When the Nintendo Switch arrived, I decided it was the first console on which I’d buy all my games digitally to improve its portability. Not having to wrangle a pile of cartridges was great, but I’m starting to rethink that approach after EA recently revealed its iOS version of Tetris was disappearing in a few months—even for those who paid for the game. Hoarding discs and cartridges for my favourite games doesn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore.
If you missed the story earlier this week, last year The Tetris Company signed an exclusive multi-year agreement with a developer called N3TWORK to produce a series of mobile games based on the popular block-stacking puzzle game. As a direct result of that agreement, Electronic Arts, who had previously licensed Tetris for a collection of mobile games dating back to 2011, will not only be removing those titles from the iTunes App Store, it will also make those games unplayable on devices like the iPhone and iPad after April 21.
It’s not uncommon for developers to abandon games years after release. In this case EA’s licence for Tetris had simply run out, but maintaining and updating games costs time and money, and often times it simply doesn’t make financial sense to pump more resources into a title once sales have slowed to a trickle, or once a sequel is about to hit the market. But unless a game is completely dependent on a remote server to work, there’s nothing stopping you from enjoying a game even years after a company has walked away from it assuming you’ve still got the right software and hardware needed to play it.
There’s always the chance an older game won’t be compatible with a major OS update—there’s an entire folder of games on my iPhone that require an update before they’ll work with the latest version of iOS—but doing that iPhone update was a decision on my part, I knew the consequences. What’s concerning about the EA incident is that ultimately it was a couple of corporations that made the decision to make the iOS versions of Tetris unplayable after April 21. And thanks to verbage buried in EA’s terms of service, no one who shelled out a couple of bucks for the game had any say in the matter. It was a stark reminder that you rarely actually own anything you purchase digitally; you’re instead only leasing that item—be it movies, music, books, or video games—until a corporation decides to reclaim its digital property.
There’s not much you can do in situations like this. The fine print you usually ignore but agree to while quickly clicking through the signup process of online services and app stores gives companies all the legal freedom they need to do things like this. It’s something I came to realise years ago, and it prompted me to start collecting copies of my favourite video games from the past 30 years to ensure I never lose access to them.
My amateur attempts at archiving video games takes a two-pronged approach. Whenever possible, getting my hands on an original game disc or cartridge is by far the more satisfying pursuit. The hunt itself can be just as enjoyable as actually finding a game I’m looking for, whether it’s pouring through listings on eBay or Craigslist, or exploring a used video game store I haven’t already cleaned out.
That being said, there are some challenges to this approach, and not just losing lots of shelf space to stacks of old cartridges. Often times you’ll need to pry open a game and replace a long dead battery used for saving progress and scores. It also requires you to maintain a working collection of old hardware for actually playing these cartridges, which can be expensive as consoles become harder to find. But thanks to companies like Analogue and Hyperkin who’ve recreated classic consoles like the SNES, Game Boy, and Sega Genesis, enjoying original games on modern TVs has gotten a lot easier in recent years. No matter what happens to Nintendo, I know I’ll be able to play classics like Super Mario World and Goldeneye for decades to come.
The other approach I take to archiving video games (dare I say it?) are ROMs: DRM-free digital copies of games that can be played through either software or hardware emulation and can be safely stored away on drives without the risk of them mysteriously disappearing one day. (Assuming you don’t accidentally drop said backup drive.) Finding ROMs online is much easier than trekking to a random store to buy a tiny plastic cartridge, but the approach has long been a legal grey area. To the best of my knowledge no one is doing hard time for downloading a copy of NES Excite Bike, but the hoops you have to jump through to acquire ROMS online is a reminder that game developers aren’t particularly fond of the idea.
The other downside to the ROMs approach is that emulators can get real close to simulating the hardware of a classic console, but the gameplay experience is never 100 per cent accurate. You’ll often have to deal with dropped frames, slowdowns, visual artifacts, and even bizarre sounds that are constantly reminding you of the compromises that come with emulation. Over the past couple of years there have been some major improvements when it comes to third-party consoles that are capable of playing classic games—handheld systems like the PocketGo and the upcoming Analogue Pocket come to mind—and they’re only going to improve further as mobile processors continue to become cheaper and more powerful.
Fortunately for me most of the games I actually want to preserve are from consoles long gone from store shelves. But I realise my approach isn’t as feasible for games on modern devices that often require hours of software updates as soon as you slide a game disc into the console. You can hold onto that physical copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 as long as you want, but if it’s dependent on validation from a random server that’s no longer online in 20 years, having a plastic disc won’t do you much good. For the Nintendo Switch at least, I’m going to stick to cartridges from here on out wherever possible.