Out of print

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Last week I played Harmful Park, the weird Japanese-only shmup for the PlayStation. It’s a very rare and expensive game and is only available on the Japanese PSN store. This means if you want to play Harmful Park in the United States you have two options: you can buy a used copy on eBay (the last one sold went for $441.53), or, you can emulate it. I chose the latter, downloading an iso and burning a copy which I was able to play on my PlayStation with the help of an Action Replay. I’m not interested in commenting on emulation or piracy here, but rather, the strange commercial situation the medium of video games finds itself in: the vast majority of games are out of print. Not just just physically. In 2016, you cannot legally purchase most video games outside the used market.

Imagine the same being true of film, music, or television. Much more of the canon of popular music is available digitally on iTunes than popular video games are on Steam, Virtual Console, PSN, et. al. Best selling LPs from the eighties and nineties remained in print through format changes to cassette, CD and mp3, only to be repressed on vinyl in recent years once demand for the format returned. Most of this argument is partially cribbed from Frank Cifaldi’s excellent “‘It’s Just Emulation!’ The Challenge of Selling Old Games” talk from GDC this past spring. It’s well worth watching for anyone even remotely interested in video game preservation, but I feel compelled to relay one specific anecdote from the speech: Uncle Buck, the John Candy comedy from 1989, is available in nearly two dozen different formats and streaming services, but your average NES or Genesis game from the same year is only available on its original cartridge. If I can walk into a Best Buy in 2016 and buy a brand new copy of Uncle Buck, why I can’t I do the same for Einhander? If we don’t expect someone to track down an old VHS copy of Uncle Buck on eBay to watch it, why do we do so for video games?

Cifaldi strictly makes the argument for emulation as a digital distribution to play these games. And he’s right, that’s the way the industry should (mostly) market and redistribute retro and classic video games. But much like how the music industry is repressing LPs to sell to collectors on top of digitally selling albums and singles on the iTunes store, I’d like to see video game publishers repress retro games. This might be too expensive and difficult for cartridge based games, but could done with reasonable ease for games on PlayStation and other disc based consoles. I’m not sure who holds the rights to Harmful Park (its publisher Sky Think Systems went out of business long ago) but it’d be nice to see it and other, more popular games of the era get a physical release. I’m not arguing this should be done full-scale or replace digital distribution, I’m merely suggesting that it’d be nice to have a physical option run parallel for the niche collector market, as we see in the music industry.

Perhaps we’ve already started in that direction. Physical releases of retro games in the plug-and-play format are already happening, with the release of the NES Classic Edition and the Retro-Bit Generations, alongside the seventh version of the Atari Flashback. (Update: In fact, Retro-Bit is even re-releasing Jaleco games on multi-carts.) Maybe in five years I’ll be complaining how Urban Outfitters gouges prices on PlayStation games much like they do with vinyl today.

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