I Wish More Publishers Let You Buy DRM-Free ROMs.


This week SNK Playmore just launched what some might consider the greatest Humble Bundle of all time: around 20 DRM-free NeoGeo games, but what’s underneath that nearly touches on a kind of digital distribution I’ve wanted to see someone attempt for a while. I think we’re a long way from actually seeing a publisher deliberately do it, but there are places where we can already effectively make it happen.

The catch with the NeoGeo 25th Anniversary Bundle is that most of the games in it are literally arcade ROMs packaged in pretty bare-bones emulation wrappers. What you get out of the box doesn’t offer a whole lot of features but you still get some great games. The silver lining however is that if you peek into the files for each game you can find an archive that is essentially the original ROM (along with a separate BIOS file), which you can drop into the third party emulator of your choice. Even if you don’t like how the games in the bundle are packaged or the fact that only four of them right now come with Steam keys, at the very worst you’re legally buying about 20 ROMs for $10, and they aren’t locked down to any kind of DRM or other client.

Services where publishers literally sell you old ROMs definitely exist. Sega’s been doing it on PC for a while, particularly through Steam. Virtual Console and PlayStation Classics are quite literally doing this. All of those however are locked down behind either a console or some other gate. True preservation of those classics is left to the whim of either the console manufacturer or the service  (though I still think Steam has been better than any console in that regard). What I’d like one day is the ability to just buy naked ROMs from their original publishers to run in the emulator of my choice.

Freedom from DRM and preservation are the main selling points of GoodOldGames.com, and most of that store’s games are really just DOSBOX wrappers. In July I wrote a post about how you can rip the original DOS files from many of them and run them in other emulators like D-Fend Reloaded, so it’s really the same as what’s happening with this NeoGeo bundle. I just wish some store would do all this without customers having to dig into the files to grab the ROMs, and on a much wider scale.

One emulation site I’ve found offers an impressive array of services that perfectly illustrate why some people choose piracy over buying old games. When you search for a ROM on this site (which I won’t name), in many cases you not only get the ROM, but you can also find a PDF of the original instruction manual and even play the ROM right in the browser. GOG, PSN, and Virtual Console give you the manuals too (and more in the case of GOG). Humble Bundle let’s you try out some of those NeoGeo games in the browser. I just wish some place would put all these services together with legitimate transactions.

Imagine if, say, Konami (ignoring the current state of the company), let you buy a naked ROM of Super Castlevania IV or Contra III and just let you dump it into the Super NES emulator of your choice. Maybe it might offer its own emulator or individual wrappers as an option. Maybe to convince people to pay legitimately instead of downloading the ROMs elsewhere it could offer extra things like the original manuals, soundtracks, artwork, old player’s guides (Nintendo did that with Earthbound on Virtual Console), and more. Imagine if Namco, Capcom, SNK, and Square Enix joined in. Sure you’d never get first party Nintendo games on a service like this, but you could get all the third party classics because the emulators by themselves are legal.

Publishers have been selling their classic games on PC for years, often in ways not tied down to outside clients. I feel like the only thing keeping them from openly selling the unaltered ROMs is fear of confusing customers who might not know what to do with them. I say there are already enough potential customers out there who know how to handle ROMs and emulators to just sell them those ROMs and let them determine how to play them.


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