Tucked away in the SNES Classic, Nintendo’s best-selling revival of its beloved console, is a small piece of gaming history. Included in the collection of 21 games is Star Fox 2, a title that was fully designed and developed for the SNES but never saw an official release. At the time, Nintendo was forging ahead with its next console, the Nintendo 64, and decided to scrap Star Fox 2 to focus on the future.
If you want to play an official version of Star Fox 2, your first chance to do so is on the SNES Classic, which — having sold out on its release last Friday — you can’t find anywhere. But there are, if you’re feeling a little nefarious, unofficial ways to play the game.
In-progress versions of the game have floated around online for years, among the thousands of retro game ROM files that are available for download on certain sites. Most classic games can be run on PC emulators at a cost of precisely zero dollars, though it is blatant copyright infringement. The practice exists in a gray area, where companies don’t fight hard to protect their aging intellectual property but also refuse to condone piracy. At a press briefing a few months ago, asked which of the many versions of Star Fox 2 floating around the internet would be included on the SNES (“hypothetically, what if we’ve already played this game?”), Nintendo’s only response was that it was the official version.
The SNES Classic’s scarcity (Nintendo insists it will be regularly restocking the device in 2018), coupled with a bungled preorder period, has frustrated gamers. Walmart’s preorders accidentally went live early and the company canceled all of them. Almost without warning, sites went live for preorders beginning overnight on August 22 and regularly throughout the day. Prospective buyers overwhelmed sites trying to nab the thing, only to be left empty-handed as listings with 200 percent markups began to populate eBay.
The same day preorders came and went in a blink, Vice writer Patrick Klepek argued that Nintendo’s inability (or refusal) to meet demand for an official retro product — leaving the ROM gray market as the only viable option — absolved people of copyright infringement. “I want to play Star Fox 2 as much as the next person, but it’s not worth all this,” he wrote, adding, “The rest of us should stop playing along, and Nintendo should forfeit the right to complain about why people use emulators.”
Nintendo has tried to sell its old games on its digital storefront in the past, though it hasn’t announced any plans for its newest console, the Switch. For now, you can buy Mario Bros. for $7.99. Eight bucks for an arcade game released 34 years ago.
It would be financially foolish for Nintendo to release Star Fox 2 on an official SNES cartridge that could work in an original machine, but the game’s cultural limbo leaves an opening for modders to have a little fun. If you searched around earlier this week, you could easily come up with replica cartridges containing the version of Star Fox 2 that was included on the SNES Classic. Over the phone, one of those sellers, Chris, explained that he was selling the carts as a hobby, rather than a full-fledged business based on IP theft.
“I don’t plan on it being a venture for the next year, I’d be happy to get rid of my stock and be done with it,” he said. Chris, a painter from Delaware, said he sold 20 cartridges on Monday, about half of his stock, and thinks he’ll be out of the $60 items by the end of the week. Back-of-the-envelope calculations put that at over a couple thousand dollars in revenue.
“I use a hot air gun to take the old ROM chip off, then there’s a small adapter that goes on, and then you solder a 29OF33 chip in its place,” Chris said. “It’s a little process; it takes maybe five, ten minutes.”
Reached for comment regarding sellers who make Star Fox 2 cartridges, Nintendo said it would look into it and get back to me.
Part of it is that there is still a niche audience of people who play these old consoles regularly: “I got a lot of messages from interested people explaining that they’re really happy that I made the cart because they just play their old systems.” The market for newly manufactured SNES cartridges in 2017 is more robust than you’d think. The collector’s site Iam8bit sells deluxe editions of certain games, like Street Fighter II, on working carts. It sells other nonfunctional cartridges meant to evoke the era as well.
“If a game got an official release, I’m not gonna make a copy of it and put it online, because down the line, someone’s gonna get ahold of that and think they’re getting an authentic,” Chris said. For something like Star Fox 2, which is as of now only available on a product that runs close to $90 after tax and double that on resale sites, there aren’t any other legal options for fans. That places the work of people like Chris — who treat what they do as a hobby, meeting demand that might otherwise remain unmet — in a legal and ethical limbo. For now, modders and rights holders just try to stay in separate corners.