The physical and digital state of video game preservation

By Kim Justice. Posted

For those who’ve made it their mission to preserve video games as an art form, their job can be filled with tremendous highs and shocking lows. They will happily talk about how things are changing, the positive notes they’ve received from companies who’ll work with them, and tell stories of unknown games they’ve managed to save.

But there’s always a caveat: the thought that for any game plucked or rescued from the ether, thousands are still out there and unlikely to see a release. So many games emerge every day on consoles, PCs and, in particular, smartphones – many of them will be downloaded by a minuscule number of people, if at all, and plenty will likely vanish irretrievably in the future.

Some may wonder if such games are worth saving, but preservationist Frank Cifaldi makes an important point: “What will the developers of these games go on to do? And what have they done? How many older game developers who struggle to find work now tried things on mobile? How many of these people might be recognised as budding geniuses later down the line, and we’re missing their latter-day work?”

It’s a reminder, in turn, of how certain games by legendary UK coder Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith, that he created for WAP phones – such as Airlock – are now essentially lost forever, as is any mobile game that didn’t end up on a file-sharing website back in the 2000s.

Maps like this are all we have remaining of Airlock, an adventure game made by Joffa Smith for WAP phones in the early 2000’s.

NOT VERY SMART

For Cifaldi, founder of the Video Game History Foundation in Oakland, California, those file-sharing websites were the start of his own interest in preservation, and they do indeed still hold some keys now – especially when it comes to the big problem of the day, which is saving Android or iOS games.

Recent events such as the closure of Nintendo’s Wii Shop Channel may have caused concern for people, but the truth is that almost everything on the channel has already been archived; it’s relatively easy to get old Wiis and transfer the programs from their hard drives into a safe place.

The unreleased *Penn and Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors* for the Mega CD achieved such notoriety that playing *Desert Bus* became an annual charity event.

But how do you do this with smartphones where games are tied to a person’s account that they’ll use over not just one phone, but multiple phones? Once the user switches to a new device, the old phone will most likely be wiped of all games, with no way to access them.

As Cifaldi succinctly puts it, “You’re not going to find a smartphone with a haul of games at a Goodwill [charity shop] – it’s not a thing.”

Even the legal issues involved in extracting these titles pale in comparison to the technical difficulties of actually doing it. Bluntly put, there is currently no real solution to this problem.

UNEARTHING THE UNWANTED

People like Cifaldi have limited resources as it is, and it would be impossible for him to save everything – and so there’s more of a focus on what can be done. The Digital Library (as intangible a thing as that may be) that Cifaldi and partners are creating, as well as the website Lost Levels for unreleased titles, both grow at a rapid pace.

It’s not just fans and pirates, but coders and companies that are warming to the idea of saving their past highs and, indeed, lows for eternity.

“I’ve never experienced hostility from a company… No-one cares about this game they made but never shipped,” Cifaldi says. “In fact, we’ve had the opposite reaction. People are often pleased, if a little confused, that anyone would be interested!”

Then there are human stories, such as when Cifaldi received an email from a woman whose brother worked on an unreleased NES game about the California Raisins and later died without working on any other projects – a Lost Levels article about the game gave her a chance to actually hear her brother’s music for the first time.

*California Raisins: The Grape Escape* was all set for a NES release, however a downturn in the sales of the raisins themselves killed it.

These stories are at the heart of video game preservation, something that makes the job utterly worthwhile – even if they only represent a small sliver of the work that people like Cifaldi do, and what else still needs to be done to keep a fuller digital record of our history.

THE LIVING SPACE

Such a record, of course, isn’t purely limited to the individual game itself – there’s plenty more to be digitised, such as magazines and periodicals (of which Cifaldi has an extensive collection), source codes, any other making-of material, and – of course – any and all physical material that might be available.

Cifaldi’s work is still very much digital, but others in the field use the physical elements to create something that’s more than just a library; rather, a space where games and computers are preserved for people to experience.

The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge is a museum running out of an old set of warehouses that, through time and patience, has become a place not just for the older generation to reminisce, but one where younger people can discover what came before.

The Memotech MTX-500, a UK made MSX-esque machine, is one example of the rare micros that exist in the Centre’s archive.

The museum’s curator, Jason Fitzpatrick, is quite proud of this. “For the generation used to playing games on modern consoles, they have no clue these games existed before, yet they really enjoy them, and then they start asking questions,” he says.

“It has a knock-on effect with kids who want to get into programming and writing games, because although they think there’s no way they could do a modern triple-A game, they think that making the old retro game could be achieved in Python or something similar.”

PRESERVING THE HEART

Since its founding in 2007, the museum has expanded from a private collection to a public one, and is now very close to obtaining full accreditation. This is an important part of the process that, in Fitzpatrick’s words, will officially put their practices on the same level as institutions like the Science Museum and “allows our subject matter to be taken more seriously,” something that the relatively new video game medium has historically struggled with.

