Home / News / Apple allows retro games on iOS at last. Here’s what you can and can’t do | Pocket Gamer.biz

Apple allows retro games on iOS at last. Here’s what you can and can’t do | Pocket Gamer.biz

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Apple allows retro games on iOS at last. Here's what you can and can't do

Alongside the latest titles, retro gaming is a never-to-be forgotten sub-genre of games that – thanks to millions of fans worldwide – just won’t quit. Retro gaming communities work hard to deliver the classic games that ignited and inspired today’s gaming greats to – potentially – a whole new audience who can fall in love with them all over again.

Discover what gaming was like at the dawn of today’s blockbuster industry or simply wallow in nostalgia and enjoy those 10p-a-pop end-of-the-pier arcade games one more time in your new favourite place to be.

But the process of serving up yesterday’s classics to today’s audience is one fraught with uncertainty, blurred lines and potential legal issues. For while ‘lost’ games may appear to be fair game and the process of giving them a new life seems a benevolent process aimed at only delivering joy, as soon as money begins to change hands the issue of who really owns what (from an age where contracts no longer exist and handshakes are long forgotten) rears its head and sets out to bite everyone in the ass.

Recently issues surrounding rights have caused a number of high profile emulators to pull the plug as sleeping giants such as Nintendo – who normally let things slide in order to keep loyal fans happy – have decided that enough is enough, laying waste to popular emulation app Yuzu and striking fear into makers of similar sources.

So what’s legal and what isn’t?

Or if you’re Apple and one of the biggest platform gatekeepers in the world, simply ban apps that deliver retro games, stay out of the fight and keep your nose clean.

So who owns forgotten retro games? The original designer and programmer of the game? The spare-bedroom company that fronted up the cash so they could make it? The publisher that put it into shops? Or the makers of the platform it ran on? Discuss (all on a strictly case by case basis).

Or, alternatively, if you’re Apple and one of the biggest platform holders and gatekeepers in the world, simply ban apps that deliver retro games, stay out of the fight and keep your nose clean.

And that’s been the law… Until recently.

Apple have changed their restrictions regarding the delivering of retro games on iOS and – provided you squeeze through their inevitable set of restrictions and goalposts – this could be win win, not only for smart developers and rights holders to do the right thing, but for gamers who – for too long – have had to rely on nefarious means to get their fix of old classics.

Yes, developers are now allowed to create and distribute emulators for retro consoles and arcade games and these retro game and console emulator apps can offer downloads of games.

Just as Apple’s iTunes store cut through the swathe of shady ways to obtain MP3s in the early 2000’s – being a place to finally get cheap, legal music delivered digitally and reliably – so we could be on the brink of a new wave of retro gaming apps and App Stores ready to let you own and play games that up until now you’ve either had to search and illegally bring back to life, or never knew existed at all.

So emulators are legal but the games… aren’t?

Much like the cloud surrounding the use of casual drugs it’s basically possible and legal to possess the means of playing the games (i.e. you don’t have to look too hard on the internet to find an emulator program for your chosen platform able to run old retro games) but the downloading and ‘owning’ of the games that they play, and the trade and traffic in such fare, are a far greyer issue.

ROMs – digital bit-to-bit rips from arcade gaming cabinets and console cartridges and discs – have been around for years and exist on the internet in their thousands (if you know where to look). The unsaid (and impossible to police) rule being that IF you already own a game (be it hardware standalone, or in your possession as physical cart of disc software) you could legitimately justify owning its digital contents (the ones and noughts that make up the game) and would be justified in finding alternative means to play it.

But with doubt surrounding the whole business and a new App Store to run, Apple meanwhile simply opted to put the lockdown on the whole idea – just to be on the safe side.

Now, however, times have changed. Part of Apple’s new guidelines surrounding alternative App Stores have been amended (in section 4.7) thus: “Additionally, retro game console emulator apps can offer to download games. You are responsible for all such software offered in your app, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws. Software that does not comply with one or more guidelines will lead to the rejection of your app.

Basically, if you can prove it’s yours to sell, you can put it for sale on iOS. And if you don’t own those thousands of ROMs that you’d like to sell on your new App Store app? Forget it.

Basically, if you can prove it’s yours to sell, you can put it for sale on iOS. And if you don’t own those thousands of ROMs that you’d like to sell on your new App Store app? Forget it. But hey, for retro gamers and rights holders with bulging legit back catalogues it’s great news.

So why the change of heart? Why after 16 years of Apple App Store ban could we now be on the brink of a retro gaming new wave? It’s simple and – given the fuss around the European Union’s Digital Markets Act – we’re surprised you’re asking.

Basically the big gatekeepers are being forced to open up and, rather than let Android side-loading have all the retro fun, why not use their reluctant lowering of the drawbridge to ensure that retro gamers don’t jump ship to the other side with the creakier rules? Simply put when the retro walls come tumbling down Apple doesn’t want its iOS faithful having their heads turned.

So what kind of apps could we see?

It’s easy therefore to envision the kind of ‘arcade compilations’ and ‘retro classic bundles’ we’ve seen on consoles already popping up on iOS. Namco set the ball rolling way back in the early days of PlayStation with their Museum series of discs, each with five or six perfect emulations of their arcade games. And Atari’s 50: The Anniversary Celebration is currently doing likewise on every popular console today.

Platform owners and rights holders could finally set free games they’ve been sitting on for years. It’s easy to imagine a Capcom Classics app or the return of Namco’s Museum, and – doubtless – there are many iOS users that would love to be reunited with their favourite games gone by.

Perhaps even Nintendo could climb on board with an App Store – much as they already do with their Nintendo Switch Online Classic Games – which brings ‘lost’ classics (that are very much under their legal ownership) to Switch. An official Nintendo iOS app offering Super Marios from consoles gone by? Zelda 1 and 2 (NES)? A Link To The Past (SNES) and Link’s Awakening (GameBoy)? All on iOS? Now, anything is possible.

Game (not) over, man!

However, before you get too excited there’s a very good chance that Nintendo may prefer you to buy these games on their own platforms and stores, thank you very much. And with Switch 2 coming soon it’s hard to see them giving away the crown jewels just yet (despite the huge overnight windfall it would bring). But now, at least, the option is there for rights holders to create stores and deliver their goods.

But what about everyone else? All the 80s Sinclair ZX Spectrum games? Arcade hits by companies that no longer exist? The hundreds and thousands of ROMs circulating in the darker recesses of the internet? Are these all fair game and could we be seeing them all again soon?

Once again, here’s where the water muddies. As to who’ll be testing that water and whether you’ll be playing School Daze on your iPhone any time soon, time will tell. But don’t expect Apple to really throw legal caution to the wind and let their new benevolent streak turn iOS into a wild west free for all, any time soon. What does make through their goalposts will – for now – be 100% legit.

Photo by Kevin Borrill on Unsplash

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