Retro Revolution

Let’s be honest, the apathy, or perhaps antipathy, from the big three on the matter of comprehensive backward compatibility is absolutely maddening at times. That’s not to say they’re completely ignorant of the subject – Sony and Nintendo include BC in various online services, while Microsoft is perhaps the most ambitious in promising that the Series X will support some games from all previous Xbox platforms – but the common thread there is curation. No one, at least no one publicly, is ready to come to the table with an anything-goes BC proposition for the upcoming ninth generation of consoles.

This apprehension, I firmly believe, is largely to blame for the short supply of some of the retro mini consoles that have become popular in recent years. It’s all too easy to imagine Nintendo brass learning that people were finding ways to sideload games into their NES and SNES Classic Editions, and immediately being overcome with abject horror at having to choose between leaving money on the table by shorting the supply in the face of such obvious demand, or making money hand over fist at the cost of nigh-absolute catalogue control. Konami has also earned its share of disdain in recent years, but it’s a little harder to imagine them keeping the Turbo Grafx 16 mini scarce for too long considering the apparent frothing demand for that thing (justified, absolutely, as that thing is a gem).

Pictured: An image that induces widespread butt-clenching in Kyoto.

Emulation has always existed as the all encompassing solution to platform holders’ insistence on taking the “curated library” approach to making retro games available on modern platforms, but the advent of retro minis introduces a convenience in design and an elegant simplicity in setup that threatens to alter the discussion long-term. Even if the platform holders collectively balk at producing more of these devices now that their capabilities have become apparent, SBCs (single-board computers) like the Raspberry Pi 4 and the Odroid N2 can easily fill the void, leaving continued production of official mini consoles as the most viable way of ensuring a continued revenue stream from retro gaming.

Moreover, I don’t believe anyone has piracy as an actual goal of their gaming practice anymore. In the 90s, of course, there was an undeniable cool factor to teaching a PC how to play games that were made for other devices entirely, let alone doing it for free, but today I genuinely believe it’s nothing more than a simple means to an end. That’s where the opportunity lies for platform holders, publishers, and developers alike.

Imagine, if you will, an online marketplace not unlike the GOG Store, where video game ROMs and ISOs are available DRM-free and in non-proprietary formats across all platforms, for non-exploitative prices. (Think the low end of Nintendo’s Virtual Console range on the Wii.) The money goes to the developers and IP holders, and the buyer is free to use the files on whatever device they should choose to play their retro games on. Even better, the model could attract retro localization efforts, currently relegated to working for free on underground mod sites, to get a piece of the pie for the undeniably important work they are already doing.

Sound unlikely? Literally all of this is already going on except for the money, and it’s only a matter of time before the industry figures that one out… if people positioned to enact such changes aren’t just reading it here, and assuming they don’t have an appetite to continue down the long and expensive road of litigation.

The future of convenient retro gaming is bright, limited only by how accommodating the powers that be are willing to get to make sure everyone gets their piece. At this point, however, there is no putting the SBC genie back in its bottle, and gaming will change one way or another because of it.