Much like Cifaldi’s endeavours, preserving the actual game itself is just the tip of the iceberg for the museum – the physical copies and stories of the games and machines themselves must also be told. Having something for people to play is vital.

Emuparadise, one of the Internet’s most popular ROM sites, was recently subject to a takedown notice courtesy of Nintendo.

As Fitzpatrick puts it, “If we just did a very dry preservation job, taking a piece of software, maybe digitising it, making sure it’s protected in the normal ways and putting it in a box that no-one gets to see… well, what’s the point?”

Games are meant to be played, and when hearing Fitzpatrick talk, one can’t help but think that collectors who take already unopened games and seal them up in acrylic containers are missing something fundamental about how they’re supposed to be experienced.

THE COMMERCIAL SIDE

There’s also an argument to be made that, in creating a public space, the Centre for Computing History has to focus on commercially popular elements in order to attract customers, with well-known names such as Space Invaders taking prime spots over things that are more obscure.

Fitzpatrick concedes this as a simple fact of running the business, but behind the eye-catching displays lies a monumental archive of physical titles, long-forgotten micros, and important development material.

A picture of the now closed Wii Shop Channel will surely send peppy music through some folks’ heads. But all of its games are safe.

Others might fear there’s a risk of damaging rare machines by letting the public get their hands on them – but the chance of cola or beer getting spilt over a strikingly expensive BBC Domesday machine is reduced by using duplicates on the floor while the original is preserved in storage. Meanwhile, the entire premises are covered in order to protect the machines from harmful UV rays.

“We take preservation very seriously,” Fitzpatrick says happily. “The machines we display in the main gallery are ones that can be repaired or replaced, because we want to make sure it stays interactive – that’s really important for us.”

MARKING OUR TRACKS

Because gaming is a relatively young medium, we’ve yet to obtain the same level of archiving that, for example, film has, where cinema’s continuing history is preserved as a matter of course through multiple means. Cifaldi and Fitzpatrick both say more has to be done in this regard, both on the side of companies and on that of the consumers.

The preservation efforts of both the Centre and the Foundation are largely undertaken by passionate volunteers, which, of course, can only do so much – and while neither has run into hostility from companies, there can be a certain apathy or lack of any real movement from licence holders when it comes to making sure its history is retained.

It would amaze people to think that not all versions of *Street Fighter II* are available. However, the almighty ZX Spectrum version most certainly is.

Cifaldi relates a story of how, when commissioned by Capcom to work on a timeline of Street Fighter, he was quite shocked to find that a sizeable chunk of games in the series – largely mobile releases – were essentially lost forever, which acted as a personal wake-up call. If a major series such as Street Fighter has lost some of its games, what chance do more obscure titles have?

THE FUTURE, BABY

Both Cifaldi and Fitzpatrick take slightly different approaches towards a very similar goal: one focused more on the digital side of preservation, the other gravitating towards physicality. But the end goal is the same: to ensure these games, machines, and the actual history of the titles is not just preserved and locked away, but is able to be freely enjoyed by everyone for generations to come, exactly as they were enjoyed by people when they were first released.

While both worry about swathes of games continuing to slip through the cracks, particularly in a world that’s moving closer to software tied to a user as opposed to a platform, they’re optimistic for the future of video game preservation and believe that, while there is a long way to go, things are certainly a great deal better now than when they started.

A mixture of bad organisation and infighting killed the quite outrageous *Steven Seagal Is The Final Option*. But a prototype is available for play.

“The future is tricky, as we’re moving away from any kind of physical media, which makes our job harder,” Fitzpatrick says. “There’s no packaging now for certain games, no media to preserve… we are talking to a couple of companies about making sure their games, which are currently completely online, can still be preserved through binaries and information about how those games are configured to run on a server.

“But in terms of the interest, the future is looking very bright – lots of people are taking more interest in the history of video games, especially the next generation. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, really.”

HELPING OUT

Is there anything we can do to help with a project so massive and endless in scope? There are, of course, various degrees of assistance we can provide – anything from getting involved with the groups that digitise material on the internet or volunteering with your nearest museum-esque setup, to sending anything interesting you might have along to be digitised.

You can even, as Cifaldi points out, install a browser plugin allowing the Internet Archive to automatically scrape a page that you might find obscure info on with the push of a button.

But still, the lion’s share of work will have to be done by the companies themselves – a process that, while not without reward, can be slow and vaguely defined. Cifaldi sums up with some good advice. “My goal is that source code becomes an educational resource,” he says.

An example of artwork for an unreleased game: Blimp, at one point set to be made by Rage Software for the Game Boy.

“And I don’t know what the answer to that is yet, because I feel like there’s almost a time limit somewhere, where companies are unofficially comfortable with people seeing it, and I don’t know where that time limit is! I’m also worried that people aren’t archiving things while they’re happening in order to let them be seen, when that comfort level hits a point when they’re not going to freak out.

“Right now, the solution is to ‘steal’ [source code] from work – take everything and put it up later, that’s the best solution… or tear all of capitalism down so we can access everything. I don’t know!”

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