By request: Game preservation

By request of patrickrichardkarr

The fact that we even need to have a conversation about game preservation is just, like, the most pathetic thing ever. In a good world, it would be a no-brainer proposition. Of course the history of video games, and specifically the games involved, should be enshrined and preserved and presented in a clear and sensible fashion. Of course. And yet, here we are.

The problem, or rather the biggest problem, is that the companies that hold the rights to gaming’s short but volatile heritage don’t care about the medium as a whole or helping fans to understand the classics. Because despite what some facets of the political spectrum would have us believe, corporations aren’t people. They don’t care about things. Game publishers are interested in their back catalogs only so far as they can dredge up a handful of notable releases with minimal effort and sell them again. Otherwise it’s not worth their time, by which I mean it won’t make money for the shareholders to whom the company heads are accountable.

This is why corporations exist: They make money. It’s the same in games as in any other entertainment medium. Random House and Universal Pictures aren’t reissuing their old books and films for the good feelings. Gaming’s problem really comes from its lack of standardization. Even though every video game breaks down to binary code, there’s no universal standard to reinterpret that data. In the nearly 40 years in which home gaming has existed, we’ve seen god knows how many different game systems — literally hundreds of different devices that play games in their own unique (and in all but a pittance of cases, not cross-compatible) way. Whereas books are self-contained “devices,” and ample resources exist to convert music and film from their raw or older formats to modern digital media with little trouble, video games require you either maintain all those various hardware formats or develop some sort of emulator that has to be specially adapted to each piece of hardware and in many cases fine-tuned for each individual piece of software. It’s a mess.

As such, the concept of video game preservation exists as an almost entirely grassroots movement, often skating at the edge of the law. That sounds so dramatic and important, which is silly; it’s just a matter of keeping old creations from vanishing into obscurity, which is really the furthest thing from going rogue. It shouldn’t have to be like that. And yet, here we are.

Game preservation essentially boils down to two different approaches: Material and digital. The former simply gathers up as many actual working examples of game releases and hardware as possible to create a legitimate library. I can’t imagine that there will ever be a truly complete video game library, if only because the physical space required to warehouse an example of every console, computer, and arcade cabinet ever to see production and distribution is second only to the cost of gathering them in terms of “utter improbability.” Still, I admire every organization that’s making the effort — the Strong Museum of Play and Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum, for example — even if their resources and possibilities (and thus their mission objectives) are ultimately finite.

Digital preservation is far more plausible, given that the pursuit has been a crowdsourced effort going on 20 years now. Although the vast majority of people treat hardware emulation as a means to play video games for free, at its heart exists a desire to document and reproduce as extensive a selection of game systems as humanly possible. The big fish in this particular pond is definitely MAME, which has taken on the grim task of trying to virtually duplicate the innards of every arcade machine ever created. Sure, that’s a finite selection of works, one to which only a few new entries are added each year as the concept of coin-op video games recedes into obsolescence, but we’re also talking about a vast array of unique boards and hardware arrangements. Many of the earliest video games used a fair amount of analog technology, and some arcade uprights have become essentially impossible to find. There are matters like copy protection and idiosyncratic technology to deal with as well — for example, no matter how carefully you mimic the experience of a vector-based machine, it’s still not the real thing. And that doesn’t even get into all the curious, specific interfaces that arcade games have adopted over the years.

Emulators can only really duplicate the software itself, not the original experience. They’re also deeply limited in terms of the supplemental materials they offer; MAME allows you to spruce up the frontend with marquee art and screen borders, but I’ve never seen console game ROMs bundled with complete scans of their manuals or boxes, for example. Sure, packaging doesn’t matter anymore — PS4 games don’t even ship with a warranty or copyright notice slip — but it did once upon a time. And the only way to properly experience that is to buy the original games, which can be ludicrously pricey.

And then there’s the third category of preservation, the unearthing and publication of content that never even saw the light of day. I tip my hat to everyone at groups like The Lost Levels and Unseen 64, because theirs is a mad pursuit. A great pursuit! But still… the effort, money, networking, and perseverance required to find code for a game that never made it past the unreleased sample stage is extraordinary. And that doesn’t even factor in the constant struggle to gain access to unreleased code that’s fallen into the hands of jealous collectors who are more concerned with being able to lord their possession of something truly unique over the rest of the collecting community than they are with making sure those one-of-a-kind rarities aren’t lost to time, magnetism, or bit rot… and so, here we are.

