With the rise of collecting and a static supply of desired games, it was only natural that a solution such as reproduction cartridges would arise. The problem is that they deeply divide the game collecting community, and I honestly don’t understand why. But before we get into the defense of repro carts, just what are they exactly?
Their name is actually a perfect answer. They reproduce classic gaming cartridges that are nearly identical to those of the original release. While some of the chips may be newer models, the end result is the same: a cartridge with a retro game that works just like every other cartridge for that system. This is not emulation, but an actual game burned onto actual ROM chips that works like every other one. Copyright issues aside, this is essentially the exact game you want but don’t feel like spending hundreds on.
Let’s examine the copyright issues first, with the caveat that I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. Certainly a few games that get repros are from companies that no longer exist, so that’s certainly a grey area, but a lot of them are still around and producing games. Quite a few of those survivors continue to release their old titles on digital download so we’re looking at going from grey to black here. You could argue that none of them are currently releasing them on the old formats, so at the very best you’re looking at a dark grey area. However, you shouldn’t worry about the Copyright Police kicking your door in.
For collectors who aren’t worried so much about having a complete collection for their consoles of choice, but do want certain expensive games, repros are the way to go. Not only that, but some games are just far outside the reach of the vast majority of collectors. Every NES collector would love to have a Nintendo World Championship cartridge, but I’d assume very very few can afford the high price tag. However, most can swing the $50 for a reproduction cart which does the job just fine. The collector still gets to have that game they wouldn’t get otherwise on their shelf, and they’re not taking out a second mortgage just to pay for it.
One of the main arguments people use to bemoan repro carts is that it takes money from the hands of the copyright holders. The problem with this argument is almost none of the original creators are still producing cartridges for the classic systems. In fact, the only one I can think of is Wisdom Tree, and I’m not certain it isn’t just old stock. You might argue that if you had spent the money instead on a Virtual Console release or the like it’d go to the creators, but the people who are willing to get a repro cartridge are after the authentic experience, not the next best thing. Yes, a repro cart is considered close to authentic as it’s still the code burned to ROM chips on a cartridge, and that’s basically identical to the original. In any case, whether buying the original cart or a repro, you’re buying second hand. This might be surprising, but game producers get no money from second hand sales. While I certainly understand wanting to support digital re-releases – it’s why I bought Earthbound on Wii-U and 3DS – in this case it’s not going to make a difference as we’re comparing apples to oranges.
This is not to say there’s not anything bad about repro carts. I am completely against trying to pass off a repro as an original cart, or charging just as much as the real thing. If I had my way, all repro carts would have some kind of sign on the label or cart that it’s a reproduction so people aren’t confused. It has become almost a required skill in game collecting to be able to recognize pirate carts, and that should never be the case. I don’t mind it when people sell the games and make it known in the description that it’s a repro. If you buy one that way and are surprised by it not being original, that’s your own fault for not paying attention.
As for the cost situation, most of this is done by people who buy large amounts of stock from the same places you can buy individual carts, and they hope to sell them at a premium. For example, while researching this article I saw a few auctions for repros of Turtles In Time, which is about $50 loose. The problem was the repros were asking the same price. If you’re already going to spend the same as an original copy, why not just get the original? This is especially annoying as a quick trip to AliExpress will show you the same games for $18 – $25 a piece, usually with free shipping. If you want to pay more than you should for a repro, go ahead and do so, but don’t expect me to say it’s a good idea.
Repro carts are for the most part just a way for gamers to get a chance to play hard to find games in their original format, on the original hardware. They are just like the original carts because they operate just like the original carts. I can understand disliking them if you are counting carts for a complete collection, but otherwise there’s nothing wrong with playing a game you can’t find or afford otherwise. Sure, re-sellers trying to pass them off as authentic are scum, but that doesn’t mean the entire idea is bad. After all, if we got rid of something just because of a few jerks, we wouldn’t even have the Internet any more.