It’s become something of an in-joke within the greater games community that Nintendo is not an entity to be trifled with. Between DMCA notices against ROM sites and fangames utilizing their IPs, attempting to tango with the corporate monstrosity has a predictable end. It makes sense from a business perspective: Nintendo doesn’t want anyone marring the oh-so-marketable franchises they’ve produced over the years, and they certainly don’t want anyone accessing their creations without paying for them, regardless of the ability people have to legally play them.
Enter the bootleg. Where demand was not met by the official channels of distribution, pirate groups took it upon themselves to fill the niche. Creating their own cartridges with ripped games implanted, these groups would sell their wares on a black market at a far more affordable price and with a greater selection than typically available in these areas. Naturally, the companies these pirates were profiting off of were none too pleased with their actions.
Back in ’94, Nintendo saw fit to make a show of force in the face of these so-called pirates. In the Netherlands, an intercepted shipment of counterfeit Gameboy cartridges was strewn across the runway of the Lelystad Airfield. A man donned a Mario outfit, climbed atop a steamroller, and crushed the illicit plastic offenders. Nintendo wasn’t going to take the theft of their intellectual property laying down any longer, and this display was an effective, if blunt, demonstration of their new stance.
This gross abuse of company resources has been adapted into a title from Mariken S. (@marikeDrawinge) and fotocopiadora (@cometbook), VIDEOPULP: Super Carty™’s Dread. Its setup is simple enough: you are a bootleg cartridge on the notorious runway in the Netherlands, and Mario is desperately trying to destroy you beneath the steamroller. Run and dodge all you like, there is no sanctuary, there is no escape, as Mario will eventually crush you like all the rest.
After your demise, a quote from the play “Doctor Faustus” fills the screen, betraying the sense of transience of humanity, herein applied to the ever faster entropic dissolution of an entire artistic medium’s history. Then, a DMCA notice appears — one similar to what Nintendo had sent to GameJolt for hosting myriad fangames using elements from Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon. As a game in and of itself, VIDEOPULP is quick and punchy with its playable chunk, but that small slice serves to facilitate a greater performative piece about Nintendo’s practices. Much as it is a recreation of this bizarre event, the elements making it up carry weight — Mario here is assembled from ripped sprites, with his iconic “mamma mia!” cried out as you dodge the churning metal beast he commands.
Following the aforementioned DMCA notice is a drawing of a cheeky smiling face accompanied by text reading “This video game falls under ‘Fair Use’ of US Copyright Law (Section 107 – Fair Use Doctrine of the 1976 Copyright Act).” Section 107 refers directly to the usage of copyrighted works, specifically providing exemptions for works that serve as criticism of the copyrighted elements. A clever workaround for the protection of this project in particular, and what it contains alongside the executable.
Nestled with the game itself is a folder of supplemental materials. The keystone here being a scan of an article from a Dutch Club Nintendo newsletter outlining the Lelystad steamrolling, which is translated and presented during the opening to VIDEOPULP. The images are baffling and surreal, as a man in an oversized Mario suit dumps boxes of bootleg games to the ground while an industrial steamroller sits in the background. Local newspaper clippings covering the event are provided, further cementing the over-the-top nature of the whole thing in stark black-and-white.
There’s also a PDF that features a small collection of writing central to the thesis Mariken and fotocopiadora plant in VIDEOPULP. Three articles are here, each a different angle on the megalithic corporation’s position within the games industry and culture at large. “Super Plumber Odysseus” from Brendan Vance’s (@4xisblack) site, Corporate Future Nightmare World, emulates a triptych exploring the ethics of the Modern Gamer Condition and Nintendo’s nefarious legally-backed manifestation of quality control against enthusiastic fans.
Henrique Antero’s (@herniquetxt) “IMPALING MARIO, REVERSING SONIC” discusses a landmark game from Pedro Paiva: Mario Empalado. In it, a player progresses through a series of vignettes lamenting the state of the video game industry, its role in consumer culture, and a call-to-arms for change. Antero’s article continues on to cover Paiva’s impact on the Brazilian game scene, as well as the place of pirates/bootlegs in providing Brazil’s market any realistic hope of playing games. The immediately relevant note here is that Mario Empalado fell victim to a DMCA takedown notice from Nintendo.
Finally, an article from Liz Ryerson (@ellaguro), “FUCK MARIO”. Something of a stream-of-consciousness meditation on the complacency fostered by consumer culture and its products, the article sits confident to decry the predatory nature of nostalgia and the dissemination of criticism in the face of money and power. In their collection of these articles, Mariken and fotocopiadora refers to “FUCK MARIO” as “tonally different from the previous two,” but I believe it’s the perfect synthesis of everything explored by the other works (especially that of Vance’s article) as well as the intent behind VIDEOPULP.
