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Out of Print: The Trouble of Finding Old Games

posted on January 31st, 2008 by christian

When I began college, the Peer to Peer filesharing scene was dying. With campuses clamping down on the networks, and with iPods making the concept of actually purchasing music legitimate again, the likes of Kazaa and Limewire were hard to find. Despite this I managed to acquire a massive amount of music as a student. Rather than search for high quality files, my freshman self tore through the CD binders of my friends, ripping any album I thought to be interesting. This method of sampling made me not just a fan of new music, but of whole albums. In a world where the single is all the rage, classic rock albums became my poison of choice. And when I got out of college, I realized I wanted physical copies of most of them.

That album is old. I’ll give you $3 for it.

What is a man in my situation to do? Simple; I can drive down to Best Buy, log onto Amazon, or find plenty of other retailers that will readily sell me a Beatles or Stones album in CD form. If I want something a little more obscure, there is a good chance I could still find a physical copy somewhere. The same rule applies for classic films, perhaps even more so (what hasn’t come out on DVD by now?). The greatest pieces of literature can be purchased and enjoyed in an easy paperback form. Through and through, most entertainment industries do a very good job of keeping good material in circulation, regardless of age. It isn’t always perfect, but if you want something, just a little hunting can likely grab you a new copy in a good format, for about the same price as other products.

Unfortunately, I cannot add gaming to this list of forms of entertainment that are reliable in this way. As popular as retro gaming is becoming, the industry has done a poor job of keeping older games in circulation in some form or another. Let us go over some of the reasons.

Lack of retail space – the CD section of a store is going to have many more rows than the game racks. There is simply no easy way to store what isn’t fairly new on the shelves.

Young Industry – gaming is relatively young, and still obsessed with the latest and greatest product it can churn out.

No single format – Music and movies have format upgrades, but usually one single format dominates a time period. In the case of music, rebuying your collection on CD wouldn’t be a bad choice considering how many years it has been relevant, and how easy it is to transfer their data to new digital formats. Movie formats evolve more quickly, but DVDs look to be compatible or at least easy to play and use for a long time coming. And even if the old formats become outdated, it isn’t hard at all to obtain a VCR these days, and a cheap turntable is just a click away.

Gaming is made up of so many different consoles, and if one of yours dies, it may mean that a whole stack of your favorite games cannot be played anymore. On the other hand, perhaps you want to start investigating a console you missed out on. You have no choice but to look for the hardware and software on the secondhand market, where price and quality can greatly vary.

The thought of paying $50 for an old game seems insane.

These reasons and more have been great problems when it comes to keeping older games around, but in recent years they have been overcome. The first way is via compilation discs. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Playstation 2, companies have released some of their best and earliest products in a variety of anthologies and collections. The other option has been digital distribution. Services like Gametap and Nintendo’s Virtual Console attempt to be repositories for classic games on a wide variety of consoles. Even better, these digital services are providing what many early compilation discs could not – perfect or near perfect emulation. This was an issue that kept many gamers uninterested in retro compilations, and it appears publishers are listening.

So we know that we have the technology and the distribution methods to get classic games out there for anyone to explore. Yet aside from healthy Virtual Console sales, I don’t see a perfect situation brewing in the near future. Gamers still don’t see eye to eye with the industry; any time a game is re-released, it isn’t hard to find some snarky comment about how the company behind it is trying to milk more money out of us. People get pissed that they are expected to repurchase a game they already own. Simply put, re-releases are looked at with scorn almost as frequently as they are welcomed.

This doesn’t seem as common in other forms of entertainment, and I find it quite puzzling. Something tells me that most Zeppelin fans did not moan the fact that they couldn’t get all their albums for free on CD. Either they repurchased in the new format, or kept their old vinyls. No fuss, no complaining. In fact, I bet they were glad to see a favorite band reborn for a new generation to experience them. These attitudes seem foreign among gamers. Part of this is because of demographics; despite what all the studies would like us to believe, most gamers are not well mannered men in their late twenties and early thirties. There are still throngs of whiny, bratty teenagers who have grown up in the digital age, where entertainment was easy to grab for free. These factors lead to both the snark and the sense of entitlement.

