When I was a kid, I loved video games, but I didn’t have a ton of money to spend on them, nor the consoles required to play. So when a friend of mine told me about game emulation, it kind of blew my mind.
“Wait, I can play video games on my computer for free?”—11-year-old me, probably
It’s easy to learn how to use an emulator: Think of it as a software clone of a specific game console. Download the right emulators for the consoles you need, pick out some game files (also called ROMs, after the file format) and open them in the emulator software. And yeah, I realized at the time that this wasn’t totally legal. But, speaking for myself, I didn’t see a lot of harm in emulating older games, like Pokemon Fire Red, or Ocarina of Time. They were less demanding to run on my janky computer anyway.
Now fast forward ten years: This Monday, November 12th, two popular ROM hosting sites (LoveROMS and LoveRETRO) were ordered to pay $12.23 million in damages to Nintendo for posting copyrighted intellectual property. All that remains on the websites is an apology letter to Nintendo.
When the lawsuits were originally filed in July, they had a chilling effect on the community that has grown around emulation over the last two decades. Many reliable, well known ROM websites quickly removed public access to their content to avoid being hit with similar retaliation.
But emulation proponents say that ROM websites can be historical archives. If previous-generation games aren’t somehow preserved digitally, their physical forms will deteriorate and eventually become unplayable.
Right after the lawsuits were originally filed, I got to speak with MasJ, the founder of EmuParadise— arguably the most well-known source for retro and classic video game ROMs, and one of my favorite websites from back in the day. We spoke about the lawsuit’s impact on the future of gaming and game archives, and what this says about public domain.
This interview has been edited for clarity & brevity.
Desmond: What is EmuParadise, and how and why did it come to be?
MasJ: We’re a group of video game preservationists. A lot of the movies from the 1920s and 30s have been lost because nobody bothered to preserve them. With video games, what we’re trying to do is make sure that that doesn’t happen. We archive video games from their original formats and convert them into ROMs. Then we store them and make them available to people so that they can relive the gaming experiences that they used to have as children or as young adults. It’s a great pleasure to be able to play something that you did as a child, and if you want to get a secondhand game like from the ’80s or ’90s, sometimes it’s upwards of 500 dollars. What we’ve been trying to do is disseminate culture, as well as preserve it at the same time.
Desmond: Do you play games yourself? How did you get into this?
MasJ: Yeah, I play a lot of video games. I used to play a lot more than now. But I didn’t have access to a lot of these retro game titles because I grew up in India, and we didn’t have official releases of a lot of these retro game consoles when they were current in the ’80s and ’90s. So when I got an internet connection, I found out about emulation, and I was like, “Wow, this is so cool! I can play all these games that I never got to play.” And I realized that there weren’t a lot of websites about this, so that’s how it got started.
Desmond: What’s your favorite game?
MasJ: I have to say Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo.
Desmond: That’s cool. Did you find that through emulation?
MasJ: Yeah. I didn’t have a Super Nintendo, or a Nintendo, or a Gameboy, or even an Atari. The first consoles that actually started to get released where I live were the PlayStation 1 and beyond. So I saw a lot of games through emulation. Even today, there are people who are in countries like Brazil, and the Philippines, and Indonesia, who are able to play these games because of emulation.
Desmond: Tell me what happened when you took all your games down. Why did you make that decision?
MasJ: It’s been a long journey. Ever since we started the site in the year 2000, we’ve been receiving letters or takedown requests for some titles. Imagine you get a takedown request for some obscure retro title, and you just take it off. And that’s it, you’re done, right? We kept doing that, and we figured that was good enough. In fact, we were pretty prompt with our responses. But what happened recently, given the whole lawsuit, was that there were no takedown requests sent. There was just a humongous lawsuit filed [against LoveRoms and LoveRetro,] and that was it. When we saw that, we were like, “OK, maybe we need to rethink our position on this, because we’re not going to be able to make it out of that kind of lawsuit alive as a community.”
Desmond: How many of the games you host are retro titles?
MasJ: It’s only retro games, actually. We don’t host anything which is on the market. Everything is off the market and extremely hard to find, even in a secondhand kind of situation. We love the gaming industry, we love the games, we’re not out to harm the gaming industry. Our whole idea is to do no harm and still have a good time and be able to play these games and enjoy them.
Desmond: What do you think is at stake with the loss of ROMs on these websites?
MasJ: The entire history of video games is at stake. We’ve been making efforts to preserve and disseminate these games for 18 years now. They’re becoming harder and harder to find. I’m confident that there are people who will make efforts to preserve all this stuff, but it’s going to get more and more difficult, and the harder it gets to find, the harder it gets to preserve. With these shutdowns, access is definitely going to get curtailed and preservation efforts will definitely fall behind, because it also has a chilling effect on people who are trying to preserve these games. I don’t think game emulation itself is going to be affected significantly. There’s a slowdown when this kind of stuff happens, but then it picks up steam again eventually because the truth is that people are really passionate about this stuff. [The video games that we grew up with] are part of our shared cultural heritage. It might slow down for a bit, but then there will be somebody else who will take on the challenge. There are other sources, EmuParadise was just the biggest one.
Desmond: I know many YouTube personalities really established their careers streaming games. I was wondering how you think ROM websites have played a role in the growth of YouTube and streaming sites like Twitch?
MasJ: I know a lot of YouTubers who use EmuParadise. I got a lot of e-mails from them when they were like, “What did you do that for? Come on, man!” Then they of course understood the situation. But I think it’s a big deal for YouTubers to lose access to all of this, because they’ve built their audiences and their content based on [that] and a lot of them talk about how they use ROMs to be able to showcase retro games. That’s the domino effect of the cultural quotient of all of this.
Desmond: I’ve also heard people call ROM websites art preservation– especially your website because you do specialize in retro games. How do you feel about that?
MasJ: I think it’s a legitimate way of looking at it. Unfortunately, the law is not on our side. This is something that we hope to explore with some kind of legal exceptions or something, but there are industry interests that lobby to make copyright extremely restrictive, and it’s unlikely that individuals or preservationists are going to be able to surmount that challenge. So yeah, the challenge is preservation of art. I consider games to be art. Most of the people in our community do. However, I don’t think [that’s] the broader perspective at this point. People consider music, movies, and paintings, and sculpture to be art but video games haven’t quite made it there for some reason.
Desmond: So, you guys have run the website for nearly two decades now. What’s next for you?
MasJ: We’re still in the process of making plans for what’s going to happen next, but we’re hoping to pivot into some kind of retro gaming community, where we can have tournaments and online sessions with each other and also maybe some write-ups about retro video games and stuff like that. There’s a bunch of ideas. And eventually, we’re also looking at maybe bringing back some of the games, with the proper legal permissions, but that’s a very long process and it might take a few years to get around to that.
Desmond: Anything else you wanna say?
MasJ: Game on! Keep playing those retro games. I think they deserve it because there are some really great gems in there, and we shouldn’t forget about them.