Why Some Video Games Are In Danger Of Disappearing Forever

Image: Kotaku

Years of neglect are eroding gaming history. Cartridges rot in garages, companies horde demos that they will never release, and obscure titles fade into the ether. Some games may even be lost forever.

What is happening?

The biggest threat to game preservation is the degradation of physical media.

Over time, game data and features literally die. Solid state media used in game cartridges naturally lose their electrical charge, and the ability to store any data. You might love Pokemon Gold and Silver but the internal battery on those carts only lasts about around fifteen years, maximum. You might boot it up to find that the in-game clock no longer works or that your save data is gone. Those are minor cases of lost data. Batteries and EPROMs also carry essential data and code. Eventually, many games will be unplayable.

Magnetic media such as floppy discs and hard disc drives lose their orientation over time, eventually erasing the contents. Games and programming experiments from the medium's early days are at risk of loss as their storage withers away.

"Time isn't on our side," archivist Andrew Borman said. Borman is a games historian who specialises in unfinished titles, recently discovering a canceled prototype for a Diddy Kong Racing sequel earlier this month. Borman notes that even recent media is degrading: DVDs and CDs from the mid nineties are at risk of decay.

"If we wait too long, there won't be anything left to preserve."

Forgotten floppy discs or prototype carts hold important game history. Their data tells us how games were made and who made them. Old games go forgotten and unplayed, giving a less complete idea of a console's library or a genre's progression. This media is disappearing due to improper storage. It's not enough to keep our old games in a box at the back of the garage. Exposed circuit boards and EPROMs are damaged by dust and bright light. Humidity eats away at magnetic media. While some popular ROM sites and fan collectors copy data directly, such practices don't necessarily ensure proper preservation of original games.

"I can't guarantee that the person who copied a disc didn't accidentally mess up something that changes the game," Frank Cifaldi stressed.

Cifaldi is a games historian who helped Digital Eclipse release the Mega Man Legacy Collection. To stress the dangers of copying games, he points to The Oregon Trail. That title keeps track of save data to write names on tombstones the player encounters in their travels. The popularly available version likely has different data than the original, creating different tombstones.

This may seem like a small thing, but it's the difference between a one hundred per cent re-creation and an imperfect copy. The potential of lost source data or imperfect copies causes very real anxiety for archivists who want to preserve the genuine article.

Frank Cifaldi spoke about the problem at this year's GDC.

What are we losing?

Consider the ill-fated Nintendo 64 version of Mother 3. While the Gameboy Advance version was successfully released in 2006, a demo of the Nintendo 64 prototype was playable in Japan at the 1999 Nintendo Space World Convention. There's been no other playable version since and no copy of this build has been recovered.

"That's an example of a historically significant work," Cifaldi said. "It could tell us a lot about the process that went into a game we consider a masterpiece but it's probably lost forever."

Mother 3 highlights the difficulties of bringing commercially released games to a global audience. It has never been officially released outside of Japan. To play the game, fans must download a ROM file as well as the fan translation patch that was completed in 2008. Pirates and hackers are responsible for bringing that game to a wider audience, not Nintendo.

Above: some of the only footage from the Nintendo 64 version of Mother 3

One of the gravest examples of this is the original version of Final Fantasy 7. Work began on that game as early as 1994 when it was intended to be a Super Nintendo title. It was possibly going to take place in modern New York. An image of the game can be found in the Final Fantasy 25th Anniversary Ultimania memorial books. It is some of the only material proof that the project existed.

Test builds and materials for that game could offer important insights about one of the gaming's most cherished titles. That history is largely lost; most people only know about the version of Final Fantasy 7 that was actually released.

"Developers throw things out constantly," Borman commented. "Years of work are lost after projects are canceled."

Why aren't more people helping?

Jason Scott works for the Internet Archive, popular for their Wayback Machine, which hosts thousands of old computer games in their ongoing effort to catalogue the internet. He gave a talk about preservation at GDC 2015.

"I have zero faith in the industry to preserve its own history," Scott told me.

"The best I could hope for is a somewhat lax attitude at others doing it for them, and providing things when asked."

