Why Apple’s app store change is great for retro game preservation

Rebecca Hills-Duty
iPhone with Famicom in background

Apple has recently announced it will now allow retro game console emulators to be listed on the App Store. Is this the first step towards better game preservation?

Many retro fans were delighted by a recent announcement by Apple that allowed retro console emulators to be listed on the Apple App Store for the first time. The new policy changes now allow ‘software that is not embedded in the binary’ for certain use cases, with retro game emulators being specifically cited.

It has long been understood that the retro console emulators themselves are perfectly legal, but the hosting of ROM files may be a sticking point for many.

For the App Store, most analysts expect that companies such as SEGA will offer an emulator with access to a selection of its classic game catalog, similar to the SEGA AGES line on Nintendo Switch.

It seems remarkably unlikely that Apple will open the floodgates to ROMs from non-official sources, which may disappoint some. It also brings a significant problem into focus.

Companies like SEGA, Nintendo, and Atari are all too happy to re-release versions of their popular games on new platforms, but what about the less popular ones? Those games which are known and loved by only a small group of fans?

Let’s take as an example the SEGA Saturn title Panzer Dragoon Saga. By the accounts of pretty much everyone who has played it, the game is a JRPG masterpiece.

However, it is a very rare game, with physical copies going for upwards of $1000. SEGA has never seen fit to re-release this title, and a persistent rumor suggests that this is because they have lost the source code.

SEGA Saturn with two games

In theory, it would be possible to reverse-engineer an existing copy of the game to port it elsewhere and re-release it, even taking into account the eccentricities of Saturn architecture. The question is, will SEGA bother putting so much effort and money into such a project for a game that didn’t sell that well originally?

By having an easy-to-access emulator on the Apple ecosystem, companies could release a ROM license to see if there is a market for more obscure titles before porting more fully-featured versions on other platforms. This could benefit the company, consumers, and video game preservation in general.

Up to 87% of video games are not preserved

A recent study by the Video Game History Foundation (VGHF) found that a staggering 87% of classic video games are not legally available, with only 13% of game history archived in libraries. The problem is steadily rising in urgency, as save batteries in old cartridges die, cartridge connectors corrode and even optical media starts to suffer from the dreaded ‘bit rot’. Every retro gaming fan knows the pain of having a beloved piece of hardware fail.

We’ve seen this problem made manifest before in other areas of media. Just one example was when a ‘lost’ episode of Doctor Who is found in an obscure place. Media history was lost because TV was not seen as valuable enough to keep, something that only changed when it became easier and cheaper to store large amounts of video.

Dr Who DVDs, featuring 'lost episode' The Macra Terror

Today, storage is not a problem. The problem largely rests in the law. The Digital Millenial Copyright Act (DMCA) restricted people from making copies of any work protected by digital rights management (DRM). Exceptions were made to archive digital works such as photographs, movies, and ebooks. No such clause was made for video games, however.

Short of forcing companies to preserve games by law, perhaps there is a simpler answer. A basic ROM archive license, issued by publishers to those ROM sites we aren’t supposed to know about.

The ROM sites would have the responsibility of maintaining an archive, publishers can ensure that even obscure or bad games are made available to the public without any risk or expenditure, as well as getting access to games whose source code has gone missing. Everyone wins, right?

A lot of big game companies like Nintendo have taken an adversarial stance towards fan-made emulators, ROMs, and fan games. This harsh stance just means that brands like Nintendo are engaged in an endless game of copyright whack-a-mole that sours the relationship with the fanbase and benefits no one.

I can only hope that Apple’s slowly relaxing stance will prompt more companies to look again at emulation and see the benefits it can bring, instead of automatically bringing down the banhammer.