Repro Densetsu – The Secret of Repros

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When I was a teenager, I remember calling the Square Software help line and asking about a Stateside release of Secret of Mana 2 (aka Seiken Densetsu 3). The gentleman on the phone told me they had decided to pass on its release because they were localizing Super Mario RPG, and they simply did not have the resources for both. I really didn’t care about Mario. My love affair with platformers had ended the Christmas I first played Dragon Warrior, which came free with my renewal to Nintendo Power. I fell in love with Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) at a time when Western releases were few and far between.

I can’t imagine I was the only youngster disappointed with Square during that time period. We’d already been denied half the Final Fantasy games (not to mention Dragon Quests V and VI). Until Final Fantasy VII broke sales records, JRPGs were just too expensive to be profitable in The West. Eventually we’d get localizations of several of those overlooked titles, but games like Secret of Mana were relegated to the corners fan translations and computer ROMs. We missed gems like Bahamut Lagoon, the original Mother, the last installment in the Monster World series, and the forerunners of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. Playing the translated ROMs wasn’t the same as shoving those plastic cartridges into my old “warhorse” 16-bit machines. The emergence of reproduction cartridges (“repros” for short) in the past few years has changed all of that.

Stripping down old game cartridges and giving them new life as the forgotten imports of yesteryear has quickly become an underground industry. I now own complete mint-in-box copies of Secret of Mana 2, Bahamut Lagoon, Mother Earthbound Zero, and about a dozen others. Not a single one of them has come from a factory production line or a major publisher.

The process is reasonably simple. An old worthless Super Nintendo Cartridge as common as Madden 95 is pulled apart for the board inside. The front sticker is wiped away, new chips are placed on the board, an English translated ROM of another game is transferred into the chip, and a new sticker label is printed. For some of the high end reproductions, authentic instruction booklets and game boxes are produced as well. What was once a worthless Madden cartridge sitting in flea market or bargain bin is now the Secret of Mana sequel I always dreamt of, right down to the packaging. And it’s all done in someone’s basement, one game at a time.

Some “repro” artists deal exclusively in custom boxes and instruction booklets, while some focus solely on cartridges. Most “repro” artists deal in both. Anyone can do it with the right tutelage and materials. Nintendo and Super Nintendo seem to be the most popular system for which to manufacture, but “repros” exist for Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, and several others. Not every old cartridge in existence will work as a “donor”. Cartridges have different boards inside them, and only certain ones are compatible for the chips and ROMs to be inserted. The chips and labels have to be ordered separately. The materials for books and boxes aren’t cheap either. These items are being produced one at a time, not 15,000 at once in bulk. The people making “repros” need soldering equipment and special programming adapters that run from their computers to the circuit boards. Making a single cartridge can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes, limiting production to maybe a dozen cartridges a day for a single person. Many “repro” dealers get so backlogged with orders that they shut down their websites every month to catch up.

These websites are everywhere. Cheaper cartridges, from the 8-bit Nintendo for instance, typically cost the buyer $30 a cartridge. Higher end Super Nintendo cartridges can run twice as much. Some of the games with boxes and booklets reproduced can run as much as $100 each. Even at that price, dealers can’t keep up with orders. The cartridges cost about half the price in materials. A donor cartridge will cost from $1.00-$4.00. The new chips cost around $6.00 each. Some “repro” games might require more than one. If the new game is an RPG and requires a battery, that’s another $2.00. The stick label for the front will run another $2.00. There’s also the initial $50.00-$75.00 to buy a programming convertor and a soldering kit. Many of the “repro” dealers take “donor” cartridges from their customers in trade credit. A good game hunter can get a “repro” tagged at $60.00 for a quarter of the price if he can find a few cheap sorts titles to donate.

One “repro” dealer, David, works out of his basement. He makes just a few cartridges each week, but then he’s just getting started. According to David, there are close 100 people around the country who understand the process. Some of them make as many as 15 “repros” a week. They’ve been doing it for a few years now, so there could easily be several thousands of these assorted cartridges in circulation, possibly more. The problem, he continues, is that many of the materials are no longer produced and can only be found in old cartridges that are one to two decades old. These “donors” are common enough, but they are still ultimately a limited resource. Other problems can arise. A single soldering mistake from a fidgety hand can render an entire board, and a newly purchased chip, useless.

That leaves the question of the process’s legality. ROMs of original games are placed onto the chips and subsequently onto the boards. While these ROMs may have original English language on them, the rest of the content of the games are still the intellectual properties of their creators (SquareEnix, Nintendo, Sega, etc). Distributing these ROMs, regardless of format, for profit constitutes an international copyright infringement. Most of these “repro” websites are very visible on the internet. They advertise their trade publicly. Dozens of them pop up with a simple Google search. And what about making counterfeit originals? What will happen when mint / complete copies of Super Nintendo Dracula X start flooding the market, almost completely indistinguishable from the original? While it is illegal, none of the big companies seem interested in defending their copyrights. At the current rate of 2000 cartridges a year with an average markup of $25, Nintendo is denied a miniscule amount from a market it has largely abandoned.  Is it not worth Nintendo’s time to pursue each individual case? As David said, “There is no legal loophole. It’s just that they don’t care yet, but they will soon.”

Legal or not, “repros” are a fast growing underground industry. With the physical game market stagnant and increasingly slipping to phones and tablets, a large sect of gamers are turning their money backwards in time to these forgotten classics. The trend is something of a mix: moving “away from the traditional game market,” but still entrenched in physical game purchases. Will the market for this work continue to grow or fade away? When will the larger companies take notice and take action? And how will these dealers fit into the game industry as a whole? Surely, it will be an interesting sub-industry to watch. In the meantime, I’ll be firing up more new games on my Super Nintendo than on my Playstation 3.

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