A kid turns on a small, square shaped tube television set his parents kept in the basement for some reason. Hooked up to the TV is a square, mostly gray box. Inside the box is a tiny little rectangular piece of plastic that holds some computer program inside a ROM chip. The kid turns the TV to channel 3, pushes the piece of plastic down into the slider, closes the lid hits the power button with fingers crossed the game turns on this time glitch free. If everything lined up perfectly, the cart was cleaned, the console was dust free, the stars aligned just right, the game would begin. If not, the ritual of blowing into the cart, wiping the spit/grime of with a Q-tip, then jiggling the cart in, shaking it, pushing reset 25 times, etc., would commence in hopes things would find a way to get to work.
Everyone that was a Nintendo gamer in the 1980’s went through a similar ritual at least more than once in his or her life. The reality was the NES, as fondly was we try to remember it, was actually a terrible product. It required constant maintenance, care, cleaning, the cords were fragile and easy to bend, the controllers, while sturdy, were made of a very hard plastic that could crack or break if not taken care of properly. It had sharp edges that dug into kids hands, the console it self was sharp edges that if you weren’t careful could stub a toe on or hit an elbow or in some cases just jam a finger trying to shove the stupid cart into the machine. While any game would legitimately have GOOD memories of the games they played, when they in fact worked, more often than not we tend to push aside the negative memories we really have of the NES and allow blind nostalgia take us on a trip down memory lane.
One of the reasons we forget is, aside from a small subset of eccentric collectors, most gamers don’t actually play their old NES games on physical NES systems anymore. In fact, even a growing number of those who do play using PHYSICAL carts, do so on either refurbished consoles with extra money put into keeping the machine working, or in those increasing cases, play on a clone console that actually, compatibility issues aside, works better in many cases. The need to own a physical cart is even supplanted, but still satisfied by those who purchase a FLASH cart and load it up with ROMS. The point is there are a lot of different ways to enjoy an old NES game, playing the original cart on original hardware worry free is not the number one way of doing so. Despite that there remains a retro and home brew gaming scene who prey on the customers who have desires to relive, a false version of their childhood. These people are not all predators, some are but most are just coders who have fond memories of the NES and want to share their games with others. The problem is some of them take it a step too far, going as far as implementing copy protections on games they didn’t actually create, they really just took someone else’s design and made a port, calling it their own work and preventing others from playing the games the way most gamers actually DO play NES games, on a emulator minus all the hassle of tracking down all the satanic little emblems you need to make your retro machine work. Hyperbole aside, I have never in my life had a good experience picking up a USEd NES cart, inserting it into an original NES and it just worked. Not even when I was a kid and the machine was fairly new. We would rent games from the video store and I would spend the first half an hour or so just fighting the stupid thing to get it to work. You only had a game for the weekend if you were lucky or 1 night if it was a new release, so every second you spent twisting and tugging on carts was precious sec onds you would have been playing, what could have ended up being a shitty LJN game.
If you put aside the fact that most people don’t game on physical hardware, then why is it scummy for a programmer to charge money for a ROM they programmed? They put in the work and time after all? Honestly, it’s not scummy to charge for your time or work. It is, however pretty shady if the work you did was merely just porting a game some other creative person actually thought up and created decades back. If all you are doing is copying someone else’s work I, personally, think you have no right to sell it to the general public. If you want to sell your work to a collector, the physical cartridge, the art work, the case, etc., fine by all rights, but when a programmer, or coder, ports a game from another system, or just hacks a rom and calls it their own, to me that is kind of shady.
At the very least, if you can get permission from the original programmer, or their blessing then by all means do so. Sometimes copyrights are infringed but they can be done so in certain contexts without repercussions. My stance has always been respect the copy rights of those who do the actual creative work, not the pirates who stand to profit off other peoples work yet claim it as their own.
I do understand as a new programmer, especially one unwilling to actually go to college and get a job in the industry, starting out you need to get experience somewhere and porting other games to a new platform, or writing a clone program is certainly a very TRUE and legit way of honing your skills. However, make sure you let people know your CLONE is just that. I am okay with clones existing and if you want to sell a clone game by all rights you should be able to do that, as long as your clone is at least somewhat original or at the very least going to a good cause.
I did some digging into the behind the scenes development of a few different clone games, some home brew games and some rom hacks. There are cases of games like Battle Kid where the game is truly original the programmer has every right to brag about what his or her team accomplished. Games like Pier Solar are cornerstones of the home brew and aftermarket industry. Then you have the 150 thousand Super Mario Bros and Sonic 1 rip offs that just alter the sprites, rearrange the levels and try to pass it off as something original.
