Recently, at a friend’s, I noticed a Gameboy Color sitting out in the living room. Loaded into it was an arresting red cartridge. Pokémon Red. When I commented on it, he expressed interest in getting a copy of Silver. I cautioned him to get a certified refurbished or go to a game store where he could test the save and make sure the cartridge battery is still good. He looked at me blankly and said, “I’m pretty sure they just manufacture them.”
This threw me because my experience is that old things are rare and valuable, and people care deeply about having these items in their collection and they certainly don’t just work. In my conception of the world there did not exist infinite physical copies of my childhood nostalgia. My friend directed me to an Etsy site teeming with what was exactly that – an endless supply of my physically embodied childhood. These couldn’t be original I thought to myself. They weren’t. It turns out they were reproductions (repros as they’re referred to). To most people this isn’t interesting. They’re just ROMs given physical form, but this interested me in ways that a desktop emulation never could. Repros hold many trappings I’m a sucker for:
- Graphic design plays a surprising role.
- There is an economy to the reproduction market I wasn’t expecting.
- They democratize and distribute older unused proprietary technology.
- They deal in the preservation of an industry with a notoriously difficult to trace history.
The cartridges I saw ran anywhere from seven to twenty dollars, sometimes more. It's not the game titles that drive the price though:
"Some more artistic or enterprising sales teams will go so far as to recreate packaging approximate to an original SNES or Genesis release, complete with printed instruction manual and cardboard inserts. This ratchets up the price for each game, given the cost of printing and manufacturing (and coming up with the clamshells for Genesis cartridges)." ([John Learned](https://www.usgamer.net/articles/reproduction-cartridges-and-elegant-piracy))
When data can be infinitely copied, it makes sense that the value of the object would be derived at how well it can remind the buyer of their original experiences.
The question of legality is what initially set me down this path, because reproductions are bootlegs. To date repro sellers have avoided prosecution, but with Sony, Nintendo, and others introducing retro devices into the market, I wouldn’t be surprised if some heavy-handed copyright lawsuits hit reproduction sellers.
Despite where one stands on the legality of this phenomenon reproduction sellers engage in a vital service. They are keeping long abandoned games in production and allow for those interested to mine the depths of their content, enjoy them, and analyze them as pieces of art, but by bottling these ROMs inside of physical hardware that can run on the original devices, they are doing something else. By creating an object that performs one action inside of its original context they are supplying an antidote to the constant onslaught of media from our past being torn asunder, appropriated, remixed, and re-presented to us without its proper history or context.
We live in an era of atemporality, a constant barrage of past, present, and potential future occurring in simultaneity. On your Gameboy there are no notifications cloying for your attention, the feed doesn’t refresh and send you in search of what looked to be a promising tweet. For a moment, the reproduction, on its single-purpose hardware, gives you respite from the churn of the information age.
Image by Nate Balcom from Pixabay
A good friend of mine is doing playthroughs and analysis of classic video games. Checkout their channel.
An interesting article on nostalgia and retro video gaming from an open access journal.
A psychology article on video game nostalgia and its positive effects on the brain.
An overview of the repro community and some of the debates going on within it.
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