The Challenges of Video Game Preservation
How a medium defined by technology is struggling in an advancing world.
Written by: Kristina Markulin
One day when I was in high school, on the rare occasion I cleaned my room, I found my old copy of “Pokémon Emerald.” It was a childhood staple in my household, so I lent it to my sister when she couldn’t find her own copy. She played it for a few days, and then came to me with a puzzled look on her face. “The battery died,” she said. “The game won’t save anymore.”
This was my first brush with old video game technology failing.
Video games are one of the newest forms of media currently in production. From the creation of Tennis for Two in 1958, to the mainstreaming of home consoles in the 1980s, all the way to the present market, video games have constantly evolved. As the technology advanced, so did the games, in graphical, technical and narrative complexity. What was once restricted to a bouncing ball on a bulbous glass screen is now a medium with graphics so realistic, the likeness of actors such as Norman Reedus can be replicated near photogenically.
What was once restricted to a bouncing ball on a bulbous glass screen is now a medium with graphics so realistic, the likeness of actors such as Norman Reedus can be replicated near photogenically.
That technical growth, however, has a downside. As technology advanced, so did video game storage, and the manufacturing of old games and systems began to cease. It isn't cost-effective to continue manufacturing outdated tech when new games are being made on new hardware. Video games are uniquely fragile in comparison to other forms of media. Books, when well preserved, can last centuries. Studios like MGM and Warner Bros. keep master copies of their films, so when a re-release or remaster is slated for distribution, those original films are kept intact. Music is similar, with master recordings used as the basis for all re-releases. But what makes video games so vulnerable is the very technical limitations they were built on.
Video games are not viewed by the public with the same legitimacy as other forms of media. The interactivity can throw some people off, but being interactive doesn’t negate the artistic integrity of the medium. Still, even almost 40 years after the release of the NES, the “toys vs. art” argument still bubbles to the surface of public discussion from time to time. Video game companies, collectors and consumers have been working to preserve these games for future generations, all with varying methods and success rates.
Video games are uniquely fragile in comparison to other forms of media.
Video game companies tend to be a bit sheepish when it comes to re-releasing old video games. Sometimes this is due to issues with hardware and source code. For example, the PlayStation 3 was a wonky console, and almost every game on it is difficult to bring over to any modern system, requiring intense reworking of a game’s code to make it work. In some instances, like in the case of “Kingdom Hearts,” the source code (i.e. the master that all other copies are printed from) was lost, and the game had to be reverse-engineered and rebuilt from the ground up for subsequent re-releases.
Other times, this comes from a place of prestige. For example, Nintendo garners a lot of criticism for how it handles preserving older games. Nintendo in the mid-aughts and the 2010s would release older games digitally for newer systems under its “Virtual Console” branding. However, since the release of the Nintendo Switch in 2017, they have begun to restrict older titles’ availability to a monthly membership to Nintendo Online subscription service, with access to select titles for the NES and the SNES game systems. However, many Nintendo fans online have expressed dissatisfaction with the game selection, pointing out that the Virtual Console not only had a wider selection of games but also a wider selection of systems. And most recently, Nintendo has put some of its re-released titles (notably the original Fire Emblem and the compilation Super Mario 3D All Stars) on a time-restricted sale on the Nintendo Switch eShop, increasing the scarcity of highly demanded, and in Fire Emblem’s case, further restricting the availability of the NES title “Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light.”
The interactivity can throw some people off, but being interactive doesn’t negate the artistic integrity of the medium.
This is to say that many fans, in dissatisfaction, take game preservation into their own hands. Pivoting from consoles to online games, there has been a massive uptick in fan-preservation projects of online-only and online-compatible games. As online servers go down, tech-savvy fans build their own private servers to play on, as is the case for “Phantasy Star Online.” Some fans of the 2006 Bethesda game “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” have started a project called Skyblivion, creating a mod remake using the Skyrim engine. Many 2000s and 2010s online games have fan-built and fan-maintained rebuilds, such as Cartoon Network’s MMO “Fusionfall” and Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom. But these fan-built projects are in many cases legally dubious, with the unauthorized use of copyrighted material being central to these projects.
Legal issues include piracy, hacking and emulation. Emulation, in layman’s terms, is taking a game, converting it to run on a hardware that it wasn’t intended for, and then playing the game on this new hardware. Emulation doesn’t always entail piracy or hacking (emulation can be done with a legally owned copy of the game), but the three are closely related to each other. To be clear, piracy is illegal. But many consumers turn to it for older games that are a) no longer in print, and b) inaccessible due to hardware limitations, price, etc. Many of those consumers who emulate older games would be willing to buy them re-released on newer hardware, but are unable to, usually because the hardware is failing or expensive. A lack of access is a major issue for many consumers, and the apprehension of video game companies to re-release older games remains a huge point of contention in online discourse.
This is to say that many fans, in dissatisfaction, take game preservation into their own hands.
Cartridges die, disks rot, and servers go offline. It’s the nature of technology. As newer games are manufactured and older games cease to be, large swaths of the medium are at risk of ceasing to exist. Vintage collectors and preservationists are working to keep these games alive, but without intervention by the IP owners, it’s likely a lot will be lost.
That’s not to say old games aren’t around anymore. Over winter break, I visited a second-hand media shop, and in one of the display cases was a copy of “Pokémon Emerald,” proudly priced at $150. I thought about my own copy of the game and how it no longer works properly. And I couldn’t help but wonder how long that cartridge had left.