In 1989, Nintendo launched the Game Boy. The handheld device came with a petite cartridge containing Alexey Pajitnov’s beautifully balanced puzzle game: Tetris.
Thirty years later, I am still playing that specific version of Tetris. Nintendo’s affinity for backward compatibility meant I continued to play on that original cartridge, long after my original Game Boy had itself died. When the cartridge finally burned out, I replaced it with a used one bought at a game store. I replaced that one with an eBay purchase, then, nervous about potential future scarcity, I bought several more as I came across them at gaming events, used game stores, and—no joke—antique stores.
But with Microsoft announcing its new disc-less Xbox One S console as a wonderful advancement, and multiple companies including Google pushing the development of streaming platforms for games, the future of retro gaming is in serious question.
Retro gaming today is a bustling community with its own events, tournaments, economic infrastructure, and celebrities. Stores like Gamers Anonymous in Albuquerque, publications like Old School Gamer Magazine and Retro Gamer, and events like the Video Game Summit and the Midwest Gaming Classic all demonstrate a thriving community of player-consumers. The hobby lets older players like me cling to favored games, and it also lets younger players experience iconic titles in their original forms.
“In the past five years, there’s been a really big push for retro gaming again,” says Todd Friedman, who is co-promoter of the Video Game Summit and collects and writes about retro games. Enthusiasm supports the used game market and also helps drive reissues. Nintendo’s SNES Classic was a consumer hit, with more copies selling in June 2018 than the Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Xbox One. The upcoming Sega Genesis Mini is generating serious buzz, too. (And don’t even get me started on Pokémon Go.)
Retro gaming also allows for cross-generational torch-passing, with parents delighting in playing their own favorite childhood games with their offspring much in the same way they read children classic books from Roald Dahl or Maurice Sendak. “We’re at the age where our kids are in their teens or younger, and we’re excited to play the games again with our children and experience old-school gaming with our kids,” Friedman says.
This is all possible because games exist as physical media with relatively few technological interdependencies. If you have the game and the system to play it—like an Atari 2600 and a Frogger cartridge—the game works, pure and simple. However, newer games distributed by digital download or by streaming do not have a similar physical presence for consumers and may become unavailable or unplayable within a few years of release.
This isn’t necessarily a new problem. Over the past decade, changes in game publication and distribution practices have presented increasing challenges to the use and sale of used games. Even CD-ROM games from the 1990s depend on specific, third-party tools and software. When I wanted to revisit Secret Paths in the Forest (Purple Moon, 1997), for example, I had to set up a computer on Windows XP, the youngest operating system that could handle the game—only to find I needed QuickTime 2 as well.
“Now, people want to own the systems like they did when they were a kid,” Friedman says. “The new systems are a lot more complex, so I think people are trying to bring back the retro era and play like they used to. The tube TVs are coming back again—people are grabbing those off the streets. The value of the games are even increasing; some of these original old games are really worth a lot of money now.”
Most retro games—even popular ones—are still quite affordable, but many can easily run upward of $100 to buy, with rare titles sometimes going for thousands. While the rarest of these games are treated more as artifacts than playable games, most people who collect games actually play them. And some eBay sellers specialize in refurbishing cartridges that have lost their labels or need cleaning, which yields clean, playable copies at a lesser price than a pristine original.
That’s all well and good when used cartridges and discs are both complete and portable—but streamed games cannot circulate this way because they depend on the cloud to work and are not stored on the player’s computer. Even many downloaded games may need an internet connection and externally stored content to work.
Companies may choose to keep their games available for streaming long-term, but they could just as easily decide not to. There also may be short-term business justification for pushing players to buy newer games or to minimize the number of available titles to constrain infrastructure costs. Publishers have long expressed open hostility to the used games market, and legacy sales of older titles from original publishers have not been a major moneymaker. While moving to cloud-based streaming might suggest the possibility of more titles available to play, the reality is that each game available will have real costs in terms of server space and technical support. If streaming becomes the dominant distribution model, players will have no way to ensure these games are available to play long-term.
Anne Ladyem McDivitt, a video game historian who works as the digital humanities librarian at the University of Alabama, says this is already happening with last decade’s digital downloads. “I own Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the game [which was available for purchase through Xbox Live Arcade in 2010],” she says. “If my Xbox dies, I can’t get that game again, because you can’t buy it anymore, you can’t download it anymore.”
Even when a company is willing to provide download streaming access to a game in perpetuity, that doesn’t mean the company itself is going to last. The video game industry is notoriously volatile; while the closure of Telltale Games in late 2018 made the news, it was only one of a dozen companies that had closed over the preceding 12 months.
Streaming presents a serious challenge to future retro gaming, but it also presents a real loss to culture. What does it mean to have a popular medium that can’t be passed down to new generations? What will we play with our kids in the years to come—and with ourselves?
“As a video game historian, I’m interested in terms of preservation so we know what came before,” Ladyem McDivitt says. “And as a gamer, it hurts my soul.”