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Piracy: The dark side of the rise in retro gaming

4 min read

While the modern indie gaming scene has always shown an interest in pixellated, retro visual, there’s been a stark rise in nostalgia-driven gaming. Everything old is new again.

For as long as modern gaming systems have existed, there have been collections of older games, repackaged and resold. We have things like Namco Museum, the SEGA Mega Drive Collection and Nintendo’s Virtual console selling us games we bought decades ago. Rare Replay tapped into that expertly, relying on the sort of nostalgia that invokes those fuzzy, warm familiar feelings that would only otherwise come from peeing in one’s pants.


There have been many bespoke systems to help people dip their toes into the classics of yesteryear. It was probably the Nintendo Classic Mini – Nintendo’s diminutive NES – that catapulted the idea of set-top retro consoles into the public consciousness. It wasn’t the first, of course, and companies like ATGames have tried to get us to buy Mega Drive/Genesis and Atari games for years – but the relative rights holders have granted them licence.

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, of course, and there’s a decent case to be made about games that – by virtue of their technology – favoured pure gameplay over graphics.


However, there’s a dark side to the recent resurgence of retro gaming, and of course, it has to do with capitalism. Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini and the excitement over its yet unreleased SNES version – along with recent games like Crash Bandicoot’s N. Sane Trilogy have proven that tapping into nostalgia properly can be lucrative. Naturally, people will use that to profiteer.


And no, I’m not even talking about the sorts of people who scalp NES minis. There are whole companies manufacturing and selling machines that play on people’s nostalgia by selling consoles, arcade machines and other bespoke devices stuffed with hundreds if not thousands of illegal games. There are clones of the NES and Famicom minis, loaded with hundreds of illicit ROMS being sold that profit off decades of hard work from developers and publishers who see nothing of it in return.

It’s a little different from the murky, ethically grey world of emulation, where an entire library of systems and games can be downloaded and played. While the ROMS themselves are illegal, the emulators aren’t – and I have no real moral objections to people emulating games for their own enjoyment.


Selling them though? That goes beyond grey, straight to being exploitative and unequivocally illegal. Of course, our local gaming industry is nearly built on the back of piracy, with many a “Golden China” the introduction to games for many of us. But these are different times and we’re no longer under the thumb of apartheid-era sanctions. There are local distributors for these things.

That systems like this, loaded with ROMS are sold in national retailers within South Africa is upsetting – especially given that there is a precedent for games to be given the same protection as cinematograph films. Copyright law and the enforcement of it places much of the burden – and the associated costs – on the plaintiff, so it’s hardly surprising that little is done about it. Many turn a blind eye to retro piracy, though it truth it’s no different to a retailer selling a media player stuffed with illicit rips of movies from the 80s and 90s – only there’d be huge legal ramifications if anybody did that.

As consumers who abhor piracy and the people profiting from it what can we do? Honestly, very little – though reporting any incidents you may see to local piracy watchdogs SAFACT is probably good start.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: August 17, 2017

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