ROMs Play a Vital Role in Filling in the Gaps of RPG History

ROMs Play a Vital Role in Filling in the Gaps of RPG History

STARTING SCREEN | No ROMs means no way to play a lot of classic RPGs that still don't have legitimate releases (and probably never will).

Late last month, Nintendo took out hits on several long-lived ROM hosting sites. EmuParadise, LoveROMs, and LoveRETRO are just three victims. If you want to play Battletoads for free on your computer, the process might be a little harder than a mere Google search from now on.

But Nintendo's execution of Order 66 on ROM sites is much more impactful than simply making it less convenient for people to play an old Rare game that can be re-purchased elsewhere (and wasn't very good to begin with—OH!). When ROM libraries are snuffed out, so are irreplaceable pieces of game history. For every instance of Nintendo preserving its own history with the official release of a long-lost game like Star Fox 2, there are dozens of games that remain nigh-inaccessible thanks to scarcity, cancelled releases for near-completed products, or the out-of-control pricing on the secondary market.

Nintendo's cease and desist isn't just bad news for game preservation, though. It's bad news for fan translations—a scene that's helped me patch up some otherwise-unfillable holes in my personal RPG history.

No ROMs? No Bahamut Lagoon translation.

Nintendo's efforts to immortalize its own legacy via the NES Classic Edition, the SNES Classic Edition, the Virtual Console, and whatever it has planned for Nintendo Switch Online doesn't make a dent in the pages and pages of game history being left out in the rain. ROM sites don't just chronicle obscure game releases: They also house betas, rare launch-day editions of games, and early releases that went out to reviewers (The Cutting Room Floor recently did a tear-down of Mega Man X3's review copy. Equally as vital are the ROMs of Japan-exclusive releases that are mandatory downloads if you want to apply a fan translation patch.

Nintendo obviously has the right to protect its own property. Its lawyers would probably use the word "obligation" instead of "right:" Japan's recent crackdown on barcades that let players noodle around with old game systems demonstrate Nintendo's ROM shutdown order probably comes from a place beyond "We just feel like being a Big Evil Corporation."

I've been thinking back to the late '90s and early Aughts, though, a time when my first Pentium computer made it possible to download and play NES and SNES classics from my childhood. For a while, I reveled in being able to re-play games my broken NES could no longer handle; let's not forget poor engineering caused the NES' connectors to bend out of shape over time. If I wanted to replay Dragon Warrior III (which was already difficult to find as a physical release by the late '90s), a ROM was far and away my best option.

ROMs made it possible to replay my old favorites after my NES was literally bent out of shape.

My excited gorging of old games got old in a few weeks, though. I quickly moved on to more exciting territory: Playing RPGs I'd only seen still images of in "Dig This Crazy Shit from Japan!" sections of game magazines. Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger turned me into an RPG fanatic in the '90s, but RPG localization was a long, costly process with little financial payoff back then. We missed out on some of Squaresoft's best work as a consequence—until fan translators stepped in a few years later.

I'm still stunned when I think back to how much time and effort went into these translations. Nobody got paid for them; nobody even expected much in the way of accolades. The translations existed because the teams who forged them hated to see those glaring gaps in Squaresoft's English library. That's why, in an era when the Internet was still new and mind-boggling to me, I could play mysterious games I'd only wondered about until that point. Final Fantasy V. Seiken Densetsu 3 / Secret of Mana 2. Bahamut Lagoon. Radical Dreamers. Front Mission.

Squaresoft games weren't the only coveted translations on the menu. Fan groups gradually worked on Dragon Quest V and VI, the Fire Emblem games (which, lest we forget, dates back to the Famicom but had zero presence in North America until 2003), and more. Legitimate or not, ROMs made it all possible.

Well, guess I'll just have to buy an actual copy of Seiken Densetsu 3 for the Switch OH SHUCKS, WAIT A SECOND.

Moreover, ROMs arguably bolstered the RPG genre outside of fan translations. Would Earthbound headline the SNES Classic Edition if its ROM (and its energetic fan community) hadn't re-introduced hundreds of thousands of players to this initially-overlooked RPG?

