The vast, unplayable history of video games

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Emulation! #keepcirculatingthetapes


MAME is going open-source I see.


One simply has to sift through Google to realize that the history of games is unlikely to be lost. With extremely few exceptions, every game ever made is available in original, playable form (via emulation, typically) somewhere online. The original tapes and diskettes that the code was first saved on may be lost, but with games, experiencing it on original, physical media offers relatively very little when compared to something like fine art. It’s the game that matters, and the soul of the creation lives on through the source code.


Is ephemera something to be preserved now? Do we really need to make sure Atari’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is playable by future generations?

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Companion piece:


What exactly is this “vast, unplayable history”?

There is certainly a tremendous lack of interest in going back and replaying something from more than a few years ago but that doesn’t translate into unplayable. We all have our backlog or “pile of shame” that we’d love to play through given infinite time but as time progresses, the less likely I am to go back and play something that came out even a year ago.

Looking at it from a scholarly perspective though, the availability of the history of games is unprecedented. The problem if anything is that the availability is overwhelming and the subject matter is often extremely time consuming.

I would argue the average person doesn’t have much interest in watching historically important films like Citizen Kane (or like me, maybe you have an interest but you still haven’t gotten around to watching it) where the time investment is a couple of hours. A person could watch a significant number of classic films in the time it’d take them to play through, say Final Fantasy VI.

If you have an interest in doing so though, you could find and play virtually any game you wanted and the older it is, the easier it would be to do so.

The case of P.T., while irritating, is more of a digital rights issue than an archiving issue. The game is out there, tens of thousands of people have it sitting on their PS4’s. It is far from lost in the sense that Metropolis was.

That’s the real question, but it’s not one we can answer. The only people who can answer that question are the future generations, hence why the Internet Archive are trying to save everything, without trying to judge the relative merits now.
So yes, our ancestors will be able to play ET.


A funny thing happened somewhere during the transition between the sixth and seventh generations of consoles (think of PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 respectively as examples) that really makes me fear for the future preservation of video games. Before this, most games were self-contained, and preserving them for the future was mostly a matter of preserving the media (or a digital copy) and maintaining or emulating the hardware.

But as the seventh generation came to power, games began to move beyond their discs and cartridges and use the Internet in ways that will make preservation difficult: online patches, online DRM, downloadable content.

If a game calls home to a company’s server before allowing itself to be played (like the recent Sim City), what happens when that server is no longer maintained, no longer exists? If a game ships with a known bug that can be resolved by a patch on the company’s server, what happens when that company goes bankrupt, or discontinues support?


As much as the AAA industry will never admit it — and as much as we may beat around the bush by using “emulation” as a euphemism (usually) — the real answer to all these concerns (for PC games, at least[1]) is “piracy”.

Name me a decent PC game, from any era, and I can pretty much guarantee there’s an active torrent out there (or a Usenet pirate dump) that will let you download the game in whatever format is most appropriate for playing at the current time. This solves all the issues at once — the game is playable, and the archival medium is hard drives numbering in the dozens / hundreds / more, with hash-checking to ensure integrity. And while there’s technically no guarantee that enough seeders will stay online long enough to keep it alive, a lot of them will go out of their way to continue seeding rare / less-popular material as long as they can — especially since being less popular means it’s less of a bandwidth drain to continue seeding it.

In addition to this, at some point, a game becomes old enough to be considered “abandonware” and can actually be hosted on “real” sites without too much fear of being taken down. But there is zero legal provision for “abandonware”, so this is absolutely still technically a form of piracy. The same goes for ROMs and emulation — there’s zero legal provision for “sure, you can distribute software for a long-dead console that nobody sells any more”, but there’s also much less interest in prosecuting violators for the same reason.

Piracy is also the only reason I don’t worry too much about trading convenience for DRM. I mainly mean Steam here — when offered a choice between a DRM-free copy of a game and a Steam key, I’ll pick the Steam key every single time just because of the benefits: Download any time; automatic updates; social integration; a central index of almost every game I own (and I own many hundreds). But the only reason I feel comfortable making that decision is that I know that even if Steam were to disappear tomorrow, 99%+ of my Steam games collection would be available via piracy networks.

This can apply to other digital media as well. For example, I just got my first Kindle this week. I’m totally comfortable buying Kindle e-books directly from Amazon for it, but only because I know that a) it’s trivially easy (and possibly even legal, a la “format shifting”) to remove the DRM from them and read them on any device I own (now or in the future), and b) even if it weren’t possible, I have access to pirate networks that let me download pretty much any e-book, DRM-free, as needed.

