Much to the collective delight of everyone, Nintendo released the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection last year to celebrate the 35th birthday of its red-capped mascot. The collection featured three of the best games in the series; Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy.
There was a caveat, however. Nintendo announced the collection would only be available for a short period of time. Once time was up, the game would be removed from digital marketplaces. Nintendo didn’t really provide any reasoning behind the move, although it was likely a done to create urgency and drive more sales.
Today is that day. Super Mario 3D All-Stars is no longer available. Meaning fans who missed out on purchasing it can no longer - legally - buy the collection. It’s an unusual situation and one that sets an uncertain precedent for how classic and retro games are handled by businesses. Ultimately, it shows how frivolous digital ownership can be.
We’ve already seen that publishers and developers can not be trusted to look after video games. There’s a long list of games over on Wikipedia which are no longer available. The number of games lost to time, shows that fans are the only community passionate enough to preserve games digitally. When Nintendo decides to sell a game in this way, it’s a stark reminder that we have very little control over the digital games we purchase.
Mario’s disappearance arrives alongside the news of Sony announcing its intention to shut down the PS3, PSP and PS Vita digital storefronts this Summer. This will no doubt throw hundreds of games into obscurity, never to see the light of day ever again. Nintendo also shut down a number of its 3DS and Wii U stores last year, which meant customers were no longer able to redownload games they had previously purchased.
The shift to digital is one we can’t avoid, but the way publishers handle digital storefronts needs to improve. If we do shift to an entirely digital ecosystem, customers need to be able to hold on to games in the long-term. In the 80s, 90s and 2000s, customers could buy a game and know it was there to keep for all of eternity. There isn’t that same guarantee that a digital game you buy today will still be available to play and download ten years from now.
A digital future
Truthfully, we aren’t that far away from an entirely digital console generation. Both Microsoft and Sony released disk-based and diskless consoles this generation in a bid to soften the transition. Chances are we might even lose the disk drive during this generation, when Sony and Microsoft release updated hardware.
There are businesses pushing for better DRM transparency in gaming. The likes of GOG and Humble provide DRM-free downloads, meaning gamers can hold on to digital copies of games for as long as they wish. Provided they have a hard drive and PC to play them on. Hopefully, we see Sony or Microsoft implement similar policies in the future, allowing customers to own and store digitally purchased games.
I’m not naive. I understand that Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft are all driven by one thing, profit. It isn’t feasible to keep servers running indefinitely on consoles that are approaching 15 years old. Equally, all three businesses could do more to preserve gaming digitally and honour customers' purchases further down the line.
The industry often slanders emulation as a scourge, stating that it takes sales away from developers and publishers. While piracy is likely responsible for some missing sales on launch days, emulation ultimately does something many of these publishers are not willing to do. That is preserving video games long-term so people can still play them and enjoy them.
As Nintendo and Sony have shown in recent weeks, you never know when something might just disappear.