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The Value of Physical Retro Games in a Digital Era

In an era where buying, selling and of course, playing games has diversified so much, some gamers still gravitate towards the good ol’ classics. And it’s not like game developers and publishers haven’t noticed this either. Remasters and remakes of video games have existed for years as something to sate gamers’ nostalgia fixes, introduce younger gamers to older classics or to bring back a game that hasn’t seen the light of day for years. But there’s something that hasn’t quite been able to capture the authenticity of a physical copy of someone’s favourite childhood game. While it may be easy to blame nostalgia, there may be a few reasons why gamers in this digital gaming age still find themselves drawn to older physical releases.

Digital is Not Forever
The way gamers can buy, sell, and of course, play games over the years has diversified so much. While walking into a store and picking up the latest game on your favourite platform still exists as a classic way to shop, many game distributors offer digital options for gamers to purchase as well.

Despite the ease that online transactions offer — after all, the game is instantly bought without having to leave the house — for some gamers, the allure of owning a physical copy of a game has never lost that spark. And, in some cases, the idea of ownership of a game is murky. Take games accessible via cloud, for example — no, not Cloud from the Final Fantasy series, but cloud gaming: playing console games via streaming it from a remote server.

Consumers who play games through a cloud server do not own the game itself, but rather they rent the ability to stream the game through a dedicated server. Cloud gaming also demands a steady internet connection, meaning players cannot access the game from everywhere. Furthermore, if anything happens to the server storing the games, players lose their “ownership.”

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The Popularity of Retro Game Collecting as a Hobby
During the COVID-19 pandemic, video games’ ability to connect casual and hardcore gamers alike soared. In tandem with that, collecting physical memorabilia also saw a surge in prices and interest. PriceCharting, a website that tracks prices for collectible merchandise, reported in May 2021 that retro game prices rose 42% since February 2020.

A 2023 study from the Video Game History Foundation found that most classic video games are “critically endangered” in America, meaning that they are either unavailable or extremely hard to come by. With 87% of classic video games in the American market in this category, this means more gamers are fighting over a smaller pool of available games. While collecting proves itself as an alluring hobby, not all prospective and current collectors can bear the increasing price hits to their wallets.

The study advocates for greater video game preservation, something that is currently limited for American libraries and organizations. Without an option like preservation, most video games prove inaccessible to gamers within legal or inexpensive means. The study’s main argument says that video games’ lack of commercial availability keeps “video games behind in the preservation world.”

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The Rocky Existence of Game Emulators
Game emulators are software that allows video games to be played on other systems. Non-malicious game emulation exists legally through game companies themselves, such as the virtual game offerings through Nintendo’s Switch Online Expansion Pass membership. By paying a fee, subscribers get access to a library of retro games they can play on their console.

Game emulation through piracy, however, is another common association with emulators. It exists as a way for gamers to still access games without having to dish out exorbitant prices on the secondhand market. Many of these emulators provide little-to-no financial stress on users, and ease of play and selection once set up. Regardless of one’s views on the morality of using emulators this way, this method still proves common within gaming communities. The legality of these emulators has long been debated. Emulators as a system are legal, but any infringement upon copyright is not.

This March, Nintendo of America (NOA) sued and won against Yuzu, a popular Nintendo Switch emulator. Since the emulator helped users bypass “technological measures” that control “access to copyrighted works,” NOA claimed Yuzu infringed upon their copyright. This case caused a stir in the emulation community, with some developers worried and others taking notes from the Yuzu case to make their emulators more in line with Nintendo’s standards. Though there is no shortage of emulators out there, this case presents the possibility that owning physical games may be one of the few ways gamers can securely enjoy their favourites currently. On April 5, Apple announced it will allow retro game emulators on its App Store, but with the implementation in its infancy, it’s hard to tell what that means for emulation accessibility.

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Remastering and Remaking Memories Proves Mixed
When gaming companies decide to rerelease an older game into today’s market, these video games usually release as remasters or remakes. A remaster improves the original graphics to today’s standards, while a remake takes a team rebuilding the game from scratch. Remakes tend to show more differences than remasters, sometimes adding more gameplay mechanics, story elements or even characters.

Sometimes remakes and remasters serve as a method to make a game available in regions where the original was previously unavailable. For example, 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia arrived as a remake of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden, one of the Fire Emblem games only released in Japan before the series’ expanded distribution and localization. This not only gave Japanese fans a new way to experience an older story through revised story elements, new characters and plot aspects, refined gameplay and an aesthetic overhaul, but gave international audiences their first taste of an official release of this game.

The debate surrounding whether or not gamers find purchasing remasters and remakes worth it depends on personal preference and game circumstances. There is no clear cut answer whether remakes and/or remasters stand on the same ground as the originals, are inferior, or are better. For people who may not have had the chance to play the original games, they may welcome the addition of a remaster or remake. For some people, paying for an older game with a modern price tag is not worth it.

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