The problem is not necessarily a malicious one: the legalities of sharing old prototypes and unreleased games can prove problematic, because they often contain proprietary secrets. Employees are bound by non-disclosure agreements that promise harsh legal action if games or associated materials are leaked to the public.

Some developers do buck the trend, though. Early this year, Volition released a cancelled Saints Row project to the public. This type of action is a rarity from an industry that values secrets.

Jason Scott has suggested very direct measure be taken to preserve our history.

Some of this is a cultural problem. Gaming's early years often painted video games as children's toys. Only diehard collectors and enthusiasts had the foresight to hold onto their games. Even now, games are treated largely as consumable goods. We look forward to the next big release. Publishers hype up sequels and new IPs. The gaming press is often beholden to topicality to draw in readers. Our culture is forward facing. We hold on to less and less of our past and are often incentivized to forget about it, because a better game can be pre-ordered for the future. Fans and gamers often discard older games or trade them in for quick cash at GameStop or pawn stores.

The problem of preservation extends beyond actual games — the culture itself is in jeopardy. Magazines, guidebooks, reviews, and merchandise help us understand a game's impact, but these materials are also being lost as well.

"What I think we're in the most danger of losing right now is context," Cifaldi said. "I think we're in danger of losing the history around these games as opposed to losing the ability to launch and play them."

The fight to protect games is made even messier due to a lack of strict support from major developers. The Entertainment Software Association is an organisation dedicated to the interest of game makers and publishers. Last year, they attempted to persuade the US Copyright Office to crack down on the preservation efforts of museums, claiming that the process involved illegal hacking. A major organisation dedicated to "serving the business and public affairs needs of companies" actively tried to hamper legal preservation. Only the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation pushed back.

As a result of this lack of industry support, a loose network of archivists and hobbyists have stepped up to restore and preserve history wherever they can find it.

Matthew Callis is a hobby preservationist who maintains a catalogue of Super Nintendo games at superfamicom.org. Recently, he helped coordinate an effort to win four long lost Kirby games from an auction in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture. He told me it can be difficult to get games out of the hands of possessive auctioneers and merchants.

Many mini-games from 'Kirby's Toy Box' were lost to the public for decade. Some still are.

Shady collectors are known to hold onto the only copies of rare games because it helps increase the value of a game. Those lost Kirby games that Callis and his colleagues found at auction? Someone actually has the rest of them and refuses to share the data on the internet. Such greed often hampers the effort of preservationists.

Callis and his peers had to resort to crowdfunding to buy the few Kirby games that they encountered. It was a gesture of greater interest from fans that shows one path forward in the battle to save games. A broader cultural interest in preservation will only make it easier to get games in the hands of people who will actually share them. It also means that the hard work spent on making these games was not in vain. Historians get to learn about the medium, developers get to have people play forgotten games, and fans get to enjoy new experiences. Everyone wins.

Archivists encourage employees and workers to take a particularly active role in preserving media, even if it means dramatic action.

"Workplace theft is the future of game history," Jason Scott said during his talk at GDC 2015. It's a sentiment shared by other preservationists.

"As an archivist and historian, I don't think I can be respectful of intellectual property," Cifaldi said. "I think that goes against my work."

The Virtual Game Station was a legal Playstation emulator.

The means for sharing and playing old games fall into a legal grey area. Emulators can help, and are readily available online, but they are treated like illicit software. Major companies spread the myth that emulation is illegal. Nintendo, for instance, has an FAQ page that places emulation on par with crimes like counterfeiting.

This is misleading: emulators have never been ruled as illegal in any court of law, as proven by a 2000 court case between Sony Entertainment and Connectix Corporation. Connectix produced a commercial Playstation emulator called the Virtual Game Station. It was concluded to be a transformative work, as the court acknowledged it used Sony's original hardware in a new and unexpected way. Connectix's copying of Sony programs and fireware was also determined to be fair use, as it was essential in creating the emulator. The VGS and other emulators fall completely within the bounds of the law.

It is also legal to keep copies of software for certain purposes, as outlined by the United States copyright law. 17 U.S. Code § 117 states that it is legal to copy and keep software for "archival purposes." I personally maintain a collection of disc images, downloadable save data, and promotional materials for the Dreamcast title Skies of Arcadia explicitly for that reason.