All of this has to have some middle ground. While I certainly do not in any way begrudge a programmer cutting his or her teethe on doing a rom hack or a home brew that is basically a clone of another game, there needs to be some honor in doing it. First, you should make sure people are fully aware it is a CLONE and do your best to reference the original game, if you CAN give credit to the original programmer, and better still if you can at least make an effort to reach and and get said programmers blessing more than anything great fantastic.
There are examples of some scummy home brew hacks who profit off other people’s work, I won’t list them you can dig up the dirt your self, google home brew. There is one hack in particular who just did a straight port of a certain PC game to a long dead nobody cared about console, I won’t say more than that except it’s not even a clone he did it entirely as a straight port. This, to me, is a gray area closer to don’t even bother. Now if it’s an open source game go ahead.
Then there is the example I want to highlight if you are still reading. This is a two-part story, part one set the stage, which is all the opinion above. Keep in mind my opinions are just that, my opinions and are meant to get people thinking. There is no need to attack me, argue with me, or hate me for getting people to think. If you disagree, share that, explain, in a civilized way, why you disagree and maybe I will listen to what you have to say. I often make claims not as my own but just to get people to really think about things so they can defend their stance.
That being said, I do think home brew games are fantastic, and when they do get a physical release for the collectors to enjoy, I am all for that. I think roms should ALWAYS be dumped at some point, minus copy protection because one, if nobody is copy protecting Mario or Zelda games, games Nintendo still profits off, then they shouldn’t be copy protecting their own roms. Two, I believe that roms should always be available for preservation purposes even of new games. The reason, the collectors who WILL pay for the game are not going to download a rom and those who WILL download the rom were NEVER going to pay for the physical cart in the first place. If you want to hold the rom until you know the collectors who want carts all have it and then dump it, DRM free at a later date, fair enough, do that. But holding a rom hostage, especially when its not a 100 percent original work, is shady at the very least. Holding roms hostage when it’s a rom hack or a prototype is 100 percent scummy, UNLESS you are the actual copy right holder and you just don’t want your failures made public, that is your right.
So when is it okay to charge for a rom and when should you limit the audience of your game? In the case of Battle Kid, that is an easy answer. If the game is 100 percent original and you did the work, then preventing people from stealing your work is your right. I also agree that Nintendo has a right to prevent you from playing Super Mario Bros. on your PC, support them buy a 3DS if you can’t stomach the Wii U, and download the rom from their virtual console. If a game was released by a company that no longer exists, and the only people who profit are re-sellers of used copies, then by all rights pirate that game all day long if you so desire. It’s technically illegal but it’s close enough to fair use you should be able to justify it.
What about when a programmer takes an existing game, say Pac-Man, and ports it to a system it never had an official release, say the Channel F, as an example? Should this person have a right to copy protect THAT rom? No, because it’s not their work. They have a right to burn the rom to physical carts and sell those to all of the collectors that are willing to pay a price for it, but copy protecting that rom is wrong and should not be tolerated. However, come on if you aren’t buying a physical copy why would you want to play an inferior port if there is no historical context? As bad as it is I do re-play the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man from time to time, because it has historical value and I had it as a kid, there is nostalgia. Nobody had Pac-Man on their TG-16, it was never ported officially to that, so if a rom hacker makes a port of that game and sells it, that is fine for a CART but wrong, in my opinion, to sell a ROM. Even releasing the ROM to Steam is wrong, not to mention that is actually illegal no question.
But what if its a clone. Not a true port but a game made to resemble another game? KC Munchkin was considered a Pac-Man clone. While I disagree with the courts decision to pull it from shelves, the fact remains it was pretty much a clone. However, there is historical context there and nostalgia. What about porting PC games to non-PC systems, or would it be okay to port Super Mario Bros. not a rom, not an emulation but a re-programmed straight port, or clone even if you will, a la, Giana Sister, to a PC? I think even this is acceptable to do, but not to profit off.
Here is where I draw the line. A truly original work that is your own, charge money for it protect your copy right until your death and leave it in your will to someone you love. If it’s just a labor of love, a practice, a port of someone else’s work to a system that didn’t already have that game, if you want to sell the physical cart to collectors fine but let the rom go to those who will download it do so. I mean as a gamer myself I don’t download rom hacks or games that didn’t exist anyways, like I said I need historical context or else I have no interest in playing Mortal Kombat on a SNES, I would be better playing the actual arcade port on PS3 or the rom on MAME.
Check back for part 2 as I investigate an outlier I think did it right, but did leave room for error.