Heck, at least we have legitimate ways of re-buying Earthbound. Very few of the fan-translated ROMs mentioned above received an English-language release. Seiken Densetsu 3 is still at large, even though Japan got a Switch release last year. For years, Final Fantasy V's only official translation was the wretched script found in Final Fantasy Anthology for the PlayStation. Terranigma, one of the best action-RPGs of all time, has yet to receive a North American release even though the game's been translated in English for European audiences since 1995—and unless Quintet resurrects like the protagonists from its games, it's unlikely a North American release is ever coming.

And as for an official translation of Mother 3—

It'll be nice if someone important at Nintendo of Japan is moved by this memorial for ROMs' role in RPG history, but I'm going to lay down odds on it never happening. To clarify, I'm not upset at losing free access to these games: I'm upset there are very few official alternatives. I'm an adult, and as someone who works in a creative field, I know how important it is for creators to get paid. I want to buy legitimate translations of Seiken Densetsu 3 and Mother 3. I want Terranigma to be readily available to download on the Virtual Console. I wanted it years ago. Well, here we are, and here's what everything's come to. What a damn shame.

Looking Ahead for the Rest of the Week

  • Guacamelee! 2 (PC, PS4) [August 21]: The follow-up to 2013's very enjoyable Metroidvania. It's been years since I played Guacamelee, but I distinctly remember running around as a chicken.
  • Shenmue 1 & 2 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) [August 21]: I've not played Shenmue, but I'm told it's quite a lot like Yakuza, except Majima doesn't pop out of garbage cans to harass Kiryu. I'd say "What's the point," but I pride myself in being open-minded.
  • Kero Blaster (Switch) [August 23]: This might be my heritage as a mobile game reviewer sneaking in, but I'm ready to give Kero Blaster my full recommendation. It's another excellent platformer by Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya—the Cave Story fellow. You already know this is legit, but I played Kero Blaster on iOS back in the day and really enjoyed it. The Switch release should be great.
  • Little Dragons Café (Switch) [August 24]: So, let me get this straight: You run a café, and you raise dragons? Yes, hi, I'll take 100.
  • Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition (Switch) [August 24]: …Sure. Why the hell not.

Mike's Media Minute

The movie of the moment is Crazy Rich Asians. The film opened to $34 million domestic for the weekend, which is pretty damned good for a romantic comedy and just above expectations. Much like Black Panther earlier this year, Crazy Rich Asians was a film that's not only doing well with general audiences, but also pulling hard on specific demographics. As always, representation matters and Hollywood is going to be rising to meet this demand that was was always there, but being ignored.

For Crazy Rich Asians, the film is already in the black, as its budget was only $30 million. It has yet to launch in many of the largest international regions like the UK and Australia. It's currently not known whether the film will see a release in China.

In other news, mega-shark move The Meg has cross $314 million worldwide, which puts the production in the black. The action flick star Jason Statham up against a giant CG shark and… that's really all I have to say about it. It's based on a novel by Steve Atlen, who has written seven books in the series so far. Expect those sequels I guess. I've read the first two novels and really, they only have one book worth of plot.

the next major release is Kin from Lionsgate, The Nun (the latest Conjuring universe film), and The Predator, which has looked pretty rough in trailers. The Nun follows a series of good to great films and The Predator is by Shane Black, so there's hope.

Caty’s AltGame Corner

Last week, the latest Ludum Dare game jam wrapped up. The theme for installment 42 was a simple one: Running out of space. The results game developers came up with in the 72 hour timespan were wildly varied, as they typically are in game jams. From a game about ensuring dogs live a happy and healthy life for as long as they can to making your way to the exit door on a packed train during rush hour, the theme stretches its boundaries.

My favorite of the bunch that I've played though is Noor, an adventure game with a delightful pixelated art style and a monochrome color palette to match. In it, you play as a little creature who hatches on a dark island. They can shoot light to find their path, with little circles of light to travel to. It's really adorable, and as its itchi.io page notes is still in active development, but it's a great concept that's kind of astounding to know that it was made in such a short timespan. It's rough around the edges obviously, with a bit too brutal of difficulty and a teensy bit of tediousness to its combat, but since it's en route to a post-jam version, hopefully the problems won't persist in the final version. You can play Noor for free in your browser on itch.io.

This Week's News and Notes

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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