How can I help?

It's easy for fans to get involved in protecting games. It's also far less illicit than game companies claim. This is crucial because increasing the scope of archiving and collection is an essential step to preserving our history. It also keeps games out of the hands of those who only seek to exploit their value for profit.

Additionally, fans can attempt to keep games alive in the public conscience. Streaming games, writing blog posts, having forum discussions, and working on fan creations all help keep the spirit of old games alive.

"Players and fans should capture gameplay videos and record their thoughts on playing games," Scott suggested when asked what simple things could be done to help preserve games.

"There's only so much that individuals can do," Cifaldi commented. "I think we need to use our power to publish and share things can help create an oral history around games."

Callis sums it up more succinctly. "If you care at all, make an effort."


Comments

    Its not just physical media thats dying, licencing on digital titles expiring is also putting games at risk. Take for instance Scott Pilgrim vs the World. No longer available on any digital marketplace due to the licence with Ubisoft expiring. Such a great game, I'm glad I bought it when I did, but when my 360 console dies, or if anything should happen to my Microsoft account, I'll never be able to play it again.

    ROM dumps exist, someone could goto the trouble of reproducing a like for like cartridge but noone would bother.

      Guess you didn't read the article. You know the several paragraphs about copyright issues.

        Cause noone downloads tv shows, movies, music, tapes things off of TV, records off the radio etc etc.

        The game isn't lost, the ability to play it might be a moral barrier for some... but for the other 98% of people they can play these gems in a heartbeat.

      Actually, people do bother. Here's an example: https://gamereproductions.com/~gamerepr/

        I kind of meant the original company (Nintendo, Sega) with licensed re-releases of cartridges, not a bunch of guys profiting reprints of roms to line their own pockets.

        I highly doubt these are 1:1 reproductions using the same grade materials, internals etc etc. Of course the games will work but it wouldn't be the same materials that the purists would obsess over. I'm sure if you put an original version of zelda to a collector vs their copy of zelda you'd see the price differentiate.

        It's weird because I'm morally fine with people playing ROMS (especially when the content isn't for sale anymore and the company literally can't make a dime off of you anyway). But when some third party comes along selling kits or reprints then I have an issue with it. I could be mad and to each their own, but I would never buy anything off of these guys. I'd either hunt down originals or stick with ROMS.

    This is why I was so angry when Underground Gamer shut down. It flew under the radar for years with it's dedication for keeping old games alive with very strict rules regarding what could be shared. All it took was one title in a popular sporting series (the specific game was over 10 years old) to be found by some over enthusiastic copyright protectors and the site was gone.

    If the game creators have no interest in preserving video gave heritage then there must be a loosening of the rules to let those who are interested to easily step up and take on the responsibility.

    This is timely as I've just spent the week collating all of my old console games. Atari, N64 Amiga, Playstation, even DOS and C64 games to run on Retropie. Some of which I can't even now find on Ebay or abandonware sites, etc anymore.

    Cifaldi et al are hypocrites.

    Taking this to its logical extension, you end up with situations like Dolphin and Project M.

    Reviewers/critics/so-called historians encouraging players not to support the actual game, but a pirated copy that's been distributed through channels not authorised by the original author of the product.

    I might be imagining, but weren't there some writers in the past talking they would review Wii games on the Dolphin emulator, and not on the Wii itself? That is fascinating to me.

      Supporting the actual game? How do you do that when you can't even buy it? Or what if the preservation of it's original state is one of the important factors? Some games re-released/remastered versions don't actually represent was needs to be preserved.

      Or more pertinent to this discussion: how do we 'support the creators' many years from now when the entire landscape has once again changed. There's way way too many past examples where the original authors intent or authorisations did squat for preservation, so I don't see it being much better in the future.

        I'm pretty much on the same side of those frustrated at games as a medium not getting its proper dues and recognition, I get where the people mentioned in the article are coming from. God knows the past hundred years has seen some of the worst cultural vandalism imaginable and history should is a wonderful thing to keep around - but it's impossible to put Overwatch on a literal pedestal inside the Louvre because it's a living breathing entity.

