Earlier today, I had a conversation with my best friend about the recent commotion surrounding Nintendo’s crackdown on ROM distributors and the manner in which it seems to have restarted a discussion about the legality of emulation and the preservation of classic games. She and I frequent different spheres of the gaming community; I tend to frequent mainstream gaming outlets, engaging with their communities and keeping up with the latest news. She, however, exists in the realm of Tumblr, YouTube, and fandom; rather than engage with enthusiast press, she prefers to frequent communities of like-minded fans who share her passions.
This disparity often results in the two of us having remarkably different perspectives on events occurring in the game industry. For instance, as an aspiring games journalist and recently-graduated English major, I’ve been fascinated this past week by the gradual manner in which the Filip Miucin plagiarism scandal has virulently spread to envelop so many different corners of games media and the independent YouTuber scene. However, when I attempted to broach this topic of conversation with her, I was stunned to learn that she hadn’t heard a thing about it; rather, her sphere of the gaming community has been consumed with debate regarding these recent developments in the emulation space.
I was, at the very least, aware of the story that kickstarted this conversation: popular ROM distributor Emuparadise’s decision to cease offering ROM downloads in the face of potential legal action by entities such as Nintendo. Emuparadise had been the premier name on the emulation scene for eighteen years, during which it hosted a massive library of games from across multiple generations of platforms. The site’s decision to become a hub for discussion of retro games rather than distribution of said games reverberated throughout the gaming industry, bringing attention to systemic issues regarding the lack of a reliable means to preserve gaming history.
My friend indicated that this issue is a much hotter topic than its level of media exposure would imply, telling me that the discussion has largely devolved into two camps: those who are angry because this deprives them of a way to replay otherwise-inaccessible classic games, and those who are angry because it deprives them of a way to play classic games for free. In the wake of Nintendo’s attempts to monetize its history via the NES and SNES Classics, it’s no wonder that the publisher would commence legal action against ROM distributors; why buy these nostalgia-infused packages when you can just play the ROMs for free?
I understand both sides of this conflict. On one hand, copyright law dictates that it is well within Nintendo’s (and other publishers’) rights to protect their IP, and unsanctioned distribution of classic games constitutes direct copyright infringement. On the other hand, video games are a form of media with a profound barrier to entry in that most games are locked to the platforms that they were released on. For example, the shift from cartridge to disc-based distribution formats resulted in an entire twenty-year era of games ending up lost to time. The older the game, the more difficult it is to find in a playable format, unless you go to the trouble of hunting down older consoles. In most cases, the price tag associated with such a search usually isn’t worth the effort to play a single game.
The three major titans of the gaming industry have made more of an effort to preserve their back-catalogs in recent years, albeit with price tags of their own. Sony’s PlayStation Now service features a significant portion of their back catalog, albeit locked behind a $99.99-a-year subscription. Microsoft has adopted a friendlier approach to game preservation, enabling backwards-compatibility on the Xbox One while also featuring classic titles from the original Xbox and 360 eras on their subscription services, Xbox Game Pass. And of course, Nintendo has attempted to appeal to the nostalgia of their fanbase through the launches of the aforementioned NES and SNES Classics, as well as the promise of retro NES titles becoming available this fall via their Nintendo Switch Online services.
Game developers at all levels of the industry have also attempted to preserve their previous titles via remasters and re-releases. However, these titles are often packaged in bundles and are almost always either beloved classics or cult phenomena. Where the true issue regarding the loss of ROM distribution sites lies is in the preservation of games that fall under neither of these categories – some titles fail to make their mark on the public consciousness in any significant way, shape or form, ranging from poorly-reviewed licensed games of eras past to experimental one-off IP that die on the vine. These games are the ones that are truly at risk of disappearing as sites like Emuparadise cease distribution in favor of self-preservation.
Coming off of my conversation with my friend, I gave some serious thought to games that I absolutely loved that would become virtually unplayable without the use of an emulator in today’s environment. I was surprised to find that there weren’t many I could think of, likely because most of my gaming background is tied to the PS2-era onwards. So I stretched my memory to its limits, back to the first console that ever stole my heart: the Nintendo 64.