Now, do I actually pirate things? For the large part, the answer is “no”. Certainly I used to — as teenagers with no money and a voracious appetite for games, sure, we did a lot of casual copying and didn’t really think twice about it. And even as an adult, I went through a brief near-unemployed “borrowing to pay rent” stage where I needed my games more than ever, yet wasn’t really in a position to borrow more money to buy them.

But these days — aside from edge cases where I’ve already bought something and want it in a different format and there’s no legal way to do that — no, not any more. I pay for things and let the creators get money, even if that means waiting for sales. Yet as DRM encroaches on everything and becomes almost impossible to boycott, piracy is still the “ace up my sleeve” that lets me feel secure in choosing to take part in our modern, DRM-based, no-archival industry — because it makes it a choice rather than my only option.

[1] Caveat: the above is mainly from the point of view of PC gaming. I haven’t done consoles in a long time, and I’ve never done console piracy, but I understand that modchips still make console piracy sort of a thing. I just don’t know what degree of “a thing” it is, compared to the wild world of PC piracy.


I was somewhat excited a few years ago to head to the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago and see their games exhibit. It was a bit underwhelming. Most of the kiosks had busted controllers and were unplayable; others, like Vib Ribbon, were presented with so little instruction as to be completely baffling. (I did admire the surprising efficacy of disabling the Playstation system button on the PS2 controllers with a blob of glue.) And mind you, those were all exhibits using original hardware. Dwarf Fortress and EVE are there too, but they’re presented with non-interactive videos that don’t seem to give much of an impression of what the gameplay experience is really like. I’ve also seen Game On, which fares rather better in terms of presentation, but even there a number of the exhibits were malfunctioning.

Perhaps that’s something of a sticking point: you can play a movie (or a scene from a movie) on an endless loop and anyone can sit down in front of it and take something away from it, but so many of these games seem to take substantially more time and effort to experience and appreciate.

Also, on the subject of Metropolis, I can’t help but think sooner or later they’re going to find another lost scene, or they’re going to develop new restoration techniques (the scene they recovered from the Argentinian tape was only barely watchable when I saw it), and they’ll have another excuse to trot it out into theaters again. Not that I’ll mind.

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Our ancestors will play? That’s some good tech. But seriously, it’s not always about preserving the best of the thing, but also about having a sense of what the culture was like. Videogames, good or bad, are cultural artifacts of our times. If the history of videogames becomes opaque to the future, it will be harder to understand the role they have in the culture. Consider the debates about violence and sexism in games: it becomes more difficult to trace that history if the actual games are gone.


I agree with you on this. Lots of games are download-only, and just for certain consoles. When they pull a game, it literally can be stolen from you even if you paid for it.


So much to say.

First, emulation is not a solution. While the Internet Archive really is doing fantastic work, anyone who has actually tried to play the more unique and thus influential titles on an emulator has immediately found that it’s just not the same, and often in the case of these games riddled with bugs. And playing any game on hardware different from what it was originally designed for really changes the experience, and when it comes to an interactive medium, that interaction is very important. Think of when you played Ocarina of Time on the Game Cube or 3DS vs the original N64 version. As strange as that three pronged beast of a controller was, it really was important to the feel of the game, especially playing the Ocarina. Realistically, the only approach that really works, will involve a way to reproduce hardware that provides the same user experience on the fly, which won’t be cheap.

As much as I appreciate MOMA and some of the other smaller collections that have been popping up, I really feel like this is going to require a dedicated organization to really provide any level of reasonable permanence. People who understand how to actually preserve things like museums and archives do for other things. Lately there have been a handful of non-profit organizations dedicated to video games hopefully they will be able to save some of them, but the clock is ticking, and it’s probably too late for a lot of things.

Lastly, ET does need to be preserved.

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The conclusions section of that paper says: The experiments showed that emulation is a successful strategy to interpret game software from obsolete console video game systems on modern computers.

Emulation will probably never be perfect for any system, but preserving the original hardware is a losing battle. Emulation software can be improved. The original hardware will continue to deteriorate. Jason Scott has done more for the preservation of video games than anyone on Earth.


…Yet. Metropolis wasn’t “lost” after they stopped producing reels of it; that took time and neglect. Konami has made it so P.T. can’t be downloaded anymore; how long will those PS4s, or their drives, survive? Certainly it can be backed up, but will anyone bother? How difficult is it to move a surviving copy to new hardware if its host machine fails?

