Staff Writer: Luke Little
If you played any video games from the 1990s to the 2010s, you likely have a bevy of nostalgia for the titles you played. Isn’t it sad, then, that a lot of titles from this period of gaming are becoming less and less legally accessible by the day?
Recent news broke that Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound (aka Mother 1 and 2 respectively) would become available on Nintendo’s current-generation console, the Nintendo Switch. Fans rejoiced at the idea of being able to play the pre-2000s cult legends on the big screen legally again. However, a long-time plea from fans had still not been met; the third game in the trio, Mother 3, still hadn’t even received official acknowledgment from Nintendo. Fans of the franchise are past being angry at it by now as ways to access the game have been available for a long time. The only issue is that access to the game in English is in a legal gray area for anyone who wants to experience it.
You see, Mother 3 was never released outside of Japan back in 2006 when it came out. To this day, the only way to play the game in English is through a direct rip of the game that has been translated by dedicated fans and spread across the internet so much that it would be impossible for Nintendo to eradicate, despite its best efforts. As this game simply appeared on the GameBoy Advance, it wouldn’t have been hard for Nintendo to put it on any other console after the GameBoy’s heyday, but it simply hasn’t. As a matter of fact, it has seemingly ignored fans that have tried to get more attention to the cause. Nintendo is absolutely capable of bringing this game stateside, but it just won’t, and it makes fans like me a bit sad, as this approach to game preservation isn’t new.
Game preservation is exactly its namesake; preserve old games from old systems that aren’t being produced anymore so that people, current and future, aren’t locked out of the truly amazing experiences they offer. If you were to talk directly to a Nintendo executive, for example, about playing the company’s old titles, they’d likely advise you to seek out the console and game(s) on secondhand marketplaces such as eBay, OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace, etc. And while that argument is valid, as consoles and games are readily available on those sites, as soon as owners of said consoles and games realized they were holding onto collectible items that were in limited supply, prices skyrocketed.
The aforementioned GameBoy will run $100 on its own, and a cartridge to play Mother 3 on it wouldn’t even be available in the US. Mother 3 is a classic work, yet there is no legal way for new people to experience it. The only way is through emulation; with the help of forum posts anyone can get a copy of the game in English and plug it into software to play it, but that method is in a huge legal gray area.
In situations like this, emulation is only considered legal if the user, who owns a physical copy of the game, rip files off of the cartridge or disc, and plays those files. Distribution is strictly unallowed and can invoke hefty legal action from companies like Nintendo and Sony.
Here’s where it gets less clear-cut; production of the emulation software and distribution of it, even if it isn’t free, is perfectly legal as long as it doesn’t use any code that a game company owns. As such, all emulation software is reverse engineered from what is known of the consoles being emulated, which is explicitly legal in copyright cases due to the Fair Use exception.
Now to that, you may think “just get a legitimate copy of a game and rip it to use in an emulator”, and once again that is valid. However, old games are collectible items just as much as their consoles, thus the prices for said games are exorbitant as well.
While one could argue that the photos above shouldn’t be a deterrent for a real fan, one would be missing the point. The point is that this is not a sustainable model of preservation because it doesn’t grant access to the general public. Even after paying far too much money for the stuff in the photos, some degree of technical knowledge would be required to rip the game files, package them properly, and set up an emulator to play. We, as a people, should be demanding better from companies who ignore older works, as they’re art just as much as museum pieces are, and we preserve those, make them accessible for viewing to the general public, etc. The simplicity of bringing a game like Mother 3 stateside for the first time since its early 2000s release is there, but companies would rather pursue the newer projects that make guaranteed money. There is an obvious demand for better preservation, but the larger companies who have control over their IPs are dragging their feet to the races.