The retro game scene has exploded in the last decade. For some, that may sound exciting, but it’s pretty scary and unaffordable for most. Below, I’ll explain what contributes to this potentially unstable market and what I’ve done to keep my love for older games alive.
As a “grown-up” in my mid-30s, I’ve hit the point where I want all my toys back. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. I miss the good old days when things were more straightforward, and I spent weekends tackling games on my SNES, N64, and Original Xbox and PlayStation. Or how about the hours of playtime on my GameBoy and GBA!?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve collected my fair share of retro games and gaming-related items over the last few years. I love series like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong, so I sought out some of the titles associated with my deep nostalgic desire to bring me back to the ’90s and early 2000s. The issue arises when you look at what games are “worth” and how unavailable they genuinely are in both physical and digital forms.
Sorry, This Game Is Unavailable
In July of 2023, a study was conducted about retro games in the United States and North America. Results showed that about 87 percent of all video games released before 2010 are not commercially available on modern platforms. Sure, thousands of titles are released every year on platforms like Steam and console marketplaces, often in digital form. Those numbers seem to increase every year. But if you want to return to your younger years, that possibility dwindles the further back in time you go.
For me, two of the most shocking statistics found by Phil Salvador of the Video Game History Foundation and The Software Preservation Network were:
Less than 5% of games from the Commodore 64 are still available today.
Among 1,500 classic games and studying 129 titles from that group released in the 1970s, research showed that only one was currently and commercially available.
Those are staggering numbers. In comparison, the early days of movies (pre-1960) still have more commercially available products than the gaming industry.
The Price: An Arm and a Leg
In the 90’s, grabbing a game (cartridge or disc) ran you anywhere from $40-$100. The higher priced titles would sometimes hit those triple digits because they were imports or, for whatever reason, exclusive to brick-and-mortar like Blockbuster or Game Stop. Now, everything is treated as such.
It’s true that many of the games you think of have been in landfills for 20+ years, so there are fewer available. But you can’t tell me that a 64MB chip, some plastic, and a small label should go for over $150.
I understand that supply and demand is a tricky but powerful force. For example, if there are only a couple dozen copies of a particular movie worldwide, the price will shoot right up. Or how about TV and movie props? Those run for thousands at any given auction.
It might not be the only reason retro game prices are inflated. Still, publishers and “the big three” of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have not always been on the side of game preservation or backward compatibility.
Nintendo has thousands of products that are constantly in high demand. Having something like the Virtual Console was a great way to allow people to go back and purchase old games and add them to their digital libraries. Plus, on the business side of things, Nintendo made a few extra bucks here and there. A win-win! Today there is the Nintendo Switch Online option (one that I also subscribe to). Still, you don’t actually “own” any of these games, and you’re at the mercy of the drip feed of releases to play something new or emulated onto their service.
Managing the Madness
What can we do about this? I don’t have a definitive answer, and I’m not sure there is one. But as the title of this article suggests, I’ve hit the emulation train at full speed! It won’t “solve” many systemic issues I’ve already laid out. Still, it will at least provide some enjoyment in the middle of a seemingly unruly and intimidating gaming scene.
Companies and services like Antstream also exist as cool, innovative alternatives. They have worked to create a platform that allows you to play well over 1,000 games, while working on scoreboards and a points system that feels like the classic arcade days.
Sure they don’t have every game imaginable, that’s just not possible. But at least the option is there, especially if you are nostalgic for the late 80’s to mi-90’s era of gaming.
I still believe that having some physical media on hand is a great way to help preserve what so many talented people created over the years. Plus, if taken care of, they’ll be really interesting and unique collector pieces. Magazines, DVDs, CDs, and gaming cartridges and discs are all essential art pieces in their own ways.
Time To Emulate
I’ve emulated games off and on for years. Loading up SNES and Sega Genesis apps on my PC is pretty straightforward, but it’s also not quite as enjoyable. I don’t own any USB controllers for those older consoles, so playing them with Xbox controllers feels strange. Plus, it’s far more difficult and not so easy to get a couch co-op session going.
Emulators have existed for decades. I remember trying to use them in the good’ol days of large, chunky, 128MB of RAM PCs… damn, I’m old. At that time it was tough to do and there was a whole lot of internet wild west going on with the likes of MP3 file sharing and downloads on Napster and Limewire.
I looked into several solutions and came across quite a few glowing reviews from a Ukrainian creator named Krikzz. I quickly searched their products and noticed just how many cool emulation solutions they had available. They aren’t the only ones out there, but it’s where my experience is.
I purchased an Everdrive 64 x5. This (and others in their store) works through a physical cartridge that plugs directly into your retro game console. The 64 x5 comes in a slick 1990s-style plastic box that looks and feels like a VHS rental case from a video store. Inside is the cartridge, with classic grey colouring and a well-made label. Then there’s the SD card slot on the side where the OS and your games and ROMs will be read.
I have found the Internet Archive to be an excellent place for ROMs. They’re an organization trying to preserve billions of pieces of content for people to use for years. Games are just the beginning.
After a few short steps to download the OS and games onto the SD card, I was ready to go on my Nintendo 64. A simple menu lets you sift through your ROMs, then a quick press of the A button and I was hitting golf balls in the Mushroom Kingdom.
The Everdrive 64 x5 also allows you to save your games authentically. Here’s how that works: I hit a save point in Paper Mario. All I have to do is hit the Reset button, which shoots me back to that spot the next time I load up the game. Save states do not exist on this particular product. These are great to have at times, and honestly, I enjoy using them on much longer and stricter games like Majora’s Mask, but without them, it’s a far more authentic experience.
The Push and Pull Of Emulation
Don’t get me wrong, the lineup of games on Nintendo Switch Online is still decent, and there’s a lot to play. But I think the alternatives are far more extensive. Either way, you’ll need to shell out a few extra bucks to get these services or products in your hands, but they are way less expensive than the sometimes outrageous prices for physical versions of these titles. Emulation or through Nintendo themselves, it’s worth dishing out the extra cash.
There’s, of course, the moral push and pull of emulating games. It’s been a topic of discussion for years, and it likely won’t go away soon. I appreciate and understand the argument that it can be seen as illegal. Using a piece of art (movie, photo, TV show) without the creator’s permission and not paying for it is a problem.
It’s a personal decision of mine to try to make the most of a situation that I believe is unattainable for me and many others. There’s no reasonable way for me to own all of the N64 games and retro game titles I can and want to play. People have families, mortgages, groceries to buy, and much more. If companies like Sony or, in my case, Nintendo, don’t want to make their works of art available to the general public, then I don’t know where else to turn.
You may disagree, and that’s completely understandable. I do stop myself from time to time thinking, “Do I need to do this?” The answer is actually “no.” I don’t need to play these retro games, but they make me happy and help me create some content I hope readers like you will enjoy. Plus, I want my childhood back……..simpler times, you know!?
If you want to support game preservation and research, I suggest backing places like the Internet Archive and the Video Game History Foundation. The teams are there to keep our memories and, more importantly, the developer’s hard work alive.