        I'd much rather we look at games history in the same way zoological preserves do, as a matter of fact. You can't click on a Pokemon article this year without some pseudo-intellectual writing off that game's popularity as nostalgia-driven.

        We can't be misty-eyed about stuff like this all the while rapidly consuming the new and cutting edge forms of entertainment like Netflix/etc.

        We have to approach games from a different angle, as services like Netflix have done for film and television. Sometimes we have to come around to what the original authors have resorted to, so that they may remain viable themselves.

        Sorry for the rabid rant!

          Well it's pretty obvious that we are going to disagree on the details. I understand that a multiplayer game like Overwatch can be considered a 'living thing' because it functions through the interaction of multiple players communicating through many layers of infrastructure, and that changes over time because the people who play it and the people who make it change over time. But that's no excuse not to have procedures and precautions that can preserve whatever we can.

          Ideally code that, should it run on a future machine, be able to demonstrate the gameplay experience. Overwatch would be easy if there were dedicated server support, LAN play, and bots. And the least versions we should be able to access historically should be the release and the final before shut-down as both of those will represent real impactful instances of the games spirit. Of course, you'd be right to think that some games like MMOs or games with heavy creator remixing (Minecraft, Second Life) are harder to preserve, but there's efforts to do that too.

          I'd much rather we look at games history in the same way zoological preserves do, as a matter of fact.

          However, look at the exhausting efforts to preserve what zoological specimens we have living today. We try so hard to prevent endangered species from becoming extinct because we can't bring them back, because we know already what happens if you remain idle when there's something there you didn't want to see die. You know that if we could bring back the Dodo or the Tasmanian Tiger, we would. Should we try to preserve or bring back these things? Maybe, maybe not. I do sympathise with though who want to though, because you can't change your mind afterwards.

          We can't be misty-eyed about stuff like this all the while rapidly consuming the new and cutting edge forms of entertainment like Netflix/etc. We have to approach games from a different angle, as services like Netflix have done for film and television.

          Yeah no. We should be able to enjoy the pursuits of new things while also appreciating the old. These services are also unreliable. Netflix alone has changed a lot of the years and sometimes brought back and also lost its content; all at the whims of business and not for the sake of keeping historical record.

          Sometimes we have to come around to what the original authors have resorted to, so that they may remain viable themselves.

          That's fine if what they offer is as comparable and valuable now as it was then; these things may still be a products and not an artefacts. Too many pieces of art or media have lost their chance to be preserved or have become presently blocked from it because the authors were negligent. Also these actions are not mutually exclusive: a book you can buy can also be kept at a library, and thus a preserved game can still be something you buy on Steam. The most important thing is that the procedures to ensure its future availability have been carried out.

          That's why I love Abandonware - the problem it solves is in its name.

    I once replaced the battery on my Pokemon Crystal game because it wiped my save - works fine now it's replaced but will probably be flat in another 10 years or something. My Pokemon Red battery is yet to choke, though I haven't checked for awhile. Though I'm not stressed now I know how to change the battery.

      Checked my Yellow Cartridge (so I could at least have one last look) and the data was still there.

      And I have had it since it was released so not bad for a Gameboy game.

        Damn, if I still had my Pokemon Blue, and it's battery still worked I'd definitely copy the save data off of the cart before it died

          That's what I did with my copy of gold [which still had my red/yellow trades on it too].
          Now my pokemon can live forever in my emulator :-D

      My copy of Red went flat so long ago.

    It's not just the games industry. The book publishing industry is kicking itself every day for not having had the technology to start out the way the games industry has for anti-consumer, anti-cultural-preservation bullshit. You don't even want to know what they think about libraries, now. With the advent of ebooks, they're seeing their opportunity to get exemptions for the way things have always worked, and are actively lobbying to overcome the perceived 'injustice' of first sale doctrine.

    Corporate interests are overwhelmingly often against public interests. There needs to be protective legislation that if not forcing cooperation with preservation efforts, at least aggressively ties the hands of those who'd seek to shut it down.

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