Nintendo and the Video Game Industry’s War on Emulation and Piracy

Notice: This a republication of an article I had originally written on 14th August 2018, for another website I used to run. This article has been reuploaded in its original version, without any new edits.

In the last few days the website EMUParadise, one of the most popular ROM hosting websites on the internet, and one which I have no shame in admitting of using its services on multiple occasions in the past, has announced that it will be removing all ROMs from its website, under fear of legal retribution. This follows the news which broke a few months ago about Nintendo, the Japanese gaming giant, filing a class-action lawsuit against several emulation websites.

Emulation is a grey area for many. Technically EMUParadise is breaking the law by hosting intellectual properties owned by other companies, so in legal terms companies such as Nintendo have every right to demand their games be removed. But I, and many others, find this recent announcement by EMUParadise incredibly disappointing.

I’m not a pirate, or at least I don’t consider myself to be. Sure, some would argue that by illegally downloading ROMs I am indeed a pirate. If that’s how you view me then so be it, I won’t change your mind no matter what I write here. But I’ve been collecting video games for a long time, and I own thousands of games. Emulation isn’t an issue of piracy for me. I don’t emulate games to avoid spending money on the product I love, but regardless of how I use emulation, I know there are many out there who take a zero-tolerance approach to the subject. But for me, I view emulation as an essential part of video game preservation.

If we can’t agree on the legitimacy of emulation then I think we can all agree that the video game industry is terrible at archiving and preserving its history. For the most part, companies seemingly don’t care about keeping their old games alive. Most companies do re-release their back catalogue to earn some extra revenue, that’s commonplace in the industry and always has been. But, for most of these companies, the only games they re-release and keep in the public’s conscience are their most popular titles. Take Nintendo, as an example. They have continually re-released the same selection of their “classics” over and over again because they know which of their classic games sell. But what about their other games? What about the older titles the company has simply forgotten about or cast aside?

Take EarthBound, as an example. Sure, Nintendo did eventually re-release the SNES classic on the Wii U in 2013, after years of fan lobbying. For fans of the series, it was the end of a long battle for Nintendo to recognise their love for the game. Modern Nintendo fans can now legally download EarthBound, but what options did gamers have before? If you wanted to play EarthBound pre-2013 there were two choices. You could either buy one of the very expensive, original SNES carts or you could install an emulator to your computer and download the ROM. One was a legitimate way of playing the game, the other wasn’t. But, whichever way you played the game, Nintendo made absolutely nothing from you. So if you played EarthBound pre-2013 what was the harm exactly in using emulation?

Then, of course, you have games which remain exclusive to specific regions. As a fan of JRPGs, I own tons of awesome JRPGs for my Super Nintendo and PC Engine which never left Japan. Luckily, over the years, fans have worked tirelessly translating many of these games. So, naturally, I’ve played some of these games via emulation. I already own legitimate copies, so I feel I’m not doing or haven’t done anything wrong by playing English-translated ROMs of these games. It’s not like I have another option to play these games, other than learning Japanese (I do have a very rudimentary understanding of Japanese, admittedly), but why the hell should I have to learn Japanese to play these games if there are some amazing people out there translating these games and doing work the developers didn’t do themselves. One of my favourite RPG developers is Nihon Falcom, a company with a rich history but, unfortunately, because of their small size, the company hasn’t really had the resources to release their games outside Japan without the help of other publishers. Because of this very few of the games the studio has developed have ever left Japan, meaning RPG fans in the west may find emulation is the only option they have to play these games. I don’t think you can begrudge someone using emulation for that reason, can you?

And that’s the big fear I have about these ROM sites being taken down, or staying up but having their ROMs removed. There are plenty of games I would never have had the opportunity to play was it not for emulation, and there are countless video games that would have been completely lost to time if it wasn’t for the hard work of collectors and fans in preserving these games. One of my all-time favourite beat ’em ups is games Capcom’s amazing 1993 title Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Honestly, the game is brilliant, but it was never ported to consoles. It remains to this day an arcade exclusive. Because of licensing issues, the chances are we will never see it ever released again, so the only way to play Cadillacs and Dinosaurs today is to either buy the original arcade machine/arcade board or play it via emulation. I did the latter because I can’t justify buying an entire arcade machine at this point in time. Now, imagine if that second option didn’t exist. Cadillacs would, for all intense and purpose, have been a lost game. And for somebody such as myself, who adores video games, and who thinks video game preservation is an incredibly important thing, that prospect is sad.

I will admit that as a collector I am a purist at heart. I would always rather play games in a legitimate way, and I always want to play the games on their original hardware in their original form. But I can’t always do that, and emulation is my friend when I can’t. I use emulation out of necessity. We are constantly told by companies that piracy harms legitimate customers and sales, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve known many people over the years who pirate products, and none of those people will be willing to buy products legitimately. By pirating the games they play they haven’t lost the company a sale, because they wouldn’t play the games at all if they had to buy them. This is why no matter what companies do piracy remains because pirates don’t care about the legality of what they are doing. The war on piracy is like the war on drugs – the harder you fight against it the worse the problem becomes. It’s a war which cannot be won.

I’m not saying companies should just throw their arms up in the air, admit defeat and let their intellectual properties be exploited by everyone, but the current state of things isn’t changing anything. The harder they fight against pirates the harder the pirates will fight back. Instead, companies should work to try and offer a service which is superior to what piracy offers. Let’s use Steam as an example. I’m not particularly a fan of Steam, despite being a user since 2004, but when Steam started growing in popularity the level of piracy in PC gaming decreased. Piracy is still rampant in PC gaming, of course, but by offering a solid service with great sales Steam has successfully reduced piracy on the platform. And the success of Steam ultimately inspired other such services like Good Old Games and Humble Bundle.

Other companies need to tackle piracy in this manner, and I think the best way to do so would be to look at the music and film industries for inspiration. Piracy in film, television and music has dropped substantially since the introduction of services like Netflix and Spotify. Streaming services which are cheap to subscribe to, easy to use and offer lots of content for your money. Where the hell is the gaming industry’s equivalent? Could you imagine how successful a gaming Netflix would be? It’ll certainly be more value for money than paying Nintendo’s ridiculous prices to download 30-year-old NES games. But so far this hasn’t come to fruition. We do have similar services, such as the Xbox Game Pass, but until the concept is adopted on a large scale with the support of many publishers and manufacturers things aren’t going to change.

So, while I understand Nintendo and other companies have a legal right to “protect” their properties, as a gamer I can’t help but feel the announcement from EMUParadise is a bad thing. What do you guys think? Do you agree with me, or do you think I’m being unreasonable?

About the Author: James

James is the founder of The Video Game Age and a lifelong video game fanatic. His love of video games was passed on to him from his father, who first introduced him to the joys of electronic entertainment aged just three years old. The first game he ever played was Body Blows by Team 17 for the Commodore Amiga.

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