The importance of the game, and its protection under Section 107 of the US 1976 Copyright Act, is a testament against the blasé horror propagated by Nintendo. Alone, the Lelystad Incident comes across as a mostly hollow action with a whole lot of pomp meant to incite fear, anger, and something akin to pride. But, the Club Nintendo article presents the drastic means as wholly necessary, a protection for consumers against buying a “pig in a poke” that could give Nintendo a “bad reputation”. Coming from their official media outlet, the whole farce is realized as nothing more than propaganda driving home the notion that Nintendo is not only a dangerous entity to upset, but that they do this out of love for those who buy their games.
Years later, and what is the lay of the land now? Nintendo has moved their actions from destruction of physical materials to the revocation of digital access. Their reputation has stood the test of time, with every report on a vaguely promising fan interpretation of a Mario or Metroid game all but sealing the fate of the developer at the hands of a blandly dismissive DMCA takedown. Sites like emuparadise collapse entirely when Nintendo demands the removal of ROMs for their games, tearing down years of archival work as they shut their doors to all to avoid further legal action.
For archivist and preservationist purposes, now-defunct sites like emuparadise were a haven. Large swaths of gaming history are lost to time, limited amounts of cartridges or discs languish trapped in an attic or junkyard, leaving huge barriers to entry for the average person. Sure, Mario 64 will forever be in circulation (and cheap) but what about the non-perennial classics, like Magi Nation? A cheap enough GameBoy cartridge, but as of the time of writing, there’s only 30 copies available on eBay. Furthermore, what about far rarer games boasting hugely inflated prices to simply acquire a physical copy of their respective slices of artistic history?
Take GameCube cult-classic Cubivore: Survival of the Fittest for instance; it can run up to $300 in some cases. For many, the only way to play these games is to simply emulate them, and Nintendo’s harmful policies immeasurably set back those who wish to explore these older titles. Tucked in the comment sections of stories covering Nintendo’s DMCA campaign are those who smugly turn their noses up at the peasants that choose to “steal” these games, wisely suggesting that those who wish to develop an expanded games literacy or understand the genesis of a genre/trend/trope/etc should just buy the game, like a good little consumer, oblivious to the barriers to entry this places in the way of those who can’t afford the exorbitant rates to access the history of their preferred artistic medium.
Truly, what could be more vile than emulating a game that has long since had its licenses expire, rendering it forever lost in a legal limbo, most likely never to see the light of day again? The correct answer here is obviously to drop hundreds of dollars on a second-hand copy, the legal option, so that the corporate gods smile upon you. Forget the fact that the original developers will never see a cent from your purchase of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon at the local retro games store, the moral option is to simply await mercy in the form of an over-priced re-release on whatever anachronistic digital walled-garden of a platform that Nintendo introduces on their latest console. Even still, what happens when that avenue itself collapses, much like the recent fate of the Virtual Console/Wii Store?
But, no one slanders those who look at a jpeg of a painting instead of going to the Louvre to appreciate it. For other mediums, ones viewed objectively as “art” by mainstream culture, revisiting the classics takes next to no effort by comparison. Important literary works require nothing more than fluency in the language they’re written in, important paintings require that one is just capable of viewing a facsimile, whether reproduction or photograph, and movies simply need a screen to be played on. Games, to be experienced in the purest legal way, demand a usually legitimate copy of the game as well as whatever platform it was made for. The schism here, as it were, is that those who champion the “right way” of acquiring these titles view games as nothing more than consumptive objects meant to pass some time, release some endorphins, and then move on to the Next Big Thing. Ease of access to them has no bearing on any greater cultural implication.
As time goes on, reacquiring older games and the consoles to play them on becomes harder and harder. Stock will forever grow more limited until all original copies cease to function, obsolescence an inevitability with delicate electronics only able to carry so many electrons before they burn out. For the genuine enthusiast, the archivist, the critic, it’s a tragedy of entropy. Without preservation, we’ll lose a medium’s history. How many games have already been lost to time? Gone uncollected by those nobly preserving all they can get their hands on? Forgotten because of obscurity, limited quantities, or indifference?
For the general consumer, does it matter? Most just want the latest Mario game, a burst of colour and joy into a miserable life dictated by megacorp advertisements, driving sales day-to-day, a clean-cut understanding of what to buy and when. Another Call of Duty will be out in a year, ready to be sold, ready to be ravaged, then thrown aside as the cycle repeats. Who will care about Ghosts in another decade? Who will caress their cherished copy of Madden ’04? It’s all transient, an echo of the last year, and the last year, and the last year.
To quote Paiva’s Mario Empalado, “EVERY YEAR HE RECEIVED A NEW PLAYSTATION, AND IT HAD NO END.”
VIDEOPULP: Super Carty™’s Dread is currently available on itch.io.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.