Sony’s PlayStation Classic will be released on December 3rd. You’ve likely seen the lead marketing image—a miniature version of the original console photographed in the wrinkle-less hand of a player perhaps too young to remember the PlayStation’s original release in 1995. They’re holding the 2018 edition, finished with an identical grayest-gray plastic shell, which no doubt plays with the unsettling, ghostly accuracy of its forebear. Smaller than its clunky mid-’90s parent, this palm-sized version of the PlayStation is the cutest iteration of the brand ever—a tiny, adorable hamster of a console.
Sony’s marketing approach is near identical to that which Nintendo deployed for its own retro game consoles, the NES Classic and SNES Classic, released to wild success in the 2016 and 2017 holiday seasons, respectively. Each of those machines was also pictured in a lovingly moisturized hand, gently asking us to remember the halcyon days of video games during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Video game nostalgia, at least as represented by these pint-sized console re-releases, has become very big business, reliant on both our memories of playing these games, as well as our affection for the corporations who facilitated such experiences.
Entombed within the circuitry and hard drives of these consoles are what many consider—not least Sony and Nintendo—to be the defining video games of their respective generations. There’s already been some kickback from video game journalists bemoaning the perceived failings of the PlayStation Classic’s library. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier has labeled the line-up as “dismal,” while CNET’s Sean Buckley questioned the decision to omit games seemingly synonymous with the console, such as Gran Turismo and Tomb Raider. Hell, I’ll join the chorus and ask why LSD: Dream Emulator is missing during this, psychedelia’s big pop culture moment.
Sony and Nintendo would have a hard time of pleasing everyone, of course, and these types of complaints are essentially a matter of taste. It might not be such a big deal if there were other means of playing these games, but, increasingly, there aren’t.
One of the biggest ways games differ from other mediums is the fact that they become obsolete with time. You can’t just scour the back catalogue of an artist you’re interested in, the way you might with film or music, so people have found ways to run older games on their computers. This is called emulation, and it is a total pain in the ass. Software companies—but also a community of ideologically driven gaming enthusiasts—would craft emulation software of console operating systems from which ROM files of the actual games could be loaded. People with an interest in historic video games could then go and download said software from sites such as Emuparadise.me, only to spend hours trying to get them to work on our own lumping pieces of slowly corroding hardware. A smooth user experience has not, generally, been baked into the experience.
The companies themselves have not taken kindly to this grass-roots preservationism. In the States, at least, emulation litigation hit the news wire when Sega took the publisher Accolade to court in 1992. Accolade reverse-engineered the code of Sega’s Genesis console in an effort to circumnavigate Sega’s stringent publishing rules, one of which prohibited publishers from releasing their games on other consoles. Then, in 2000, Sony actually lost a case with Connectix Corporation, when it was ruled that the latter hadn’t broken copyright law during the creation of its emulator software, the Virtual Game Station, designed to allow PlayStation games to be played on Macintosh PCs. Reluctant to let a legal ruling get in the way of their corporate interests, Sony then purchased the Virtual Game Station software from Connectix in March 2001 before discontinuing the product three months later.
Most recently (like, literally a few weeks ago) Nintendo won a lawsuit against two major retro-game ROM sites, LoveROMS.com and LoveRETRO.co, to the tune of $12 million dollars and an agreement from the site owners—the couple Jacob and Cristian Mathias—that they will cease operations. Click through to the sites and you’re greeted with a page titled “Apology to Nintendo.” Having begun publicly in June this year, the case didn’t even have to reach its conclusion before another 18-year-old ROM site, the aforementioned EmuParadise, announced it would cease ROM-hosting operations in August.
You might think that’s fair enough: these companies are, after all, merely protecting their own interests, albeit with bullying, life-shattering sums of money. But without such emulator development, the kind Nintendo has aggressively targeted, many titles would be unplayable today. Indeed, Frank Cifaldi, the founder of the Video Game History Foundation, told Motherboard he believes Sony and Nintendo’s classic consoles wouldn’t exist at all without the emulation business having stoked up interest in retro titles.