In the end, the best we can hope for is an imperfect sampling of gaming through the years, and to work together to make it as good and complete as we possibly can. Meanwhile, corporate rights holders will continue to provide a dribble of their back catalogs while fulfilling their legal obligation to quash the free distribution of games they’ll never bother to reissue. Consider all the companies that entities like Electronic Arts and Square Enix have absorbed through the years, and the consider how many compilations of those acquisitions we’ve seen in the past decade (the answer is “approximately zero”).

On the plus side, the paucity of proper first-party archiving keeps people like me in business. There’s no way I could produce a video like this if Nintendo’s ability to tell its own history weren’t tied down by legalities and disinterest:

I suppose that’s something. I wish I could do more, but that requires time and money beyond my current means. Taking photographs of old Game Boy boxes is the best I can do for now, and even then that’s only through the good grace of interested readers.

Thankfully plenty of other people in the world more capable than myself have taken up the cause of game preservation. There’s no single unified effort behind the endeavor, so my advice is to pick whichever organization you find to be most in-line with your own philosophy on the matter and support them. Whether it’s a museum, a website, a forum, or an individual, get involved. Spread the word, donate games or supplies, offer words of encouragement. This is hardly the most important thing in the world, I realize, but if you’re reading this site I think it’s safe to say it matters to people like us.

Relevant links:

P.S. I hope I interpreted this blog topic request correctly. Apologies if it was meant to be about taxidermy.

6 thoughts on “By request: Game preservation

  1. Hats off to those doing the hard work of curating video games, since as of yet they are not considered by mainstream sources to be an important part of our cultural history that should be carefully preserved like any other medium.

    However, if video games were ever to become considered culturally significant, or someday viewed in a different light, classic video games, (some of which are facing original & master copy data degradation, laser disc rot, bitrot etc) might meet the same fate as silent-era films that weren’t preserved because they were seen as cheap, disposable entertainment. (There’s a large list of silent era films lost because of this attitude: )

    This is also why ROM collector hoarders not wanting to dump games because it decreases the collector’s market value irritate the hell out of me, too.

    Anyhow, great writing as usual.

  2. “Emulators can only really duplicate the software itself, not the original experience.”

    Let’s not forget important bits of hardware, like movable arcade cabinets or even peripherals like the Super Scope. I swear Battle Clash’s difficulty drops by half if you play with a mouse…

    • Let’s not forget the props that some games used to expand the interactive experience beyond a simple piece of sofware, like the letter with the secret code for Startropics, and the “feelies” that came with many Infocom text adventures.

  3. This “request an article” thing was a great idea! Really enjoy just reading your thoughts and opinions on totally random and disparate topics like this.

    What do you think of HD remasters and re-releases and such? Personally, the HD remaster was my favorite trend of last gen, but the stuff like Last of Us, GTA5, and Tomb Raider feel wholly unnecessary. I would much have rather seen straight up HD remasters of the PS2 GTA trilogy, for example. In any case, especially now that HDTVs are common, and PS2 games look pretty terrible on them, I’m a huge fan of experiencing these now-classic games in proper HD with very little tweaks to gameplay.

    I also liked the classic compilations that we started to see on PS1 and PS2. Those Activision collections were eye-openers, that’s for sure (The Sonic Mega Collection Plus was also one of the best compilations, though not definitive). It’s a shame we don’t see these physical compilations anymore – I think the Genesis collection for PS3/360 was the last notable one we’ve seen.

  4. Copyrights last too long. Particularly in software. It’s ludicrous to me that a work whose commercial potential is gone in 5 years can still be copyrighted in 120 years.

  5. I’d add Hardcore Gaming 101 to your list of preservation sites to visit. They’ve done some really interesting work interviewing original authors of games as well as documenting some excruciatingly obscure games for lesser-known systems. They also have a great archive of articles to read through, especially the ones on a series of games (Y’s, Mega Man, King of Fighters, etc.) Check ’em out.

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