Preserving Video Gaming’s Past for the Future
Written By: Reese Coulter
Edited By: Huimin Zhuo
All forms of digital media eventually expire, yet not enough effort is being invested into preserving video games. According to the United States Library of Congress, “Fewer than 20% of the features of the 1920s survive in complete form; for features of the 1910s, the survival rate falls to about 10%”. It is important that we prevent the same kind of loss of video games. Video games have not been around as long as books and movies, and do not have a defined way of preserving the medium. Companies will need to find a way for games to remain accessible long past their expiration date.
How should video games be preserved, anyway? Video games are somewhat unique, because they are restricted to their respective consoles. Movies, new and old, can be played with either a VHS or a Blu-ray player, and most if not all of them can be played on a computer or can be found online. Books are also easily accessible and can be found in libraries or digitally online. Video games are not as widely available, however. In order to legally experience video games, however, it is necessary to own whichever console the game is meant for. That’s like movies requiring the original entry ticket in order to watch the movie, even fifty years after it’s released. There are hundreds of video game consoles, and many games are exclusive to those consoles.
Preserving video games is as important as preserving other forms of cultural history. Video games are irreplaceable once lost, just like any other form of art. Preserving video games helps preserve humanity’s culture for future generations. Video games are an art form, and archiving video games is as important as preserving paintings. It is important that the authentic piece is preserved and remains playable in order to accurately emulate the original experience.
Video game source code is important, as it helps tell the story of how a game was made. Source code is unencrypted programming text that instructs a program how to behave. Usually, consumers only ever see the end product, rather than see how that end product is made. A simple example of source code can be found by right clicking this page and selecting ‘View page source’. Unless a program’s source code is open source, meaning it is widely available to be edited and redistributed, which is not the case for nearly all video games, the source code is inaccessible.
The source code for Doom was released in 1997, and has since been ported to nearly everything imaginable. Thanks to the source code being open source, Doom can even be played on a calculator or on a virtual computer in Minecraft. This strange trend of porting Doom to anything with a screen is only possible because of the open source code, and is likely a driving factor of the game’s relevancy.
Once something such as a game’s source code is lost, it is lost forever, which is the case with two of Koei Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden games. The source codes for Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden II were lost, even though they were released as recently as 2005 and 2008, respectively. In a Famitsu article translated by Kotaku, Team Ninja director Fumihiko Yasuda explained that, “...there are only fragments of the data that remain”. While owners of the games are still able to play them, their source code may never be recovered. This essentially means that those two games can never be ported to newer platforms. In order to do so, their source code would need to be remade, at which point they may be entirely different games.
Video games deteriorate over time. CDs will eventually acquire disk rot or get scratched, and become unusable. The United States Library of Congress (2004) conducted a longevity research study in 2004 which determined that “...most life expectancies were greater than 30 years” under normal conditions. The 30 year mark for the first PlayStation 1 games is only a few years away, and many of the games were never ported to more recent consoles. There will be no way to play many of the first PS1 games, aside from emulation, once those CDs no longer work. This is a problem, as many of those games never made their way to more modern consoles.
Older game cartridge batteries will eventually die. When this happens, any save data stored on those cartridges will suddenly be lost, and the game will no longer be able to save, resulting in all progress being lost once the device is turned off. Replacing the batteries is not too difficult, assuming you know how to use a soldering iron. DS and 3DS cartridges run into different problems than cartridges of older consoles. These newer cartridges use flash memory, which has a finite number of read/write cycles. Each time one of these cartridges is saved or loaded, a read/write cycle is used. While it is unlikely that these games will stop working due to running out of read/write cycles any time soon, they will become unplayable once they run out of cycles.
Consoles also have a limited lifespan. Some examples include the Xbox’s red ring of death and the PlayStation 4’s CMOS battery death. The CMOS battery stores data such as system time and date, and if it dies or is removed, the PS4 will no longer be able to play either physical or digital games without connecting to the internet.
Most video games are locked to the console they were released on, with very few ways to play them in modern times, aside from emulators. Sometimes a few games find their way onto modern consoles via ports or remakes, but not every game has this luxury. A video game port is when the game is transported, unchanged, to a new console, while a remake of a game often consists of new visuals, audio, and new features on a new console. Even if a game gets modernized, what happens when it is no longer playable on the next generation of consoles? Porting and remaking older games for newer consoles does little more than prolong the inevitable. Games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto V seem to get ported to new consoles all the time, helping them remain playable. Porting games to new consoles isn’t always easy, however, and costs the developers valuable time that could be spent on a new game. It also costs money, and isn’t a feasible option for games that sold poorly the first time they were released. Ideally, preservation of video games should not exist solely in the form of remakes and ports.
