As many Americans were scrambling into stores in search of the elusive Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition, 31-year-old Josh Jacobson was making his own Nintendo Entertainment System game cartridges at home with the help of a soldering iron. But these aren't the classics of that system: the Legends of Zeldas, the Super Marios, the Tetrises. Instead, anyone looking down on the Donkey Kong arcade cabinet he uses for a workbench would have found oddities such a cartridges for an NES version of Sonic the Hedgehog or an English translation of Star Ocean for the Super Nintendo—games that never really existed or never made it stateside. Sometimes Josh keeps them to play for himself; sometimes he sells them on his Etsy shop, StupidGeeks.
"As new technology keeps pushing towards downloads, and away from physical media, people are searching for ways to have the games they want to play, in a physical format," Jacobson told me in an Etsy conversation. "There is just something special about holding the game physically, taking out that console, and pushing that cartridge into it."
Jacobson's work is a small part of wider a re-embrace of physical media in the digital age that extends beyond games and spills into other categories like printed books and vinyl. Less generally, he caters to the growing appeal for "reproduction cartridges," essentially unlicensed translated or altered classic games that play on classic gaming systems like the NES, SNES, Genesis, and Atari in physical formats rather than digitali.
Technically this is all a violation of Nintendo's terms of service, sure, but in the hands of Jacobson and others like him, there's also artistry. He designs none of the games he loads into his cartridges, but he lavishes each one with attention to detail in every aspect from the label's graphic design to the perfect color for the cartridge, resulting in a creation that wouldn't have looked out of place in a game library from the late '80s and early '90s. That puts his work well in line with Etsy's mission statement of providing a marketplace for "unique and handmade items." For many, these are collector's editions, but many other fans of his work prefer them just because it lets them play these vaguely illicit games, in his words, the "way they were meant to be played."
Jacobson's love of the physical cartridge highlights the limitations of the diminutive NES Classic Edition. It may look like a tiny version of its 1985 counterpart, but the cartridge tray is merely an illusion. Instead, the console's pre-packed with a 30 retro games, including classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 but lacking others like River City Ransom and Battletoads. For that matter, players have long been able to play ROMs of classic games on emulators on their PCs, but it's a soulless experience in comparison, a bit like substituting a rocking horse for a real pony.
Reproduction cartridges, though, allow new life for beloved systems that have been off production lines for two decades or more. With a "repro cart," players can see games that never made it out of Japan, such as Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: Endless Duel, or games like The Legend of Zelda: Outlands, which take the shell of classic games and alter them to include new enemies, levels, maps, or difficulties. With Jacobson, at least, the former type's far more popular.
"I would have to say that I do have a healthy amount of people requesting hacks, however, the majority of my business is from games that just never came here to the United States and have been lovingly fan translated over the years," he said.
But Jacobson's work stands out for the work he puts into it. In a sense, it elevates his work above mere piracy. He learned the foundations for what he knows about making reproduction cartridges from YouTube's John Riggs, and continues to learn from other hobbyists about aspects like injection molding and printing. He originally planned to buy labels from an artist on DeviantArt, but scrapped those plans when he realized how much it'd drive up costs. Now, he or a friend design them all on Photoshop. The labels themselves come from a laser printer using 1.5 mil laminating film. He either uses motherboards pulled and repurposed from old games or (more expensively) brand-new ones custom-made for the purpose, using a soldering iron to place the EPROM chips containing the games themselves. Even the cartridge shell is impressive, being made by Mortoff Games, which owns a mold for original SNES cartridges and uses an injection mold to make cartridges that look near-identical to the ones used in 1992. As these come in different colors, the final version's often more attractive than any licensed cartridge. He always tests his games on official equipment before his ships them, but sometimes errors pop up on unofficial consoles. In most cases, fitting the cartridge with a Game Genie, an early cartridge attachment for cheats, seems to fix the issues.
"I am always probing and trying to make my product better," he said. "The amount of labels that I have thrown away because I was not happy with how they turned out is quite a large number."
Nintendo, for its part, seems content to let this happen. Etsy alone hosts hundreds of other reproduction cartridges from other enthusiasts, and others pepper eBay and other sources. Perhaps, at this point, it's just too large an issue to tackle. So far, the main objections to his work have come not from the publishers and developers of the original licensed games, but rather from the enthusiast coders who made the translated or altered versions of the games he uses in the first place. And he's far from the only one engaged in the work:
"I have not been in any legal trouble as of yet, however, it most likely is crossing many copyright laws," Jacobson said. "I have had some hack creators, or translation groups, ask me to pull games they worked on and that is something I have done when asked."
Jacobson first got interested in reproduction cartridges when he wanted to play Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance on his Nintendo GameCube's Game Boy Player. He quickly found one on Etsy. But when a search came up short for reproduction cartridge of Secret of Mana 2 (unreleased in the US), a game he'd often played in emulation through a fan translation, he set out to make his own. His first game, the entirely unofficial-sounding Mega Man in the Mushroom Kingdom, was sold in March 2016. Since then, he's made 302 sales on Etsy alone.
"I look at this venture as a hobby that pays for itself," he said. "I figured it was going to cost a few hundred dollars in equipment to get set up, that if I could sell a few games, I could offset that cost, and maybe get my games free."
And each is a labor of love. That's partly why Jacobson prefers Etsy, with his carefully made game cartridges nestled among handcrafted leather belts and homemade fragrances. It's not even his best market, but it's the one where he started and the one he prefers.
"Ebay is a much larger market place, but I personally dislike selling on eBay, and am slowly moving away from it," he said. "The fees on Etsy are very reasonable, and I really appreciate the customization you can make to a listing. It allows me to provide an easy way for my customers to customize their games."