GeekPlanetOnline’s Editor-in-chief, Matt Dillon, is a man of many passions - although most of them involve a joystick. In this semi-regular column, he shares his thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of video games (and occasionally other things).
To be a video game collector is, to a certain extent, to willingly embrace a world of pain. This is because of one simple, undeniable fact: even today, games consoles and their software are not designed to last. The fact that they do – the fact that you can not only buy old, working hardware and games from the home market but find outlets which service and sell arcade boards, accessories and full-sized coin-operated cabinets – is because ordinary people appreciated their value decades ago and preserved that hardware for future use. The companies that manufactured that hardware and software, on the other hand, expected it to be rotting in a landfill only a few years after they put it on sale. Because of this, collectors and hobbyists like me end up rather like Kaylee Frye; we clean, we repair, we bodge, and we do so because that console might be an obsolete rustbucket but damn it, it’s our obsolete rustbucket and we’ll keep that sucker running if it kills us.
And yes, this can be frustrating. It can be costly, irritating and fiddly. Games cartridges with battery backup, for example – and this encompasses any cartridge which lets you save your progress, from the original Legend of Zelda on the NES all of the way up to the likes of Pokémon Emerald on the Gameboy Advance – are aptly named. The saved files are stores in an area of volatile memory of the cartridge’s circuit board and literally require a battery to keep the memory powered and the files intact: if that battery dies, with it dies all 151 of the Pokémon that you caught. Yes, even Mew. So I think we can all agree that the smart thing to do upon the acquisition of a new cart for your collection would be to change that sucker, yes? Except that battery backup batteries don’t clip into a nice, neat little compartment like they do on computer motherboards; they are soldered directly on to the circuit board. If you want to be able to start a new game of A Link to the Past without fear you need to learn how to learn how to wield an iron like a boss, my friend. There’s your pain, right there.
I mention this because of a couple of conversations that I’ve had with fellow gamers recently. Both expressed reservations over the current generation of consoles and the modern trend towards digital delivery platforms for content; “What happens,” they asked, “when the DRM servers get shut down? You won’t be able to authenticate your games any more. And for that matter, what happens if your hard drive fails and you lose your DRM? You won’t be able to download it anymore!” Both of them have a point. Both of them also favour delving into retro gaming as a stopgap until the industry… I don’t know, to be honest. Recovers? Comes to its senses? Regresses and starts reissuing games on cartridge? None of those things are very likely to happen. And in the meantime there’s a world of entertainment out there that they’re locking themselves away from because in ten years or so (taking the history of the PlayStation as a yardstick) they might not be able to play them anymore.
But here’s my take on this situation: gamers always find a way. People more inventive, more clever and more passionate about their hobby than I could ever be do amazing things to ensure that old hardware can still be used. Right now, on eBay and various online outlets, you can buy brand new memory cards for the PlayStation, N64 and Gamecube. They’re unofficial, they’re third party, but they’re sturdy and they work. There are stores which will sell you a replacement contact assembly for your creaking NES. There are websites which will teach you how to remove the Megadrive’s region lock lugs, bypass your SNES’ lockout chip and clean your hardware. You can buy reproduction joypads for when you can’t find originals, and plug-through cartridges which let you dump the cartridge ROM (including those precious save games!) to a SD card. Gamers figure out how to keep their collection running and they share that knowledge. So why would the current generation of consoles be any different?
Yes, there will be a gap. There will be a period of months, maybe years after Microsoft shut down the Xbox One’s access to the Live servers and Sony cease support of the PlayStation 4 where keeping those old titles running may be tricky. But the community will find a way to mod that hardware, patch that software, and let you pick up your controller again, because it always does. Kaylee never gave up on Serenity and nor should we.