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Nintendo Classic Mini spells end of emulation

Nintendo’s refreshed version of the 1986 Nintendo Entertainment System has finally arrived in South Africa, changing the culture of games emulation, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Nintendo Classic Mini, a 2016 refresh of the wildly popular Nintendo Entertainment System first released in 1986, has finally arrived in South Africa, and it spells an end to the culture of game emulation that has been particularly strong in this country.

Emulation of the 1986 Nintendo Entertainment System has long been popular for playing classic games on computers without forking out thousands for what is now a collector’s edition. The argument for emulation is almost always backed with, “I purchased this game in the ‘80s or ‘90s but I don’t have the console anymore so I’m going to emulate it with an online back-up”. 

This argument seems fine, in the traditional media back-up sense, because consumers have been backing up their vinyls, tapes and CDs to digital formats for ages. Moreover, this is a perfectly legal thing to do with audio media. Some consumers with damage discs, scratched vinyls and stretched tapes have been digitally downloading the media that they own, often from free and illegal channels, claiming the legal territory of fair use. Is this different to downloading Super Mario Bros if one has purchased it before?

However, the digital backup method becomes illegal with video games. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft have explicitly outlined the rules: a consumer does not have the right to make back-ups, obtain back-ups and/or use these back-ups to play their games. The reason behind this is that piracy is rife in the game industry, and back-up copies are usually very difficult to create. 

If back-up copies can be made, the media won’t work on the original console. Sony and Microsoft have implemented special copy-protection measures into their disc media to transmit a “disc wobble”. Their console’s lasers read this wobble, to prove that the disc is not a back-up. Blank discs cannot be purchased with this wobble.

Nintendo has taken a slightly more interesting approach to copy-protection. Apart from the Wii and Wii U, every console the company has produced runs off proprietary game cartridges. This has made the need for back-ups irrelevant, as cartridges are far more resilient to damage compared to their disc counterparts. While dust might be a problem on the older cartridges, they just needed a quick blow of air on the receivers, which Nintendo highly recommended against doing, to get the game working again. 

These cartridges were notoriously difficult to back up, but were not immune. Many websites offer backed up games for download, and Nintendo Entertainment System games are not larger than a megabyte, making them extremely attractive to download when one compares the amount of equipment required to back-up one’s personal copy.

Bearing this in mind, emulators found their way through consumers not being able to play copied games on copy-protected consoles and the rapid increase in computing power. Emulation of copyrighted games is still illegal and will continue to be illegal for decades to come, as copyright stands for 75 years and the earliest Nintendo game is less than four decades old. 

Nintendo doesn’t condone emulation at all and has made it clear that it will never produce an emulator for computers. 

Hidden deep in the legal documentation on its corporate website (see https://www.nintendo.com/corp/legal.jsp#helping), the company goes into great detail on its attitude to emulators. 

It states emphatically: “Emulators developed to play copied Nintendo software promote piracy. That’s like asking why doesn’t Nintendo legitimize piracy. It doesn’t make any business sense. It’s that simple and not open to debate.”

That being said, Sony and Nintendo have seen the market for retro gaming and have released solutions to counter emulation.

Sony released a monthly-subscription service called PlayStation Now which allows consumers to play a vast selection of popular PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games on their PlayStation 4 consoles. This service has been well-received in the launch countries, but licensing issues are restricting Sony from going global with this service. 

Nintendo’s Classic Mini is a different story.

It solves a lot of the issues that Sony is facing with licensing through the release of a separate console. This allows licensing to the console itself, which allows worldwide release. The introductory price of R1200 once-off, with 30 pre-installed classic games like the original Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong, makes this an extremely attractive offer to consumers who want to get the best retro experience while staying on the good side of the law.

The bottom line is, it makes emulation of the console’s games defunct.

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