You see that binder over there? Yeah, it doesn’t look like much. To you, it might just look like a bunch of magazine pages tossed together in a three-ring, wrinkled by time, with numbers scribbled across page after page. Here and there, a note finds space on an otherwise-filled page. Yeah, garbage to most, yet this is one of my treasures, let’s call him “Five”.
Five doesn’t belong in our world today; he’s too old fashioned, and not handsome enough to compete with those X Box and PS guys. He was a 16-bit stud in his day though, and has seen a lot through the ages, before retiring to a dusty shelve in the residential corners of an old shop in Taiwan.
If we run past the narrow road filled with the strange aroma of exhaust fumes mixed with food from roadside vendors, we will come to the remains of an old game shop of long ago. Five’s companions have disappeared in ages gone by, to make room for gaming modernity. But even that has fallen to the wayside, as smart phones edged their way into the scene.
When you go to the counter, ask for old man Wang, and he’ll tell you a thing or too. Business is slow, conversation is great, but only if you can speak the local tongue. Mr. Wang is standing behind a glass counter, once-filled with treasures. Now, nothing occupies this real estate, aside from a couple of dusty PS3 boxes. Peering behind Mr. Wang is an ancient computer, two floppy drives sticking from it’s tower. A fat monitor sits next to it, covered in grime. Curious, I inquire.
“Oh that thing,” asks Wang, pointing to the computer. “Let me show you something, I’ll give you a look.” Wang disappears for a few moments, mentions hitting the bathroom as well before returning. “Be patient for five minutes”, he tells me. When he reemerges, Wang is carrying Five under his arm and throws it on his counter. “This”, he tells me, “goes along with that”, and I settle down for a story.
“Back in the early 90s, Super Famicom was starting to become popular over here. People also had Sega Mega Drives, but it was not the popular brand. Compared to Super Famicom, everyone felt that there were less games to choose from, and besides, the people’s favorite was always Mario, not Sonic.” Wang stated my exact feelings. In my household, Nintendo was also the fan favorite. Growing up, I knew few people with Segas.
Wang continued, “All of the Super Famicom games, you can see them in Five. It’s a catalog of sorts. Copied games were the norm here, and for good reason. A single cartridge would cost $1000 (local money), but we could get that cost down to $100. Here’s what we’d do.”
At this point, Mr. Wang reached under the counter and pulled out a dusty Super Nintendo machine, nearly jet black in dirt and grime. Attached was a game copier. And without loading up the computer, he prepared to demonstrate what he did.
“$10,000”, he chuckled. “That’s what this thing cost. Throw in the SNES and that was another $3000, $13000 total. Sega also had copiers, same price. But with less games came less popularity. So I bought a copier, and copied the games onto that old machine over there. Kids and teenagers would come in, pay me $100, and within minutes they’d walk out with a brand new Super Nintendo game, all on one disk. If in the same situation, if you could buy one cartridge or ten floppies for the same price, which would you choose?”
I smiled and nodded, as the answer was clear to me.
His setup was basically like the Nintendo’s Famicom Disk Writer machine, only it consisted of a generic computer, Taiwan-produced copiers, and standard floppy disks. And the link between consumer and the copies was Five, the beat-up magazine pages stuffed inside the binder. Presumably the numbers aided in locating the game file on the computer, to make copies.
With my treasure in hand, I thanked Mr. Wang and climbed back into the saddle, prepared for the long journey back home. As the wind whipped through my hair as I rode down city streets and over bridges on that cloudless night, I couldn’t help but turn over the things I had heard minutes earlier – a shopkeeper proudly explaining the dynamics of selling in a country uninhibited by copyright law. And to have a token of that moment, a folder that had witnessed thousands of copies being made in a bygone era, priceless. A true piece of history. As always, the best things in life are free.