There’s no shortage of ways to play classic games. There are subscription services, robust retro collections, and modern hardware designed to play old titles. But even still, large swaths of video game history are disappearing. Researchers say that almost 90 percent of games made before 2010 are “critically endangered.” But archivists around the world are finding ways to preserve that history, whether it’s museums releasing translations of classic adventure games or developers racing to release their games on new platforms after others shut down. Collected here is a selection of stories that explore different ways fans, researchers, and archivists are ensuring classic games are kept alive for future generations.
The first game you play in The Making of Karateka, a release about the making of the cinematic action game Karateka, is an Asteroids clone. It may seem strange, but the attempt at recreating Asteroids was a seminal moment for Karateka creator Jordan Mechner, a humble beginning for a designer who would go on to create some of the most influential action games ever made, including Prince of Persia. The clone appears early on during a long, winding, and interactive timeline, which takes you through Mechner’s early days of experimentation before getting into how Karateka was developed and released.Read Article >
For studio Digital Eclipse, the team behind the interactive documentary, it’s another attempt at telling the story of classic games in a way that’s completely native to the medium. As classic games become increasingly endangered, this approach is an important tool for keeping them alive. “I think it’s the best way to tell these stories,” says Digital Eclipse president Mike Mika. “If you’re going to tell the story of an interactive experience, it better be interactive.”
Sep 28A fun way to support video game preservation.
The Video Game History Foundation does great work when it comes to preserving the history of the medium, and now the institute is offering a unique way for people to show support. Right now on GOG you can purchase a “supporter pack” filled with all kinds of rare art and promotional materials for franchises like Yakuza and The Elder Scrolls, with proceeds going towards the VGHF.
Check out this interview for more on the work they’re doing.
Fresh off the launch of The Making of Karateka, retro game studio Digital Eclipse has announced a remaster of the original action RPG title Wizardry. Even better — it’s out now in early access on both Steam and GOG.Read Article >
First released in 1981 and developed by Sir-Tech Software, the first Wizardry — or Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, to give it its very long full title — was a first-person, party-based, D&D-inspired RPG that proved incredibly influential and kicked off a long-running franchise. Here’s the official description for the uninitiated:
With advancing console generations and the slow demise of both backward compatibility and digital game storefronts, the ability to play older games has always been tough. Through a new study from the Video Game History Foundation (VGHF) and the Software Preservation Network, we now have a better understanding of just how difficult accessing older games really is.Read Article >
“87% of classic video games released in the United States are critically endangered,” wrote Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Dec 25, 2022
Earlier this year, Google announced that it was shutting down its game streaming service Stadia, a short three years since its launch in 2018. While it’s mostly fans of the service feeling the impact of the closure, there are a handful of developers with Stadia exclusives that will unfortunately lose their games when the service shuts down for good in January. One of those is Q-Games, makers of PixelJunk Raiders. The Verge spoke with Q-Games’ founder and CEO, Dylan Cuthbert, who explained the unique situation Q-Games is in, trying to get their exclusive off Stadia’s foundering ship and somewhere safe where people can play it.Read Article >
PixelJunk Raiders is a space exploration roguelike that takes advantage of Stadia’s unique “state share” feature that allows people to share instances of their game in which other players can jump into and experience for themselves.
Nov 11, 2022
One of the biggest challenges in video game preservation is figuring out how to actually present old games. In 2022, there are more ways than ever to play the classics, whether it’s mini consoles, updated hardware, subscription services, retro collections, or modern rereleases. While these can make old games playable to new audiences, they aren’t always able to put them in a proper context — which is especially important for really old games like, say, Adventure on the Atari 2600.Read Article >
But an expansive new release, made by Digital Eclipse to celebrate Atari’s 50th anniversary, is the best attempt at a retro collection I’ve ever experienced. It’s available on just about every console out there right now as well as the PC, letting me put my PS5 to use for its intended purpose: playing Asteroids. The collection is huge, detailed, and does an amazing job of explaining why these games are so important.
Oct 12, 2022
When Frank Cifaldi, founder and co-director at the Video Game History Foundation, finds an unreleased original NES game on eBay, it’s cause for celebration. Unearthing never-before-published games is his “research kink,” and according to him, such discoveries only happen “once every five years.” Yesterday, he found two.Read Article >
One game, Battlefields of Napoleon, got so far along in its development process that it has finalized box art, but the game never saw the light of a retail store. The other game is even rarer. It’s a demo for the infamous Power Glove developed by Rare (yes, apparently that Rare) and is one of only five known games for the peripheral in existence (if you count the two games Nintendo announced but never released). Cifaldi is now working to raise funds to win both auctions so these never-before-seen pieces of video game history can be preserved and their contents shared with the public.
Sep 1, 2022
Dragalia Lost launched in 2018 as a statement of intent from Nintendo in partnership with Japanese developer Cygames. Nintendo may have first jumped into the field of mobile games in 2016 with the launch of games like Super Mario Run and Miitomo, but this was the first original property the company had produced exclusively for mobile devices. This free-to-play gacha game (a game whose content is generally free to access while charging microtransactions for loot boxes and randomized lotteries for rare and limited-time characters) had a flashy multi-region launch campaign collaborating with major Japanese musician DAOKO, banking on the game’s success at home and abroad.Read Article >
And it was a hit. Less than a year after launch, the game had already earned over $100 million, with a steady stream of merchandise following soon after. Yet, as of last month, Nintendo and Cygames published the game’s final update, and this week, it was revealed that the game would shut down on November 29th after just three years of operation.
