There’s something that’s been rolling around in my head for a while, and that’s the pain-in-the-ass it can be to access older games that you own (or once owned) that have gone obsolete. Whether it be an ancient PC game that you no longer have the CD key for or it’s a stack of old NES games that you can’t play because your system is long gone, it seems a shame to no longer be able to enjoy yourself the way you used to.
Digital rights management is a serious issue right now in the modern gaming community. I’ve talked about this with my displeasure over the fact that you can’t play Diablo 3 in offline mode, and a lot of companies have taken steps to manage the software piracy “epidemic” by instituting similar practices. Every once and a while you get flashes of humanity from these game companies, like the way Ubisoft finally decided to scale back their much-maligned almost crippling levels of DRM copy protection, but that’s not really the issue here.
Over the course of my life as a gamer – which started back in the 1980s with text-based adventure games for the computer like Zork, is that it’s almost impossible to get your enjoyment from these games after the life-cycle of the media is over without resorting to some form of piracy. Sure, I could go track down my old IBM PCjr if I really wanted to play my copy of King’s Quest II, but that relies upon a chunk of 28 year old hardware still working – to say nothing about whether or not those old 5.25″ floppy disks are still in good enough shape to actually still run. If you’re lucky, what you’re looking for has gone public domain or has been re-released as a free download that works with a modern PC, but that only goes for a small selection of classic computer games – if you’re looking for something relatively obscure, you could be out screwed unless you can raise obsolete hardware and software from the dead.
Not only that, but if you were into console gaming you’re almost totally out of luck. Yes, some of the older consoles are very robust pieces of hardware and can still function 10, 15, 20 years after they were manufactured, but not always; you could spend a lot of time trawling local flea markets until you find an old NES or Sega Genesis for sale that works reliably, and if you’re looking for something more uncommon like a TurboGrafix 16 or a Sega Saturn, you kind of have to catch a break unless you enjoy gambling on eBay. And again that says nothing about the difficulty in finding working game cartridges, especially if you need one with a still-working battery backup (good luck prying an NES cartridge open without their proprietary tool).
There is of course an alternative to all this annoying bullshit when it comes to playing the games you grew up on, but you can’t do it without technically becoming a fucking criminal. Well, let’s be clear here: if you’re looking to get into game emulation, it’s not necessarily illegal to have a piece of software on your computer that can emulate an old game system like an NES or Sega Genesis. However, it is illegal to just download game ROMs from the internet, as it’s considered software piracy – despite the fact that the lion’s share of these games are no longer available from their original retailers or carried in any store.
It doesn’t even matter if you once purchased an actual physical copy of the game. Under Fair Use copyright laws, you’re legally permitted to make back-ups of any games you personally purchased, but that means that unless you have that magical software/hardware setup that allows you to actually flash ROMs from your console to your computer, you’ve basically got a big fat stack of useless plastic and circuit boards – there’s no way to get the data off the cartridges. You can go ahead and download a copy made from someone else’s ripped cartridge, but that’s their backup copy, not yours, and Fair Use doesn’t cover that; you’re a criminal.
This really rustles my jimmies. I can’t even imagine how much money I’ve spent over the years – first the money spent by my parents as a kid, and then my own personal money – only to be told that it doesn’t matter and I’m still a filthy software pirate. I know that functionally there’s no way I need to worry about getting sued by Nintendo or Sega or anyone else for download a copy of Milon’s Secret Castle because my original cartridge or game console is broken, but it makes me angry. For fuck’s sake, it’s just data – what does it matter where it comes from? It’s identical to the data stored on your cartridge in every conceivable way. In fact there’s no way of telling if you ripped the game yourself from your original copy or if you got it from another source, which makes software piracy of this type absolutely impossible to enforce effectively; if you purchased your copy through a legitimate retailer, that should be enough to satisfy Fair Use, but it simply doesn’t. It rankles me to be technically breaking the law.
What do you think? Should I be ashamed of myself for my actions? Should I turn myself in to the local constabulary for castigation and execution? Or am I just being overly sensitive?