I’ve decided to write this article because I’ve found out that most people know very little about this topic and instead of having to repeat myself over and over, I can simply explain everything in one article.
First off, you must know what a ROM is. A ROM is a piece(a file) of read-only memory. What that means, is that the memory itself can’t be altered. In video game terms, think of all the old retro systems you use to play as a kid(or still continue to play them, if you’re like me ^_^;) and how they were cartridges that could not be altered. There was a name for the process of extracting the game data from these cartridges into ROM files, which was dumping. By dumping this game data from a cartridge into a ROM file, people now could save games as files. All that was left was to write an emulator.
An emulator is a software program or device that emulates another piece of software. Basically, for our discussion, this means that people would write SNES, NES, GB emulators and then people would be able to use those emulators to play the ROM files(the dumped games we just talked about). There are emulators out there that can be freely downloaded, for a variety of systems. For example, some of the popular systems that people built emulators for are: MAME, SNES, NES, GB, GBA, N64, PS1, etc. A ROM file does not have to come from a cartridge, as long as it’s a read-only piece of memory that contains the game. That’s the reason ROM’s also come from the Playstation, etc.
Arcades are commonly used to generate ROM files as well. The PCB boards that were built into the arcade machines were later used to generate ROM files so that people could play these games in the comfort of their own home, usually on a PC. Most arcade games have been converted to ROM’s and can be found, so not many people still continue this legacy.
The backup units are the devices that were used to extract the ROM’s from the cartridges. This is the part most people didn’t know about or were confused about. We all obviously understand that CD and DVD based games can be read in and copied via a CD/DVD burner, but cartridges are a lot different. They require you to buy a physical unit that’s specific to your device(SNES, NES, GB, etc) that would extract the ROM file. The Super Wild Card is one of the most popular units, which was used for the SNES.
The Super Wild Card(and pretty much all of the other cartridge based backup units) allowed you to place the backup unit into your system, whether it be a NES, SNES, etc, like a game would fit in. Now that the unit was inserted into the game cartridge slot, the game that you wanted to make a copy of would be inserted into the backup unit itself. Take a look at a Super Wild Card picture and you’ll get what I mean, since it’s a fairly easy concept.
The backup unit had software built into it so that when you turned on your system it would load the backup unit’s software, not the game you put into the backup unit. The backup unit would then have a built in menu usually to allow you to either play the game, backup the game, etc.
Depending on what backup unit you used, and what system you were using it for, determined what kind of media the output ROM file would be exported to. For instance, the Super Wild Card, which was for the SNES, had the option of saving the ROM file to a floppy or sending it over a serial cable to a PC. This way, people built up “libraries” of floppies that had their games.
Now, what if you wanted to play those ROM files through your system? Simply put the floppy back in, or whatever format it was, and the backup unit would usually allow you to play the game back through the system so that you could hook it up to a TV and use the original controllers rather than playing it on a PC.
Where does that leave us today?
Today, backing up games from these old retro game units is probably a waste of time for most of us. The fact is, basically any game you would ever want has already been backed up and is out there somewhere on the internet. Obviously, there is some legal issues with ROM’s, and I’ll leave that conversation alone. All I’ll say is that, backing up a game you already have is not an issue. Anything other than that, constitutes as a another whole article.
You can still find some of these backup units occasionally on E-Bay but even then, you have to keep watch all the time. They tend to go for a fairly high price(for something this old), usually running around $100-400 depending on what backup unit you’re trying to buy.
The CD64 was made by the UFO/Success Company and was built to be used for the Nintendo 64. The unit was made quite cheaply and thus they are hard to find because a lot of the units have not survived or are in very poor condition. The unit itself is very common, and one of it’s “brothers” so to speak, is the Doctor V64 made by Bung Enterprises. The V64 is similar to the CD64 but dominated it’s era and has quickly won the hearts over the retro backup community.