Pirates of Pangaea: The Bootleg Wars9 minute read

With a new boom of official pirate copies how do companies like Super Rare and Limited Run stand against each other and the market?

Take a trip back to the 1990’s and early 2000’s for a brief moment. Game Boy consoles of various families were the boom in regards to handheld platforms. Cartridge-based gaming was still predominant regardless of the surge of CD-based media. But with all consoles then and since came more piracy. CD-based games have always been easier to copy but the consoles required modding to play them. Game Boy and Game Boy Advance however saw a surge in fake cartridges that were unmistakable by the platform using them. These bootlegs were often seen with more desirable titles such as Pokemon and Mario games, but there were countless of other cheaper titles also being mass produced under sophisticated means.

These pirate copies are still around today, with many collectors picking them up unknowing that they are fake cartridges. Quite often the circuit boards are the only way to identify the validity of these titles and they are even seen in second hand shops such as CEX. And for the most part people don’t want these in their collections. Their entire credit is disregarded as fake, knock-off bootleg trash. But Now we are seeing a new wave in the perception of this kind of physical media.

From Bedroom to Billions documentary highlights the influx of “indie” developers in the 70’s and 80’s

The gaming industry, especially in the United Kingdom, grew predominantly from bedroom coders. Coders would have to create their content and then duplicate the games as money was sent through the post. Rudimentary means means that no game was an official release and back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there were always 3.5″ floppies with handwritten or dot-matrix printed labels in everyone’s collection. This continued for many years until the collecting circles started taking off.

For the last 15 years collecting has boomed and now people want the real deal. No copies of games and only officially released, boxed and certified games seem to be sought after for peoples’ shelves. However, there is now a change in what is considered a rarity and at the top of these lists are what I would personally consider “official bootlegs”.

Fake vs Real

So what do I mean by “official” when I talk about bootlegged games? In recent years companies have started popping up that produce limited numbered copies of certain games. Often these are older titles made for newer platforms, or indie games that received no prior physical release. Sometimes the games are obscurities and other times they are well known titles.

Limited Run Games with their offerings

Limited Run vs. Super Rare

In America the most predominant company in this field are Limited Run Games. This company operates a model whereby they open a preorder window for any given title and once that window is closed no subsequent orders can be made. From the total orders LRG then produce the same amount of copies that were preordered originally. Now rarity with these games is questionable for a start. Within that window there could have been 5,000 copies ordered or 50,000 copies – no one is to know. There is also no limited on the amount one individual can purchase, with a disclaimed on the site stating “There is no limit on this item. Orders of 30 copies (or multiples of 30) will ship in factory sealed case packs.

Retailers in America like Best Buy and also retailers overseas also purchase large amounts of these titles to sell – they quite often pop up on Amazon. However once these windows close the second-hand markets boom with over-inflated prices and collectors sometimes paying top dollar to obtain these games for their collections. Often the games are well produced, with some quirky merchandise in the “collectors editions” and sometimes replica cartridges of the original titles. However, buy a Nintendo Switch games from them and it soon becomes clear that these are in no way considered official releases. Official releases will allow you to claim Gold Points via your Nintendo Switch platform, whereas these titles do not – so Nintendo clearly to not count them as part of their library of games.

Super Rare Games

Super Rare Games is a UK company with a similar approach, but a more guaranteed rarity to each release. Often the games are limited to around 5,000 copies of each title and once they are gone – they are gone. One other added benefit is that each individual can only order a maximum of two copies, further quantities will be canceled and refunded. Collectors are more guaranteed a rarity for their collection but once again, Nintendo do not identify the cartridges as official.

So what could we call these unofficial games? The only way to describe them are official bootlegs. The rights to each game are obtained for a limited period of production for games that are not official recognized by the developer platform. These games are legal versions of those dodgy Pokemon Yellow cartridges that we see fling around Facebook Marketplace and eBay every day. With Super Rare however, they have not changed their model depending on the amount of interest for previous titles. Games sell out faster on each release and they still to a small limited number of games. This is admirable as they could quite easily launch double or triple the amount and reap the benefits – but they stick to their guns. There is also the added benefit that they have produced the games before selling them so delivery is around 1-2 weeks, where as LRG takes in excess of six months due to the fact that they only start production after people have ordered the titles.

A price on nostalgia

So why has there been a shift in the model of the gaming industry? Branches of pop-up companies have started to appear with even more websites offering limited runs and limited editions of third-party produced media. Unfortunately the entire premise is based off nostalgia and the fact that many collectors today are the kids who grew up in the 1990’s trying to regain their childhood. And it works.

Even Limited Run Games consider their titles to be bootlegs

As Mike Leigh wrote recently in his article Respect for one’s shelf, there is a trend with video games that is above all other forms of media whereby certain titles get lost to the passage of time. Rarely are they re-released on newer platforms and often you need a 30-year-old console to play some of the more obscure titles. This is not always the case, but it is more-so the case when you consider how many games have been released over the years. The companies offering limited run titles give people a chance to regain some of the older classics, and newer indie titles that would never normally see a physical release. And people will pay anything to regain parts of their own personal history.

Special Reserve Games are one of the lesser known companies in this field

So where does this all end? How many companies are going to appear that offer limited run games for people to throw money at? One issue with multiple companies starting a similar mechanism is once again saturation of the market as discussed recently in Console Yourself. Not only do we have a boom in indie development which is somewhat a mirror of what happened with coders in the 1980’s, but now we have small companies producing runs of games that were only available on the likes of Master System, Mega Drive and other consoles from similar era’s. Whilst this is excellent for the avid collector it could mean that there are too many distributors for people to make financially viable – and all for official bootlegs too. However, as a collector myself I understand the neurotic addiction to making sure you grab these titles before you miss out – a mechanism of the brain that certain companies feed on. It is an addiction, and further exasperated when you remember all the games you missed out on as a child that are now worth thousands.

What do we want?

As a collector I often question the validity of these bootlegged games. But for me Super Rare Games offer a security around the number of games being made. Limited Run Games and similar companies for me do not add that level of security and the pre-order window often comes across as a gimmick to make people panic-buy. Of course some of the older titles within their range are fewer in number but this is solely down to there being less collectors when these games were launched and also less awareness of the company. Soon the mirage of the “limited run” image that the company seems to growlingly falsify will fade away.

Super Rare Games will also follow their own trend in time. With newer titles selling out in hours rather than days and weeks, what happens with Super Rare Games launches when there are 15,000 hungry collectors each vying for two copies of a 5,000 copy run? Over-inflation of second-hand markets again and another bubble for the collecting community to sit on until it bursts. Either way we can safely say that these companies are here to stay for now whilst we now identify bootlegs as true collectors gems as long as they have a company logo on the box to tell us they are “real.”

Please follow @fingrsandthuums on Twitter or Fing’rs & Thu’ums at Facebook to receive notification of when we publish more news, reviews and more.

Leave a Reply