The Good, The Bad, And The Rom Sites
Rom sites are under attack. That is not speculation, but fact. While this has been true for years, with Nintendo not only winning 2.1 million dollars in a recent lawsuit against Rom Universe, but actively trying to shut down the site, these sites are in danger of disappearing if these attacks continue.
But what exactly is a rom site, you may be asking. First let’s define what a rom is. Rom is short for Read only memory, and is a type of file used for long term storage of data. While it can be used in a variety of ways, for this article we will be discussing the rom files used to hold data for video games. Many older video game system used rom files to hold their games data that is required to play or save the game in question. Every game has some form of data that can with the proper tools be copied and saved to your computer’s hard drive. This, along with a special program called a emulator, allows you to effectively play your video games on your computer. U.S. law allows owners to make a backup copy of any software they own and store it wherever they wish to. A rom site therefore, is a website where people can go and find roms of games from different game systems and download them onto their computer or other storage device.
The problem comes with the fact that while it is legal to make a backup of a game you own, doing so with a game you don’t own is illegal, and is considered to be a form of theft. These rom sites are therefore committing a crime by making these games available for others to download. So then why am I even writing this article if it’s clearly illegal?
Rom sites may be technically illegal but they actually help provide a necessary service. For while I definitely consider it to be wrong to download a copy of a game that is still new or readily available, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or the newest Call of Duty for example, there are many systems that contain games that no one is selling copies of anymore, either physically or digitally. Some of these games are also prohibitively expensive due to their rarity. It is these games I wish to talk about.
Let’s look at a few examples. Take the Super Nintendo game Illusion of Gaia as a example. This game was originally released by Enix and made by a company called Quintet in 1994 in the U.S. While not a huge hit, it still found a devoted fanbase. However Quintet has not made a game since 2002 and basically folded as a company around the same time. The rights to most of their games, including Illusion of Gaia, are unknown at this time. You can no longer buy the game new from the company, and no online stores like Steam or the Nintendo eShop have it available to download.
Next let’s examine a game called The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. This was a game for the original Playstation released in 1999 by Capcom, a well known company in the world of video games. Obviously this game can no longer be purchased in stores or from Capcom itself, and just to buy the game disc alone would set you back almost $240. The only place that it is currently available is on the Playstation 3 shop, and that is unlikely to last since Sony tried taking the shop down earlier this year and kept it up only due to customer backlash. It will likely become unavailable to buy within the next year.
Finally let’s discuss the game Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as King. This was a title that from Square Enix that was released as a digital only title on the Wii Shop Channel in 2008. It is currently only accessible to people with a Wii that still had the game downloaded on their system when the shop channel was discontinued in 2019. As of the time of writing, it is unavailable to purchase anywhere.
So why am I telling you about these games, and what do they have to do with rom sites? The answer is simple: preservation. Many mediums have initiatives to ensure works of art, music, and literature are not lost to the ages. Whether famous or unknown, you can still purchase prints or copies of these to this day due to a policy known as public domain. Seventy years after the creator’s death, a piece of art, movie, etc. can be copied and distributed by anyone without penalty. This also applies to video games. The problem with this policy is that video games, unlike most normal media, do not have large groups of people actively protecting the master code or showing them off in museums. Games are a interactive medium, and as such they have parts and coding that wear down, break, and become lost. When this happens, it is basically impossible to rerelease a game, and that’s without taking into consideration the fact that the rights to even the oldest games like Pong or Super Mario Bros. won’t expire for another 70+ years since most of their creators are still alive.
Rom sites on the other hand, allow people access to games they might not ever be able to play for one reason or another. It is through these sites that games and their history continue to survive. If it were somehow possible to shut every rom site on the internet down, imagine just how much gaming history would be lost to the world. From popular hits of yesteryear, to hidden gems, to games that cannot be legally rereleased due to licensing and rights issues, to those games only a select few ever remember playing. This is what these sites should be embraced for.
Yet unless companies like Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, et. al. stop suing sites for making games available with or without a subscription, the gamers of the future are going to miss out on a lot of the neat games that came before them. I’m not saying they should be allowed to offer new games or older ones that are actively being made available on online stores. But if I want to play Sim Tower or Wrath of the Black Manta, I shouldn’t have to hunt down the original cartridge or disc and take a chance I can still find a console or computer that will still play it.