I’m sure all that is at least possible, and it seems that someone might care enough to do it. But there are still legal and technological hurdles to making it available. And in any case it’s not just about P.T., it’s about the entire corporate culture that simultaneously considers games to be disposable profit-engines and precious intellectual property, that would rather see a game vanish from the world than risk letting someone else distribute it.

My opinion is that for the vast majority of console and arcade games from the PlayStation 2 back, with few exceptions, are either quite good in emulation or there are hardware options to keep your old gear going.

Regarding the “feel” of using an old controller, you can do that with emulation. This N64 USB adapter, for example, should work just fine. I was building parallel port controller adapters, like this one I built a couple years ago, way back in 1999.

There are also some people doing really amazing work replacing optical drives, hard drives, and floppy drives with SD card and FPGA hardware. Deunan Knute’s GDEMU and Rhea for Dreamcast and Saturn respectively and PSIO for PlayStation 1 consoles. See also 1541Ultimate for the C64, the HxC floppy drive emulator, and SD2SCSI for many devices not restricted to computers.

However for modern games I think we’re probably SOL unless they’re on PC. Modern consoles won’t likely be emulated any time soon, if ever. Likewise, backwards compatibility from the current generation to the past two is unlikely because of the complexity of machines like the PS3 and 360 regarding emulation and including the hardware would be cost prohibitive, among other things. Hopefully the PC warez/cracking scene will take care of the dirty work and all you need is a fast pipe, a big hard drive, and any halfway decent computer.

Perhaps Jason Scott has done a lot to mirror the archives of these enormous ROM and disk sets for perpetuity, but he’s hardly done any actual participation in the process. Most of these ROM’s and disks and other ephemera were dumped by individuals or by small groups of talented folks like The Dumping Union, cataloged by groups like TOSEC, and audited with tools like Cowering’s GoodTools. This isn’t to say that his work isn’t invaluable, but lets give him credit where it’s due and not take away from the work of dozens of people over the years.

I think there is a place for “a way” or ways to play old video games. Think about the popularity of “reboots” of old games that used to be out on the Commodore 64. (Or maybe I’m one of the few who noticed, since I was a kid in the mid-80s who had a C64) I have been overjoyed by the re-imagining of games like Wasteland and Elite, to name a couple of my favorites. I hear a revisiting of the Bard’s Tale is in the works, or, could even be out already, for all I know.

Anyway, re-dos of old games are cool, but they’re not exactly the old game. I have played the emulation of the old Wasteland, but it’s kind of strange. It automatically saves your game any time you enter a new town or area, which can get you into trouble quickly when you are low on ammo, three party members are injured, and are surrounded by Radscorpions (unlike the old version, which, I believe allowed you to go back to the last save). Naively, I sold my old C64 long ago at a garage sale along with all my old games because my parents didn’t want to pay to move a bunch of stuff 500 miles that they thought I would never have an interest in. I’m 41, now, and find myself a little wistful for some of those old games I used to play and wish there was a way to do it, aside from tracking down a working C64, and all the floppy disk copies of the games of my youth. Not to mention my old Nintendo games, but they’re a little easier to find.

I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but it would be interesting to see one of the bigger video game companies sponsor a video game museum devoted to the preservation of long lost games. I doubt something like this would happen, because, “hey what’s in it for them?” Game companies exist to make money, not to preserve culture, as the writer of the article stated. Maybe at some point an interested party or parties will band together much like the foundations and philanthropists who create art and history and science museums and build such a place.

Video Game timeline is much more compressed and so early is not what you’re talking about.
Pac Man, Space Invaders, Tetris are all still very much alive in slightly different forms
Now more recent game classics are starting to get remade for contemporary platforms. Grim Fandango , GTA 3 etc.
Your personal favs might get revamped as retro experiences but if not they probably weren’t classics in the larger picture of history.

There’s at least one exception to the “emulation will probably never be perfect” rule — DOSbox, as far as I know, is pretty much 100% perfect. Which is to say, sure, some of the faster emulation modes may have some minor discrepancies, but there’s always the slower fallback “most correct” mode which AFAIK will run anything (if not particularly fast).

But, that’s a bit of an anomaly, because it involves emulating the x86 architecture, which is probably the most well-understood and well-documented architecture of its era. Companies were cloning it even back when it was current. That’s a huge advantage compared to emulating proprietary hardware with limited documentation.