Keep Circulating the Tapes


Let the record show that I am far from a fan of content piracy. Not for any legal compunction, but more out of respect for the rights of creators to hold value to their creation if they so choose. I can’t claim that I’ve always refrained from pirating works, but I hold myself to a simple rule: if something was ever commercially available within my country, it’s off-limits for me to pick up illegally.

At least, I used to hold myself to that rule. I recently had an experience that’s convinced me to get a slight bit more lenient. Piracy is a foul thing, and in the past I’ve limited myself to utilizing it only to get works I’d never have a chance of purchasing legitimately in the first place. I have, however, recently found another utility to it. Simple archival.

Human societies have a vested interest in making sure art stays around, and stays accessible. We see value in it, to the point that hundreds of governments, museums, and other nonprofit institutions dedicate themselves to archiving, maintaining, and making available thousands of the most prominent artistic pieces. Individuals maintain their own archives, with shelves and shelves full of books, movies, music, games, etc, that they may not consume all too often, but they want to ensure are always available to them. We, as humans, see value in artistic creations. All artistic creations. No matter the quality, everything speaks to us. Some make us laugh, some break our hearts, and some we just can’t help but groan at. But our art makes up a very, very important part of human culture, and we, as a society, treat it in kind.

There’s just one problem. Art ages. And no, I’m not talking about the traditional ‘showing its age’ where the technology used to create it has marched on, making it a work that has noticeably been created in an earlier time. Nearly all forms of art will physically deteriorate. Paintings fade. Physical books yellow and crumble. VHS and cassette tape decays, and gets eaten by hungry machines. As technology gets more modern, the lifespan of various mediums increase, yet even still, they will be unusable eventually. But, in my view, time hits no medium quite so fast and quite so hard as video games.

Not all of them will be impacted by this, of course, but a massive number of games from a specific era are. The Legend of Zelda for the NES revolutionized a lot of things in gaming, but one of the most important things it contributed to the medium was the ability to save your game. This opened up the art form massively. For the first time, developers could craft experiences intended to last more than a single sitting. Players gained more encompassing games, the storytelling potential of the medium took a huge jump, and creators no longer had to fit everything into a very limited window. The ability to save, however, also gave games a quite limited lifespan.

Saving technology wasn’t so great, back in the day. In the modern era, we have memory cards, EEPROM saves, hard drives, and other ways of ensuring that save data can last for a long, long time. Back then, from when saving was innovated in the NES era until partway through the Nintendo 64’s life, games relegated save data to the cartridge’s RAM. Flash memory. Which can only hold data as long as it’s receiving power. Obviously, it’d be a bit of a pain to lose all your save data as soon as you turned off your console, so Nintendo got a bit creative with their cartridges. They fastened a battery on there, to keep the saves powered whenever the cartridges were removed. It was a good solution given the technology available to them; simple, direct, and cheap. The energy requirements of these RAM saves were minimal, so the batteries could last a long, long while. Decades, even. At the time, this solution worked great. But now, it’s been decades, and it’s hitting the point where a lot of these games, games that last for days or weeks normally, absolutely cannot be played past the introduction, because their batteries are dead. So much content, so much of these works of art, are becoming inaccessible simply due to time.

Now, there are ways to remedy this. If there’s a battery, you can just change it, right? Well, normally that’d be a pretty reasonable assumption. There are… complications to that, though. I don’t know about Sega’s cartridges, but Nintendo used a very unusual screw to keep things closed. I thought my screwdriver set was pretty all-encompassing, but I’ve got nothing I can use to pop it open. Even getting beyond that, the components inside are fragile, yet you’ll still have to physically cut the battery out. I’d wager more than a few cartridges have been ruined by those simply trying to restore them. Securing the new battery properly would require you to solder the connections to the battery, a dangerous procedure that those who aren’t innately experienced with soldering shouldn’t attempt, for fear of having a battery explode in their faces. Alternatively, you could tape the battery in, a much safer method that I’d imagine isn’t exactly good for the components either. Getting new batteries are relatively cheap, it’d cost about $3-$4 to restore one game. However, with the number of games I own that use battery-backed saves, the cost of restoring them would put me most of the way towards a whole new modern console. You could also just rebuy the game digitally. Lots of companies are putting their back catalog up for sale. The games available aren’t all-encompassing, however, and the idea of rebuying something I already own just because the manufacturer installed a timer on it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

And so, as of late, I’ve been replacing the old, unsaveable copies of games I own with digitally downloaded ones. And my conscience is clear; I’ve already bought and paid for these games, I just need a working copy of the content I already own. I don’t download any game I don’t already possess, and I only download the versions I truly own. There’s a large number of sites and organizations, such as Project Guttenberg, working to archive as much of other mediums as they can. There’s places you can go to find archived books, music, visual arts, and most anything else. There’s no organization officially archiving video games, however. But that’s because the individuals are already handling it. Now, I’m under no illusions here. Most file-sharing conducted isn’t exactly done according to reasonable ethics, and I very strongly disagree with almost all of what these software pirates are doing. But they do still provide an important service, allowing those like me whose collections are wearing down to still enjoy the works we legitimately own.

Keep circulating the tapes.