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There are a few old games that I want to play again (mostly Earthbound for the SNES), however I am finding it REALLY hard to get hold of a copy for a good price, as well as the requirement of purchasing a SNES to play it on...

I'd absolutely love to support the game, but the only realistic scenario I can find is having to use an emulator and rom (illegally), something I want to avoid.

I understand it will be different depending on the game and platform, I am just curious if there any moral and legal options of playing these little gems again?

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For older PC games some companies are smart enough to re-release them for very low prices (I got the entire Commander Keen pack for $5 on Steam). –  zzzzBov Oct 27 '11 at 17:07
    
Being a huge Earthbound fan myself, I believe you are sadly out of luck for the game. If you want to play Earthbound legally you will have to buy a copy from ebay, craigslist or some other such site. Starmen.net (a large EB fan site) has been leading petitions & such for awhile to get the game re-released & there has been little to no headway in getting NOA to release it again. –  The Jug Oct 27 '11 at 21:45
    
What about when copyright expires (20 years?) Doesn't downloading the ROM become legal after that? –  Earlz Oct 28 '11 at 21:02
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Copyright, sadly, takes 70 years for European countries and 95-120 years for the US. –  XSlicer Oct 29 '11 at 9:43
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@XSlicer Non-expired copyright in the US is more accurately "indefinite" so long as Disney continues to lobby for copyright extension every time Mickey Mouse's copyright is almost up. And yes I am serious and yes that is why our copyright lasts so long. –  Ben Brocka Oct 30 '11 at 15:49

7 Answers 7

Basically, if it's not on something like WiiWare, Playstation Network, or Good Old Games, or re-released ala many of the Nintendo era Final Fantasy games, then you're going to have trouble finding copies and the equipment needed to play them. The fact that certain games are simply nearly impossible to purchase anymore is often the excuse for abandonware or ROM sites. It is worth pointing out that if you buy a copy on ebay for $100, the company that owns the game won't actually see any of that money. Whether this goes against your moral compass is up to you.

That said, legally, it'd be against the law if you download a game, even if it's not being sold anywhere. Fortunately, more companies are joining the bandwagon of releasing older games for new audiences, so it's become easier to find old games for sale legally.

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In addition, some companies released their old games as freeware (without any warranties that they'll work at all, of course). Examples are Arena, Daggerfall, Beneath a Steel Sky, SimCity and several others. As usual, Wikipedia has a list ... –  Martin Sojka Oct 27 '11 at 15:56
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It's not hard to find a SNES or any other old console that was released in the US. Most goodwill's, salvation army stores, etc... have them in bulk. Any flea market has at least 10 vendors w nintendo games and consoles. A very specific game may be harder to get... but the systems are dead easy. –  Sean Gallagher Oct 28 '11 at 5:07

Using ROM images from the net, or even from a copy of a game you own, is illegal. Period.

Here is Nintendo's official take on it

If you want to be legal, you have to buy the original system or a licensed re-issue and the original ROM.

As these games are out of circulation, and as such are practically relics by modern media standards, you've got to choose your battles.

Finding Them Cheap/Free:

If you want to be thrifty and save a buck, you're going to have to hunt around and do the leg work. These items can be found at many vintage/thrift/flea market locations... often for 99¢ So you could scour the wastelands and possibly score one. It won't be MIMB... But it'll play your games.

If you REALLY love the game just buy it. No price can be put on love! Own it and treasure it. Archive it. Take pictures of it with you on vacation and frame them.

And check Craigslist. People often GIVE AWAY old stuff like this.

You are essentially collecting art and design from the past... just with the added bonus of light, sound and interactivity. Sometimes really amazing pieces of the historical past of video games fetch VERY high prices. If that is the case, just owning it can be a fight. Be prepared.

Places to Buy Old Games:

There are a lot of places that ship and have online inventory or are only a phone call away.

I can personally recommend eStarland - They have long been a leader in online retro and import game support.

8 bit and up / 212-674-0201 - Very cool owner, and great shop.

Video Games NY / (212) 539-1039 - Has a huge selection

You can also purchase a reissued console that plays both NES and SNES (and Sega's SMS/Genesis - score!) cartridges for about $30

CNES/SNES/Genesis FC3 Plus Gaming System

These systems support the original cartridges. And are also legal.

tl:dr

In short, collecting vintage via the internet isn't always cheap. To save money you're can try questing around the country side of suburbia. MILLIONS of SNES systems are always around. Plus it's always good to get out of the house, off the net and meet your neighbors!

But, unless you own a time machine, be prepared to be the high bidder or forever be incomplete in your collection if you're after a hot or controversial title.

Good luck!

