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Nintendo closed some digital storefronts. Experts say it's bad for video game history

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Nintendo is known for a lot of beloved game franchises, like The Legend Of Zelda...

(SOUNDBITE OF LEGEND OF ZELDA ITEM JINGLE)

SUMMERS: ...Metroid...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "METROID PRIME 3: CORRUPTION")

JENNIFER HALE: (As Chozo biotech computer) Data received.

SUMMERS: ...And Kirby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: But if you haven't purchased specific titles like Pokemon X and Y, for example, you may never have another chance. This week Nintendo closed its digital storefront for the Wii U and 3DS consoles. The company says it's, quote, "part of the natural life cycle of any product line as it becomes less used by consumers over time." That means the games made to play on those devices are going to be really expensive, if not impossible, to purchase. It's raising new concerns about the future of access to digital media and art for a lot of people, including preservationists like Kelsey Lewin. She's co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, which aims to archive, celebrate and teach the history of video games. Kelsey, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KELSEY LEWIN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Kelsey, what is at risk of being lost as a digital storefront like this one closes?

LEWIN: So there are thousands of games between these two systems that are essentially gone now, many with no other way to purchase them even on the secondhand market. Video games are kind of special. You know, they're written to work on only one kind of device, and that's kind of where it's stuck forever unless someone does the hard work of moving it to another device. So the metaphor I like to use is, like, imagine if movies were stuck permanently on VHS tapes. Like, imagine if we just had to maintain VCRs because anything that came out on VHS could never be on any other format. You know, it could never be put on a DVD. It could never be streamed on Netflix. And for video games, it gets even worse than that because some games are digital only. They were never on any physical media in the first place. And once they're gone, really the only option for access is piracy.

SUMMERS: Yeah. As somebody who tends to follow video game news pretty closely, I have been fascinated as we are now seeing game fans who are taking preservation into their own hands. Jirard Khalil hosts a YouTube channel called The Completionist, and he says his team dropped a whole lot of money to buy every single game on the Nintendo eShop.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "I BOUGHT EVERY NINTENDO WII U AND 3DS GAME BEFORE THE NINTENDO ESHOP CLOSES")

JIRARD KHALIL: That's 866 Wii U games and 1,547 3DS games. And this whole ordeal cost $22,791.

SUMMERS: Not cheap. So, Kelsey, how important are fan movements like this to video game preservation? And if you could, walk us through some of the history.

LEWIN: First of all, Jirard's project there is ridiculous, and I think probably it shows a very clear picture of just how incredibly insane it is right now to be able to preserve these in a legal way. You know, fans historically have coded, you know, incredibly complex emulators, which are, you know, basically programs that emulate the way a machine works so that you can have a Nintendo on your computer. But a lot of this requires breaking copyright law, and people interested in this kind of entertainment shouldn't be required to break the law or spend $23,000 as their only means of accessing these games.

SUMMERS: What do you think the long-term solution is to something like this, to making sure that video games have a place to exist and to be accessible regardless to what corporations want to do with them?

LEWIN: Yeah, the short version is copyright reform. So here's one example of how it could change. The only way a library can collect and lend video games right now is physically, which means maintaining physical hardware - and if you want to cover the breadth of video game history, that's, you know, dozens and dozens and dozens of consoles - and then physically lending out the games. So most institutions just don't even bother right now because it's so cumbersome. Allowing these institutions to do things like lend out video games digitally so far have been kind of shot down by lobbyists representing the video game industry. I would really love to see game companies themselves step up and put their weight behind preservation solutions. I think it's necessary. It's just not reasonable to live in a world where the only option for accessing these games past their digital shelf life is piracy.

SUMMERS: Kelsey Lewin of the Video Game History Foundation. Kelsey, thank you so much.

LEWIN: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vincent Acovino
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.