And then I had it:
Hybrid Heaven is by no means an all-time masterpiece; on the contrary, it was one of a series of underwhelming Konami releases on the Nintendo 64, the likes of which included Castlevania 64 and Deadly Arts. However, it’s a game I love unabashedly, mostly due to its semi-intricate combat system and a narrative that hinges on the patently absurd.
I frequently internally debate whether or not Hybrid Heaven should technically be considered an RPG – there’s no real ability to customize your character or shape their personality, but your character possesses trackable stats and combat unfolds methodically. I suppose it can be considered an action game with RPG elements.
Let’s see if I can summarize the game’s plot in a way that makes any sense whatsoever (because the plot sure doesn’t): You begin the game as “Mr. Diaz”, one of many synthetic human clones known as Hybrids created by a malicious alien known as The Master. The Hybrids were born with only one purpose: to systematically replace members of the upper echelons of every notable world power – Mr. Diaz has been stationed in Washington D.C., tasked with assisting with the abduction and replacement of the President of the United States.
As the game opens, Mr. Diaz, in the midst of a meeting with a Hybrid of one of the President’s foremost Secret Service Agents, Johnny Slater, goes rogue and executes Slater’s Hybrid, after which he appears to suffer the complete and utter loss of his memories and is promptly returned to the Hybrids’ subterranean base/spacecraft for debriefing and examination. He kills the security staff assigned to oversee his return and fights his way through the base, accidently releasing a group of hostile alien creatures known as “Bioweapons” as he avoids capture and reprogramming by his Hybrid superiors.
At least, this is the premise for the game’s first two levels, until the divine intervention of a species of benevolent aliens known as the Gargatuans saves you from certain death, after which they proceed to drop a plot bomb on you: you are actually the real Johnny Slater, whom the Gargatuans released from Hybrid captivity in an effort to disrupt the Hybrids’ plans. Wiping your memories and disguising you as Diaz, they introduced you into the Hybrids’ above-ground operations as a double agent, unable to anticipate that their programming would falter and you would assassinate your own Hybrid. Now, with your cover blown, your mission is to work your way through the Hybrids’ complex, prevent the replacement of the President of the United States, assassinate the Master, and in the process, save the world.
It’s an absurd narrative that could rank up there with plenty of low-budget sci-fi B-movies, and it’s not handled in any way that can be classified as particularly good – but it is novel, in its own way. It’s hilarious to conceive that this game was released by Konami in the same generation as Silent Hill, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Metal Gear Solid. Yet, it was, to middling results. However, despite its failings, it was novel in some pretty fascinating ways.
The reason I struggled to classify Hybrid Heaven’s genre was due to the fact that it featured a rather unique battle system, the likes of which I haven’t encountered since. During enemy encounters, Slater would enter a boxing stance, he and his opponent able to freely move around the battle arena, attempting to maneuver each other into a position in which they might be vulnerable. The moment that you would choose to attack, however, the combat would freeze, and a menu would appear, allowing you to select from a range of attacks mapped to individual body parts. For example, you could jab with your right arm or kick with your left leg. You could also grab your enemy and attempt to perform one of many wrestling maneuvers on them, ranging from piledrivers to headlocks. However, you could only perform one move at a time – in this sense, it was akin to turn-based combat, in that the player would choose a move and their opponent would attempt to counter it with a move of their own. The more that you used different parts of your body, the more they would level up, encouraging experimentation.
Hybrid Heaven also featured a local multiplayer mode in which two players could assume the roles of one of the game’s many characters, be they Slater, Hybrids, or Bioweapons, and battle it out in a series of enclosed arenas. This arguably made the combat loop slightly more interesting – it’s far easier to predict when the AI is going to choose to attempt an attack than one of your friends. However, it was hindered by the fact that you were both confined to the same screen – if you know what move your enemy is going to make, it’s easier to counter.
As I said before, the game wasn’t necessarily good. However, it was unique for its time, delivering an original narrative and innovating in the realm of turn-based action combat. And it’s impossible to find, having never been re-released in any conceivable format since its 1999 release. It’s a game I hold deep affection and nostalgia for, and the notion that there’s no conceivable legal way to play it without hunting down a console that was discontinued almost two decades ago is tragic to me.
We need to do a better job of preserving the history of this medium, but that’s going to require that we strike a balance between the perception of video games as a business and the perception of video games as an art form.
And that’s not going to happen overnight.