But their complaints do bring up a valid point: what about the guy who would like to stick with his old copy of Mario 3, but whose NES no longer works? Nintendo will not sell him another console, yet he does not want to rebuy the game. The hardware and format dependencies of gaming can cause some real problems that aren’t nearly as prevalent with movies and music. This also shows a bit of hypocrisy in us gamers; we will bemoan the problems faced by proprietary hardware becoming obsolete, but we all scoff at the idea of a single format for gaming.

Damn it, this hurts the value of my original release.

There is also the matter of price. Most gamers do not believe that an older game should cost that much to play. This is a tricky situation. To use the album analogy again, it would be nice if all Beatles music were free, considering how great an impact they have had on the music world all these decades later. Yet I shouldn’t be entitled to free or cheaper albums of theirs just because I wasn’t alive when they were new. I am happy to pay full price for any one of the albums, just like my relatives might have in their youth. The key factor here is that the band’s quality has not degraded over time. The songs that were good then are still good now. This argument more than any other is reason enough for prices to stay consistent.

Games however are often products of their time, and newer titles can be better than older ones. It is easy to argue that Super Mario Bros is just as fun today as it was all those years ago, and demand a price that is higher than the dollar or two most people would offer to pay. Yet I would laugh at the prospect of paying even ten bucks for King of Fighters 94, not when all of its sequels are better to the point of making it completely obsolete. Gaming’s problem is that we are dealing with software, and software can and will become obsolete. The same thing can happen with film (older films may or may not have stamped out the best techniques and lighting), and much less frequently with books and music. If games want to prove themselves as a timeless art form, they have the biggest uphill battle by far.

With all this being said, there is still much that game publishers can do to make classic games easier to find and play. For one, they need to stop ripping us off. Konami apparently released Gradius 3 and 4 on the PS2 in 2000. In 2006, on the less powerful PSP, gamers could play every Gradius but the recently released fifth game on one disc. SNK did the same thing with Metal Slug. Gamers could shell out 30 or 40 for just Slug 3, or a 4 + 5 double pack on the Xbox and PS2 respectively. Now for that price you can get all six games together. Nintendo decided some time ago to make the original Metroid an unlockable secret in some of its games, while also releasing it as a buyable product.

Will all consoles eventually be re-released in ultra-compact, poorly made models?

Woe to the uninformed consumer. Basically, if a publisher wants to do a compilation, give us all or nothing, or break the goods up into some logical or periodical grouping. Don’t toss a few games together and then go whole hog with the entire series later. Second, I still don’t consider it unfeasible to make new hardware for classic games. Whether they want to do more plug and play games, or if Nintendo wants to make their own version of a Famiclone, there are easy ways to get that old hardware remade for cheap (so long as you have the design documents for them). Hell, bring back the old Famicom Disk System approach, and you don’t even have to worry about reprinting carts. Finally, if you really want to be nice, you can all figure out a way for us to keep these games we downloaded from you for years to come.

One day if I ever have grandkids, I would love to show them my favorite childhood memories. I know I will be able to share good books and great songs with them. But as for games, I fear many of them will be lost to the ages. Considering some of them would also be my favorite childhood memories, that is a big problem. First one to figure out a proper solution saves our future selves.

2 Comments

  1. jay said on February 6, 2008:

    I understand that some game’s just don’t play very well years later but I can’t get over how angry people get that they still need to pay for old games. Pirating is fun and free, but do it when the game is out of print or even better, to an industry I don’t care about.

  2. TrueTallus said on February 13, 2008:

    Isn’t the digital distribution model an amenable solution to the problem? You won’t be able to show your grandkids the kick-ass glossy embossed manual that came with your favorite Working Designs game, but beyond the lack of physical artifacts (something that could conceivably be covered by documentary style bonus content) I can’t see a problem with the idea of booting up Steamtap 3.0 (copyright Nintendo) in a couple dozen years and showing Christian Jr. Jr. how to save the 2d world with the best of them.

    Nintendo and Gametap have somehow found a way to make selling old games (relatively) cheep to be economically feasible, so that resolves much of the issue of gamers complaining about paying outrageous prices for older content. Keeping things in the eternal life support situation of online retail also seems as if it would eliminate the whole “milking” problem- there’s no need to make re-release after re-release if the original product stays consistently visible and fresh through its constant presence on the virtual shelf.

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