Earlier this year, Nintendo announced it would be closing the Wii U and 3DS eShops. The announcement stoked the already-hot flames of the ongoing debate around video game preservation. It’s a conversation at the centre of which Nintendo often finds itself. It’s long been a concern for historians and retro fans, but mainstream gamers often shrug it off. This isn’t surprising. Why should the average gamer care? How does preservation affect someone who is only into newer titles, anyway?
Is Nintendo Dropping the Ball on Video Game Preservation?
It’s worth starting by acknowledging this: Nintendo is not failing completely. They often remaster or port first-party titles for newer consoles. Take The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Super Mario 3D All Stars, for example. There’s also the Virtual Console on Wii U and 3DS, where users can download and play games from previous generations. The Nintendo Switch Online service even includes some of these games for free.
But these still don’t do what’s needed for video game preservation. Remasters don’t preserve the historical state of games as they were originally released. Even ports don’t hold the promise they should with Nintendo. Super Mario 3D All Stars was only available for a limited time. This was also the case for the mini editions of the NES and SNES a few years ago. What’s more, the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles are expected to be lost as the eShops close. That means the only legitimate way to get your hands on some classic Nintendo titles is through the Nintendo Switch Online service; behind a monthly paywall.
It’s these issues that have led to one charity calling Nintendo’s approach “actively destructive”.
Our statement on the closure of Nintendo's legacy digital shops. pic.twitter.com/mG5GzuGH4G
— Video Game History Foundation (@GameHistoryOrg) February 17, 2022
How Video Game Preservation Affects Us All
Learn from the Past…
Preservation issues like this are unique to gaming. Unlike with other media, specific hardware (or emulation of it) is needed for video game preservation. Even the games themselves aren’t consistent in format; an N64 cartridge isn’t exactly useful if you only have a Nintendo Switch on which to play it. It’s these unique challenges that mean we should all care.
Take your favourite childhood film or album. You’d unlikely struggle to find it in some form. We rarely lose films when physical formats change; that’s also the case with music. Just about anything you’d want to watch or listen to is on a streaming service. Video games haven’t made the same updates, and it will only get harder as systems get more sophisticated.
…to Make for a Better Future
What’s more, video game preservation isn’t just about history. It’s equally important for the future. Speaking to VICE, Bennett Foddy, who teaches at New York University’s Game Center, explains how access to gaming history impacts the developers of future games. Foddy, the developer of QWOP and Getting Over It, frames video game preservation as a tool for the future, not just the past. He argues that drawing on how past creatives solved problems is the “only way we can make progress in the sciences, the humanities, or in the creative arts.”
If I was teaching poetry, I could send a student to read nearly any poem written since the invention of the printing press, but in games my legal options limit me to, I would guess, less than 1 percent of the important games from history.
That’s what brings us to why this affects everyone. Yesterday’s games are tools for the development of tomorrow’s. When companies like Nintendo deliberately retire games to the dustheap of history, we lose these lessons.
Today, unfinished game releases are almost becoming the norm. Cyberpunk 2077 and Battlefield 2042 are two recent cases. With more tools available, could these have been different? It was Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto who gave us a timeless nugget of wisdom on unfinished games. Yet, it’s the same company that is making tools for that goal scarce.
What’s Next for Nintendo and Video Game Preservation?
The simplest answer to the issue lies in emulation. However, Nintendo insists on consistently clamping down on the practice. There’s not a lot of wiggle room on this front – the law backs Nintendo’s actions. The real issue here is how they decide to exercise it. While companies like SEGA invite those who emulate their works aboard to develop games like Sonic Mania, Nintendo works with law enforcement to imprison them. In short, it’s a two-front attack that stops those involved and deters others from doing the same.
What makes it all the more confusing is the fact that Nintendo may have inadvertently condoned emulation. For example, the version of Super Mario Bros. that is available on the Virtual Console might have been taken from an online ROM. The files in the game show it may have come from an emulation that Nintendo considers illegal piracy.
So where does that leave us? Nintendo won’t allow external emulation. However, they’re willing to use it to preserve games in their own ecosystem. Maybe that’s the solution. Microsoft has long used emulation to offer a huge library of backwards compatible games. Nintendo should be doing the same by using the files preserved through online ROMs to make retro titles available more easily.
Meanwhile, it’s certainly time Nintendo made academic preservation a priority. The future-proofing it offers is in everyone’s best interest. It’s bodies like MADE and The Video Game History Foundation who are leading that fight. If Nintendo is ever serious about video game preservation, it’s those groups they need to be working with.
Understanding why video game preservation is in such a poor state is a complex task. Nonetheless, it’s clear now how it affects us all. Things like inconsistent tech and confusing-yet-recent copyrights make it harder. Yet still, video games are as much a part of the cultural tapestry as other forms of media, and deserve similar respect. For now, we can all hope for companies like Nintendo to see the value in preserving their own legacies in a meaningful way.