Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost

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Nintendo announces closure of Wii U and 3DS eShop (Yahoo! News)

I used to carry mini-notebooks around to jot down ideas in, and I can still distinctly remember making a list of video games I wanted to buy at some point in the nineties. One of those games was Arcana, a dungeon-crawler JRPG for the Super Nintendo along the lines of Shining in the Darkness for the Sega Genesis. I’d rented Arcana a couple of times, and while it didn’t feel like anything particularly special to me, it was definitely well-situated in my favourite video game genre, and I’d never had a chance to play the game through to see its ending, or even most of its story. (Keep in mind, this was long before we could all just look up playthroughs of video games on YouTube.) I always considered RPGs to be worth the investment to buy, if only because of their incredible length compared to other video games of the era, and I still consider three JRPGs released during this time (Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IV, and Chrono Trigger) to be the three greatest video games of all time.

The notebook I wrote that list down in is currently somewhere in Ohio, but I never bought Arcana. Once JRPGs really went mainstream in America after the success of Final Fantasy VII, video game developers were all too happy to test the waters with their own games; the genre had always been incredibly popular in Japan, but few of the games had made their way to American shores because the colossal amount of text in the game often made translation costs prohibitive. As the nineties went on, I kept amassing this huge collection of JRPGs that I definitely wanted to play some day, but between all the other things I was doing in the nineties, I would often only get to test them out for about an hour or so before shelving them for later play. My return to college happened after that, then my focus on my teaching and writing careers, and I never got a chance to go back to the JRPGs I’d bought and wanted to play, let alone all the older JRPGs I still hadn’t picked up at used video game stores.

Going back to college definitely took me out of the loop when it came to video game developments, and it’s only been in the past two years or so that I feel like I’ve finally begun to catch up on nearly two decades of stuff that’s happened with video gaming that didn’t cross my path in one way or another. I bought some video game stuff during that time, though, and I picked up a Wii as soon as I could (which wound up being about two years after it initially released, just because of the console shortages in the system’s early life). As much as I liked what the Wii could do in terms of playing modern games, the fact that Wii owners could buy legitimate, legal copies of older games to play on the Wii through its Virtual Console service may have been its biggest selling point for me. I’m fairly certain that I spent more on games for older consoles on the Wii than I did on new Wii games, and I’d probably still be buying Virtual Console titles if Nintendo hadn’t shut the service down a few years ago.

I also bought a Playstation 3 eventually, and I appreciated that a lot of older games for the original Playstation system could be bought as digital downloads and played on the PS3. I even re-bought a lot of old Playstation JRPGs that I’d originally picked up, but wasn’t sure I’d get around to playing if I had to dig out my old Playstation system and hook it up to my television first. Sure enough, those digital downloads sat unplayed on the hard disk of my Playstation 3, and now I can’t even play them because my console is busted. (I think the hard drive got messed up when I took the system with me from Ohio to Colorado to Wisconsin, but I’m not sure.) It felt like I was just never going to get to experience those games as more than just videos of other people playing through them on YouTube and Twitch.

When I launched my Twitch channel a couple of years ago, in part to help me ritualize my daily video game break (which has become more and more of a mental necessity as this pandemic has dragged on), one of the things I wanted to do was to use that time to work my way through all those older JRPGs I’d never played myself. I’ve been playing a lot of games that I’ve played before, and even a smattering of newer games, but so many JRPG franchises that I’ve never experienced to any appreciable degree — Breath of Fire, Lunar, Suikoden, Wild Arms, the post-NES Dragon Quest games — are calling out to me now. Playing those would not only let me cross them off the to-do list I still keep in my head, but because those games are so long, I wouldn’t have to worry about what to play on my Twitch channel for several months, if not years.

That’s a lot easier said than done, though. Nintendo closing down the Virtual Console for the Wii was a bad enough blow, but now that they’re about to close similar services for the Wii U and 3DS, many more games are about to become unplayable in modern form for me. While getting copies of the original game cartridges is still possible, many of them sell for absurd amounts of money on eBay, and I don’t have my older consoles with me here in Wisconsin. This doesn’t even account for the fact that many of them used batteries to save game files, and those batteries were usually designed to last for about twenty years, meaning that we’re now several years past those batteries being reliable. Even playing them on the Wii U and 3DS would be expensive for me, since I’ve never owned either system, and used consoles are currently selling for much higher prices than they did when the systems were new in stores.

Those of us who were early JRPG fans were among the first evangelists for video games being a nascent form of art, and as many have remarked in recent days, video games deserve the same kind of preservation that other forms of art receive. Yes, illegal copies of these games can be found online, but as an artist stuck living in a capitalist economy, I shudder at the idea of depriving artists of money for the work they do. While these video games may still technically exist in the dwindling copies of functional game cartridges that still exist, deterioration of physical media inevitably means that there will come a time where, outside of illegal copying, these games will be lost to time, and for all the hard work that was put into making them — to say nothing of the memories that they created for us gamers — they deserve a much better fate than practically vanishing because a console manufacturer simply can’t be bothered to keep selling games that they’ve already put up for legal digital download.

Although I haven’t played Arcana in over two decades, I did replay Shining in the Darkness this past year, because Sega has done an excellent job of preserving a lot of their Genesis-era games and making them available on modern consoles, as well as computers and smart devices and the like. (I just wish the emulator they used wasn’t so buggy.) Maybe I’ll never play Arcana again, and maybe I’ll never get to any of those older JRPGs that I wish I could play now to help me contextualize modern JRPGs before I get to them, but the fact that Nintendo alone is deciding to make this so difficult for me is really taking away from the good memories I have of playing their games when I was younger. It’s also making a lot of us much more weary of buying new games now, because when video game preservation seems to matter so little in 2022, how can we be sure that games we buy today will still be available for us to enjoy in a decade? All art deserves some kind of preservation, and Nintendo failing to do its part in preservation efforts is absolutely demoralizing for me not just as a gamer, but as an artist as well.

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