Computer games are somewhat easier to preserve than those on consoles. Apart from games that ran on Flash and some of the much older games that ran on MS-DOS, an out of date operating system, computer games are widely available to purchase and play through online stores such as Steam and the Epic Games store, and most of the old games can still run on newer computers. As long as both of these services remain operational, the games that are hosted on them, aside from those that require a separate server to run, should remain playable.
There are a variety of reasons that most games that run on consoles cannot be legally played on computers. The main reason is that those games are not sold to be played on computers. Unless you extract the ROMs from your own games, which is at best legally gray, there is no method to put the games on a computer. Computers also do not have the required software to run ROMs on their own, and most companies do not seem to be willing to make that software readily available. Downloading an emulator of a console is legal as long as the emulator does not use source code, but emulators can not always run games as well as the original console can.
Digital games face different problems with regards to preservation. Digital games rely on the online shop that hosts them, and there is no guarantee that those online shops will last forever. One example is the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console, a digital library of emulated older Nintendo games, which was hosted on the Wii Shop Channel. Because the Wii Shop was shut down in January of 2019, many of those virtual console games are once again only available on their original hardware, or on the Wii and Wii U if you were lucky enough to get them before the store closure.
Backward compatibility, allowing new consoles to play games from older consoles, helps a great deal with game preservation, though it is not perfect. Backward compatibility is nothing new in the gaming industry. Both the PS5 and Xbox Series X and S have backward compatibility with the previous console, but neither of them is able to run every single past game, and the PS5 is unable to play any PS3 or older games.
Nintendo in particular is greatly lacking in backward compatibility. Though their Nintendo Switch Online service offers a library of NES and SNES games, not every game is available, and nearly all of their past games remain console locked as the Switch does not support other consoles. Backward compatibility does not completely fix the problems that come with preserving games, however. If a game disk or cartridge is damaged or lost, then that game will be unplayable.
Emulators, computer programs that work in a similar way that official consoles work, are legal because they are not exact copies of the consoles they are emulating. Emulators are fan made programs that can play official games on a computer. Emulation makes older games more accessible to a wider audience. The main problem with emulation is the legal problems with obtaining ROMs. In almost every case, using ROMs is illegal, even if you own the game. This is the case even if the games are unplayable otherwise, such as Mother 3 in English.
ROMs are exact copies of video games, which is a violation of copyright law. While taking files off of a game cartridge or disk you own is fine, the legal issues begin once those files are distributed in any way. This means that, unless you are the one who extracted that ROM, using it is illegal, and is essentially the same as pirating movies or books.
Nintendo argues that emulation hurts their profits, but in the case of many of their old games, that’s not likely to be the case. There are a large number of games that can no longer be bought from their original seller, and Nintendo or any other game company does not make any money from consumers reselling their games. Unless a game gets a remake or a port, the emulations won’t be harming profits.
The gaming world needs to embrace emulation in order to preserve its history. Realistically, video games have limited shelf lives, and companies often only produce the games for a limited time, meaning that potential buyers will eventually have to settle for used games. Companies do not make money when their games are resold once production has stopped. It can be argued that emulation will take away from sales if a game gets remastered, but not every game is lucky enough to get that treatment.
Games such as the PS2’s Aqua Aqua, a puzzle game that is still unique in gameplay, and Cubivore for the Gamecube, a unique survival of the fittest game, are unlikely to ever find themselves on a modern console. Because Cubivore did not sell well, the game is extremely rare. The game's website states that it sold for 6,800 yen, or roughly $60 in Japan, though it is unclear how much it sold for in the United States. It now sells for at least $450 with some copies costing as much as $4,000 thanks to its limited sales in both countries. The only options gamers have if they want to play Cubivore are to either pay a ridiculous amount of money for an old copy of the game that will become unplayable in the next few decades, or emulate it for free. Either way, Nintendo won’t be losing money.
Preserving video games allows future generations to experience and learn from the past in the same way that society studies other forms of art. Because video games are digital, preserving them is tricky. Ideally, the game developers would carefully archive all of their materials, but until that becomes the common practice, emulation may be the best option.
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