I Will Never Pay $15 for a 30 Year Old ROM and Neither Should You

There’s been a lot of talk about retro game pricing lately, with Nintendo’s Switch Online Expansion Pack in particular being singled out as a cash grab by a company that’s cornered the market on nostalgia and can set whatever price they want for access to their older games. But Nintendo is far from the only or even the worst offender. Shoddy retro game compilations and repackaged ROMs are released every day on digital services by companies who’ve bought up the rights to defunct developers’ catalogues, asking high prices for slapdash, often inaccurate versions of decades-old games. I’m done buying them, and you should be too.

Don’t get me wrong — if you make old media available to me at a reasonable price, I’ll always go the path of least resistance and pay for it. I rent old movies on YouTube all the time, simply because it’s easy and only costs a few dollars. (Though I’m starting to sour on that too as more and more movies are subject to DRM that treats the viewer like a criminal and stops you from sharing the film with a friend over Discord.) Similarly, I’ll buy retro game collections just for the privilege of playing these games on my Switch in bed. I could get a portable emulation device, sure, but I’m lazy. I think a lot of people feel similarly — they don’t want to fuss with setting up emulators or jailbreaking hardware, they just want to buy a game on their platform of choice and hop into it with a minimum of hassle.

This is good

So, when I see releases like the Castlevania Advance Collection, I jump on them. Three Game Boy Advance Castlevania games for $20 is a great deal, and you get some extras like alternate region ROMs, a music player, and an encyclopedia in the bargain too. The Castlevania Advance Collection is a pretty good example of what retro releases should be, and it’s easy to recommend to anyone interested in the series.

And then there are packages like ININ Games’ Space Invaders: Invincible Collection, which contains eight ROMs — most of which were originally released in the 70s and 80s — for full retail price, $59.99. The collection contains no supplementary materials, and is missing a number of notable entries in the franchise. It’s a ridiculous proposition to anyone but the most hardcore Space Invaders fans. And ironically, those the most into these kinds of older titles are the most likely to find flaws in their contemporary presentations, or else are already running them in more faithful emulation setups.

Or take the recent revival of the Cotton series, also by ININ. Cotton Reboot, a remake of the original cute ’em up game for the X68000, was fairly well-received even at its retail price of $39.99. Then ININ went on to release original Cotton titles, including the Super Famicom Cotton 100% and the Genesis Cotton Panorama. These titles are each priced at $15 and contain no additional materials or extras — for that kind of stuff, you’ll have to buy the expensive Strictly Limited physical edition. But at least ININ did a better job than City Connection, whose Saturn Cotton re-releases suffered from input lag noticeable enough to put off fans of the games.

This is bad

Which brings me back to the question: who are these re-releases for? They certainly don’t seem to be for the kinds of fans who would notice porting issues or who already know the games back to front and want some kind of additional materials on them — manuals, original ads, interviews, etc. And I don’t see how they could be for players new to them. I simply can’t imagine someone with access to hardware that can run Fortnite for free dropping $60 on Space Invaders.

Mainly, these releases seem to be produced for the benefit of the companies that bought up the intellectual property of development studios that no longer exist and want to make some money off them, or else are republishing extent developers’ older titles. There aren’t many extras either because these companies don’t have the original materials or don’t want to spend the money tracking them down, important titles are missing because of rights issues or difficulty in porting them, and they charge high prices likely under the assumption that not many people are going to buy them.

Well, that’s right! And as it stands, there’s very little reason for anyone to do so. The choice for most people isn’t between paying absurd sums for the original cartridges versus paying for the rereleases of old titles on digital storefronts. The choice isn’t even between emulation and buying these ports. Most people simply see what appears to be an overpriced, older title and move on. It isn’t even a moral issue at this point — it’s one of ease. If you make it easy and not too expensive for people to buy retro games on modern hardware, many will. Jack up the price without including anything to justify the package, and they won’t.