Here’s the TL:DR
There is something very, very satisfying about grabbing a tape, disc, cartridge, or game card, dumping the contents, and knowing you can play that via your modern storage device on real, original hardware, or even emulation. No constant wear and tear on those games so that they should still work if you want to use them occasionally, and best of all they’re your copies of the games that you know, love, and own, not unknown versions from an anonymous source.
In an age where pretty much any retro game you want to play is available somewhere online, many people don’t see the value in dumping your own collection of games. That mentality disregards the fact that if everyone thought like that we’d have no games preserved at all, so it’s nonsensical. I’ve spoken before about how important preservation is in my post about archiving Atari 8-bit software – here – but even if those games do already exist, I think there’s a lot to be said for creating your own dumps. Once the preserve of people with mad skills/lots of money, tools are now available for archiving games from many systems, and lots of them are either free, or very cheap. One of the things that lead me to write this post was the excellent dumper that is built-in to TerraOnion’s Super SD System 3 for the PC Engine / TurboGrafx, and you can read the details of that in this post.
Let’s get the moral/legal aspect dealt with first. Many games are still owned by developers or publishers, and to copy or download them is still piracy, even if we’re talking about games that are over 30 years old. The fact that they’re not available to purchase for your system anymore is something the law does not take into account, and it’s absolutely the right of the IP holder to protect their properties, whether you agree with it or not. Almost since the dawn of home media, though, making copies of software you bought for your own backup purposes has been accepted, if not always explicitly allowed in law. There are genuine reasons why people may do that, too, particularly when you look back to the early days of home computers. Tapes and discs, particularly the cheaply-produced ones, would degrade. Cassette recorders could chew your tape up. Your dog could eat your 5.25” floppy disc. You get the idea. So many of us did just that, we did tape-to-tape or disc-to-disc copies of our games.
Of course, some people pirated them, and in quantity. And that’s where perhaps we have a hangover that hasn’t helped us as gamers. As Barry Schwartz pointed out, we can find there is tyranny of choice. Today, in the world of retro games, that’s a truism for many. Yes, you can download almost every game available for whichever system you like, put them on a memory card, plug it into your mass-storage solution, and choose from the thousands of games you have to play. But will you?!
For the 8- and 16-bit home computers, too many games that you ‘borrowed’ from your friends back in the day means that even now, even creating a directory on that SD card of just the games you had as a kid can be an overwhelming number. Consoles from SEGA and Nintendo were different, using cartridges that were generally much more stable and reliable if taken care of. Indeed, 30+ years later, many cartridges will work first time, or just need a little contact cleaner and they’ll run perfectly. First time around there wasn’t the need nor ability for most people to back those up anyway. Devices were available, but not prevalent.
Time is marching on though, and lots of media, including cartridges and game cards won’t survive. Some of the ones you have will be the very same original ones you bought as a kid. Some will be new that you’ve just bought recently. In either scenario, assuming you’re not just a collector, you know they won’t last forever, so making a copy of them is sensible. You can download a version, but you don’t know the source, or if it has been altered or cracked etc. It might be from a slightly different release to the one you have.
There is something very, very satisfying about grabbing a tape, disc, cartridge or game card, dumping the contents, and knowing you can play that via your modern storage device on real, original hardware, or even emulation. No constant wear and tear on those games so that they should still work if you want to use them occasionally, and best of all they’re your versions of the games that you know and love.
Actually playing those dumps feels like playing your games, and for me, it means I’m much more likely to invest time and effort to do so, than endlessly scroll through thousands of games trying to find something to play.