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"Using ROM images from the net, or even from a copy of a game you own, is illegal. Period." Taking offense to this line. There's nothing illegal with using a legitimately-backed up ROM copy, just as there's nothing illegal with burning an extra copy of your music to listen to in your car. Nintendo likes to scare you into thinking it's illegal, however. –  Xkeeper Oct 27 '11 at 21:35
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First off, It's absolutely illegal to download it from the net, regardless of whether you own a copy. Full stop, end of discussion. As for making the copy yourself, I'd refer you to the many discussions regarding the DMCA and it's anti-circumvention provisions. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Oct 27 '11 at 21:56
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I strictly meant backing up your own copies. As for many old games, there is little to no actual circumvention going on other than plugging it into a device that happens to read the data off the chips. –  Xkeeper Oct 27 '11 at 22:24
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@LessPop_MoreFizz I suggest you read gnu.org/philosophy/misinterpreting-copyright.html . It's neither wrong nor strictly illegal, it's merely against the interpretation of copyright being pushed by most of these large companies. Unfortunately its been codified by the DMCA, but that doesn't make it worth obeying. –  crasic Oct 28 '11 at 0:02
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@crasic Which is to say: While the GNU's position is admirable, and while strong arguments can be made that copyright law, as it exists now, is restrictive, excessive, not particularly well limited in time, and inconsistent with the constitutional intent of the framers, that does not change what the law is, or the settled interpretation thereof by the courts. The policy here at Gaming.SE is not based on what is right, but rather on what is legal, for a variety of reasons. If you think the law is unjust, work to change it, don't try to deny the laws existence. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Oct 28 '11 at 11:58

A lot of the other answers are long-winded and in-depth, so I'll take the short route.

You basically have three options:

  1. Buy a copy of the game. Used game store, yard sale, eBay, pick your poison. This only works if the game is still available or still working; some games with battery-powered save-RAM (or worse, battery-powered program-RAM, like some arcade boards) will cease functioning, so this won't be an option. The older the game or the less copies that were made, the more expensive it can be, up to several thousand dollars if you want to "legitimately" play a very rare game. Note that the original vendors get none of the money from this option.

  2. Get it off your favorite official download source. Virtual Console, PSN, X-Box Live. This only works if the game has actually been released on the service, which requires that the owning company still exists, still has the proper licenses, and such things. This is why you'll never see Earthbound on there -- lawyers afraid of licensing issues due to the music and references. Note that even if a game does see release, they're usually modified from the originals. Tecmo Bowl, for example, has all of the team names and players removed.

  3. There is no three. If you've got to this step and still don't have your game, sorry. There's really nothing more you can do. Your only option is to find a copy of it online, download it, and pledge to support your favorite developers should they ever release the game again, or perhaps purchase related merchandise. Writing a letter to the developers inquiring about a re-release optional, but may make you feel better.

Sorry to disappoint, but in many cases you will end up going to option three.

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In terms of legality, purchasing the game is the only way to do it. This can either be through tracking down a physical copy of the game or going through one of the licensed distributors of the virtual content. If you want to be "legal" there's no way around those options.

That said, me going to my local used game store and picking up a copy of Chrono Trigger for 100 bucks did nothing for Nintendo or Square. You're getting into the whole issue of reselling used games which the industry is not a fan of anyway.

Neither option supports the developer at this point, but one is definitely legal. You decide what that's worth to you. Personally, if I don't care enough about a game to hunt it down for a ridiculous resale price (damn those nostalgic feelings) I just don't bother unless it gets a virtual release.

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A growing number of games are becoming available on console marketplaces such as the Wii Virtual Console and the XBox Live Arcade. This is a convenient way to play older games through legal channels.

Since you mentioned earthbound by name, though, I did some searching and found some bad news for you.

By now you’ve probably caught on to fact that EarthBound is a parody of America. We’ve become the laughing stock of the gaming universe. How dare they? Shame on you, Nintendo! It must have gone unnoticed during the game’s North American debut in 1995. Nintendo must have let out a sigh of relief when the corporate media overlooked the title.

It seems that Earthbound had a somewhat satirical view of America that Nintendo is worried may be more noticeable in replaying the game. In order to avoid offending its American audience, Nintendo seems to be happy not re-releasing Earthbound on the Virtual Console.

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Doubtful. earthboundcentral.com/2009/02/earthbound-legal-issues happily points out a whole host of potential legal issues; silly American stereotypes would hardly be something they would worry about. –  Xkeeper Oct 27 '11 at 22:13

services like gametap offer games to play (often emulated) legally via licensing from the proper company. Although i believe its mostly arcade games as i couldnt find any nintendo/sony/sega games in their retro section

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Gametap is a fantastic site that is fairly cheap and has legal access to thousands of older games.

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