In the annals of video games, there are an uncountable number of products — canceled games, scrapped hardware — that feel as though they’re lost to time. But most of the time they’re only forgotten, not lost. And that’s where the Video Game History Foundation steps in. As the name suggests, the foundation is an organization that preserves the history of video games, piece by piece. Today they’ve outdone themselves: the foundation’s head digital conservationist Rich Whitehouse has written a long blog post about how he managed to resurrect a canceled game — Nuclear Rush — that was planned for the Sega Genesis VR helmet. What’s more: Whitehouse actually managed to emulate the Sega VR headset hardware so it runs on current-gen VR headsets.
The Sega VR headset, which never made it beyond a prototype, was a marvel of early ’90s engineering. “Equipped with a high-frequency inertial measurement unit and two LCD screens, the Sega VR headset shares a lot of fundamental design with today’s VR headsets,” Whitehouse writes. “That design was nothing short of revolutionary when Sega officially unveiled the unit to journalists and retailers in 1993, promising to break new ground on the frontier of virtual reality. They miraculously hit their $200 target thanks to technology licensed from a start-up company called Ono-Sendai, whose patented tracking solution could be manufactured for just $1.”
Whitehouse’s journey to revive both the game and (a software implementation of) the headset began with another preservationist colleague, Dylan Mansfield of Gaming Alexandria, who had gotten in touch with Kenneth Hurley, a co-founder of a game company which had been developing a game for Sega VR. That game was Nuclear Rush. (Its conceit: the year is 2032, electricity is in demand, but fossil fuels are exhausted. You’re a pilot and your mission is to acquire radioactive fuel. Very cyberpunk.)
Hurley dug up a 26-year-old CD-ROM that miraculously had both the complete source code for Nuclear Rush but also tools for some other Genesis games he’d worked on. And that’s where Whitehouse’s journey started.
The Sega VR effort is another outgrowth of the foundation’s Source Project, which began with diving deep into the guts of the legendary LucasArts game The Secret of Monkey Island. Whitehouse’s contribution adds to that larger work: he goes into pretty deep technical challenges he faced while getting the game and the headset code to work together, and, satisfyingly, details the solutions he came up with. By the end of the piece, you’ll know how the software was originally put together and conceived by Sega itself. But the best part is you can actually download a ROM of Nuclear Rush and the software Whitehouse wrote to allow the game to play on modern VR hardware — which show the game as it might have looked had it ever been released commercially with Sega VR.
Watching Whitehouse play the rebuilt game is like watching someone take a different route through history. And indeed, the journey is less about what actually happened than what might have been.