The Internet was practically invented for the canonization of the NES. No doubt that was the last thing Al Gore and his pals at ARPA intended when they did all their planning and programming back in the day, but somehow that’s just the way things fell.
Really, it’s no great mystery: The enigmatic Internet, exclusive realm of academia, dial-up bulletin boards, and pay-for-use services like CompuServe and AOL, began its transformation into the World Wide Web in the mid-’90s with the arrival of HTTP and Mosaic. In 1994, the Web began to take root. Nintendo was quietly phasing out the NES with a final handful of games. Wario’s Woods was tasked with the responsibility of switching off the lights and turning over the chairs in America, while Adventure Island IV did likewise back east.
And as the system shuffled off to the realm of memory, pawn shops, and yard sales, something important happened. The kids who had grown up alongside the NES entered high school and college, where they had easy access to the Web. And as they surfed around and conversed and shared information and set up home pages on fledgeling services like AngelFire and GeoCities, they realized they had a certain soft spot for the NES -- a collective memory that gave them common ground with this global network of anonymous strangers.
As Sony and Sega and even Nintendo pumped money into manufacturing excitement for an entirely new generation of game hardware capable of churning out 3D graphics with ease, we looked back and appreciated the simple charm of those games we’d played a few years back and so happily abandoned in favor of its shiny successors. For many, the NES was an antidote to the slick new direction the medium was striking out on: comfortable, familiar, reliable.
Of course, an important factor in this equation was the other gift the Internet bestowed on us, that of emulation, ROM files, and painless piracy. Granted, piracy had long been a serious facet of the NES market, especially in Asia. Multicarts crammed with early NES games (and dozens of Atari 2600-like variant modifications) made their way into the U.S. from time to time, and occasionally you’d even meet someone who owned that holy grail of illicit gaming, the cart copier. The Internet changed piracy, gave it a veneer of respectability. These files are for educational purposes, we were promised. Please download only for evaluative purposes and delete after 24 hours, we were entreated. ROM distributors hid behind the same façade of winking, feigned innocence that purveyors of contraband goods had employed for generations.
The greatest change the Internet brought to piracy was to make it ubiquitous, painless, and simple. Illicit game distribution, once the exclusive purview of PC games on fly-by-night BBS networks, grew to encompass console games as well. The same files used for those clever and expensive cart copiers could be transferred from diskette to hard drive to Web to everyone, and thanks to the growing processing power of home computers there was no longer any need to convert them back. Instead, players could simply boot up game files on their PCs through virtual machines with names like Pasofami and iNES.
Whatever might be said about the legality and morality of emulation and ROM distribution -- and plenty has been said indeed -- it did wonders for the NES’s legacy. The incredible coincidence of it all was a perfect storm: 8-bit nostalgia blossomed in the face of a changing medium right as enterprising hackers perfected the emulation of NES games. And, at the same time, a global medium through which to distribute those games took shape as well. Lapsed NES fans finally had both the means and the motive to explore the full extent of the console’s offerings, no longer restricted by considerations like cost or space or accessibility.
Practically drunk with the possibilities, they began exploring all those games they’d always wanted to try, the ones that looked laughably bad, and the ones they’d never heard of. The Technos Japan catalog -- River City Ransom, Crash ’n the Boys, and Super Dodge Ball -- slowly transformed from obscure curiosities to cult classics. Fascinating localization discrepancies were unearthed in games like Castlevania III and Yo! Noid. Unreleased gems like Nintendo’s fully localized rendition of Mother were unleashed years later upon the Internet. Fan favorites like Mega Man 2 were canonized; controversial oddities like Zelda II were demonized.
In short, the Internet begat a fan culture around the NES that survives to this day. Whatever damage unhindered ROM distribution has wrought -- and given the caution surrounding the DS platform these days, its clearly been considerable -- it’s also created a genuine sense of history and awareness for old platforms, and the NES most of all. NES fandom is still thriving, 25 years later. In fact, 2010 has been a remarkable year for the system. It’s brought new life to fascinating Famicom games like Dungeon Magic through fresh fan localizations. The fabled Bio Force Ape was recovered from Japan and shown to the public. The console has even seen its first entirely new creation in years, Battle Kid and the Fortress of Peril, released in cartridge format.
The NES is likely to retain a loyal fandom for years to come, even as our consoles’ Z.I.F. springs give out and our SRAM batteries fade and our cartridge leads corrode to uselessness. The console’s numeric success has long since been superseded, but its place in history is secure.