Games, unlike books or even film and music, are tied to technological advancements designed at such a pace to render them obsolete within 15 to 20 years of their creation. Such rapid progress is part of big budget video games’ seductive quality. With each successive console generation, increasing numbers of twinkling pixels and polygons are packed into screen spaces of ballooning resolutions until our eyeballs become scorched with detail. It’s a trip.
It’s also a bit of a con. Planned obsolescence is obnoxious enough when we’re talking about your car needing constant service, but in the case of games, it’s erasing important swaths of cultural history. Game manufacturers prop up this inherent disposability and zealously perpetuate it, but they also fail to take responsibility for its preservation and belligerently target those who have safeguarded it. As license holders, they have a major part to play in either making more of their back catalog available to players or rescinding their legal battles with such emulator developers and ROM archivists.
Legally, such titles might remain Sony’s and Nintendo’s intellectual property, but once these video games enter the public sphere upon release they become part of a shared, collective history. Academics and journalists might use emulation software to access obscure curios such as the surreal Katamari Damacy progenitor No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!, released for the original PlayStation in 1998, to help tell a deeper, more inclusive story of its respective era. Students and developers might play them to broaden their understanding and knowledge of games beyond the last two or three console generations. With the dissolution of emulator and ROM sites, retro games sit under the lock and key of Sony and Nintendo—until, of course, it suits them to drip-feed a small number in the form of their retro consoles.
The PlayStation Classic, NES, and SNES Classics are just one means by which Sony and Nintendo can make their back catalogs available. Another method might be to introduce backwards compatibility, a function which enables consoles to play the games of their forebears. Sony did this for the PlayStation 2 and 3 but subsequently abandoned it for the PlayStation 4. Nintendo’s own form of backward compatibility, a download service called Virtual Console, has also been parked on its current console, the Nintendo Switch. That service ran across its Wii, 3DS, and Wii U consoles, enabling users to experience games from throughout the company’s history. The fact that these corporations have ditched backward compatibility at precisely the moment they’re looking to develop and sell their own mini-consoles makes financial sense. Obviously!
Scarcity is built into the philosophy of these retro-consoles. The PlayStation Classic and SNES Classic both feature 20 games while the NES Classic has 30—arbitrary numbers of highly curated titles that focus on their biggest, most well-known titles, save for a few outliers. The vast majority of the quirks, experiments, and other cultural artifacts that fail to meet Sony’s and Nintendo’s own teleological narratives have been scrubbed out of their histories.
Scarcity is also crucial to the actual material production of such consoles. On September 19th, it was announced by press release that the PlayStation Classic would “launch in limited quantities.” Since the SNES Mini’s release in September 2017, literally hundreds of articles have been written detailing its selling out and subsequent restocks. The message is clear: only the keenest, most fervent fans might get a slice of the retro-pie. To be a good gamer, one must also be a loyal customer.
Video games are now almost 50 years old if you take Pong’s 1972 release as an approximate marker of their birth. Existentially, the industry finds itself in a reflective mood, some corporations and individuals merely reflecting on their own histories while others scramble to consolidate their place within it. Predictably and perhaps somewhat dishearteningly, Sony and Nintendo have sought to commodify their own historic legacies. The material outcome—these tiny boxes preloaded with some of the most glittering video games ever produced—run the risk of not only obscuring the idiosyncratic video games of their past but everything else you can’t find fit inside their plastic casing and silicone micro-chips. (Is a PlayStation history complete without including its gonzo and frequently misogynistic marketing? Shouldn’t a proper history of a Nintendo console also include information about the company’s sometimes shady production methods?) The PlayStation Classic is, indeed, cool, as anything containing both Metal Gear Solid and Jumping Flash! would be, but it also represents a further consolidation of the medium’s history as its corporations demand it.