networking site Miiverse.
Imagine if Bethesda Softworks felt the same way about Skyrim mods. It would be a world without Macho Man Randy Savage dragons. And a world without Macho Man Randy Savage dragons is no world at all.
Raspberry Pi: The DIY Alternative
A Google search turns up a number of options for NEStalgics who are too frugal or too “principled” to invest in an NES Mini. The most popular option is, by far, to convert a $30 (USD) Raspberry Pi computer into a retro console.
Making one probably requires the means, and willingness, to skirt some pretty serious copyright laws and download the NES ROM library (700+ games, instead of the arbitrarily selected 30 you would get with the NES Mini) via some sort of monsoon-like, torrential rain of data from multiple cloud sources simultaneously.
Fear (of DIY Innovation) Is The Mind Killer
I quarrel with Nintendo’s sanctimonious blanket-statement that NES emulation “discourages innovation and new game development.” While more true than false (unsanctioned file-sharing may negatively affect a company’s revenue, which in turn may negatively affect the company’s future decision-making, et cetera), it misrepresents the anarchic quality of artistic inspiration.
More importantly, it ignores the positive role that emulation has played in inspiring retro indie development.
Don’t steal games you could buy. That goes without saying. But would it stifle innovation if you were to download an otherwise unavailable game, such as one of the hundreds of NES games not currently offered on either Nintendo’s online store or the NES Mini, and use an emulator to play it?
Nintendo: “The current availability of a game in stores is irrelevant as to its copyright status… [The] copyrights of games are valid even if the games are not found on store shelves, and using, copying and/or distributing those games is a copyright infringement.”
Yes, it would. Don’t do that, either.