Apr 19, 2022
Habitat, the world’s first MMO developed for the Commodore 64 personal computer, went offline in 1992. It came back online in 2017 through the efforts of MADE, the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment.Read Article >
Founded by Alex Handy in 2011, MADE “seeks to legitimize the preservation of video games as both a historic and artistic medium within the context of our time.” To that end, MADE amassed a collection of working video game consoles and a library of old games for patrons to play.
Mar 21, 2022
In February, Nintendo announced it would shut down its 3DS and Wii U storefronts. While the closure is an inevitable part of the life cycle of those long since sunset consoles, the move sparked anger, disappointment, and even fear as fans lamented the loss of access to digitally exclusive 3DS and Wii U titles. With console gaming entering its ninth generation, the digital storefronts from the previous generations are slowly disappearing, taking with them thousands of digital-only games and DLC. Combined with the decline of physical media in favor of subscription services and digital distribution, it’s getting harder for people to play older games and harder still for the games of the present to be preserved for the future.Read Article >
That is, if you want a legal way to play them. As games age and as companies continue to remove the means to properly purchase and download them, people are looking at other, less than legitimate options to continue to play the games they enjoy. It’s created tension between players and companies. While it’s unrealistic to expect publishers to maintain their prolific libraries in perpetuity, it’s also not ideal that large swathes of games can, at any time, just disappear on the whims of the store operator.
Jan 15, 2022
Late last year, the Slovak Design Museum released a translated collection of ’80s text adventures from the region. The games, often programmed by teenagers, capture a moment in history when the first generation of Slovak developers were learning their craft to share among their friends.Read Article >
The museum didn’t always cover games. Maroš Brojo, the general manager of the Slovak Game Developers Association, pitched the multimedia collection that he now curates. “When you get the patronage of a museum… it gives you much more credibility,” he says. “Suddenly, people start to have a very different view of this actually being part of something important. Our culture and our heritage.”
Dec 17, 2021
If Clockwork Aquario had come out in the early ’90s, it would have cost me a lot of quarters. It’s the kind of arcade game that lures you in: big sprites, bright colors, inventive worlds, a bubbly soundtrack. You see it, and you want to play it. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to experience it in an arcade because it was never actually released. But a few decades later, it’s finally available in a new format — you can now play it on both the PS4 and Nintendo Switch.Read Article >
Clockwork Aquario was initially a victim of the game industry’s shift to 3D games. Development started in 1992 at Westone Bit Entertainment, a now-defunct studio best-known for the Wonder Boy series. The game was completed after two years, but by that time, arcades had mostly moved on to 3D experiences and fighting games, and so it was shelved entirely. It stayed that way until retro-focused publisher Inin Games snapped up the rights and reworked it to run on modern devices.
Mar 16, 2021
“The serendipity of the time [Animal Crossing: New Horizons] came out is ridiculous,” says Lex Roberts, curator of the UK National Videogame Museum’s Animal Crossing Diaries. The project aims to capture “the cultural phenomenon that followed the release of Animal Crossing … in March 2020, just as the world was transformed by the pandemic.”Read Article >
New Horizons has been inextricably associated with COVID-19, with early reviews making mention of how much we all needed an escape as lockdowns and quarantines suddenly became our lives. As it became apparent that social distancing would be around for a long time, the game became the location of weddings, memorials, protests, and political campaigning, to name just a few.
Oct 15, 2020
It’s surprisingly hard to archive a video game. Cartridges decay, eventually; discs become unreadable as their plastic degrades. Source codes are lost to corporate mergers and acquisitions. But what’s most dangerous to preserving game history isn’t a physical or corporate consideration: it’s the prevailing attitude that games are playful, evanescent, and therefore not worth archiving.Read Article >
Obviously that’s not true, and games deserve critical historical consideration, the kind that other, older mediums get. Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin, co-directors of the Video Game History Foundation, are two of the people leading that charge. I spoke with them a little while ago about preserving video game history, and their new program, the Video Game Source Project, which takes as its footing the idea that there’s no better way to study a video game than to access its raw material.
Jul 30, 2020
For the past week, Nintendo fans have resembled digital archaeologists. Following a massive leak of source code and other internal documents — appropriately dubbed the gigaleak — previously unknown details from the company’s biggest games have steadily trickled out. Those poring over the code have uncovered a new Animal Crossing villager, early prototypes for games like Pokémon Diamond, cut characters from Star Fox, a very weird Yoshi, and strange titles like a hockey RPG. Perhaps the biggest discovery has been a Luigi character model from Super Mario 64.Read Article >
From a historical and preservationist perspective, the leak is an incredible find. It’s a rare look into the process and discarded ideas of one of the most influential — and secretive — companies in video games. But for those preservationists digging through the data, that excitement is tainted by a moral dilemma. The origins of the code leak are still largely unknown, but it’s likely that it was obtained illegally. That presents a pertinent question: does the source of the leak tarnish all that historians can learn from it?
May 6, 2019
Things fall apart, and then they are forgotten. In video games, there was the famous Atari dump, in which the company buried thousands of cartridges of E.T. and other games in a New Mexico landfill. There are more prosaic cases where the source codes for games are lost for dull reasons. For example, Prince of Persia for the Apple II was presumed gone until the developer’s dad found the code in a closet (stored on three fragile floppy discs), after which point the dev posted it to GitHub. Physical media, which makes up most of video game history, has a tendency to degrade, too. That means, even when properly stored, the past is in danger of being lost. As journalist Heather Alexandra wrote in Kotaku in 2016: “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.”Read Article >
The culture around games — magazines, merchandise, and the like — disappears, too, which leaves them less analyzable in their original context. The main problem with preservation is that it’s not immediately apparent what’s worth preserving. With video games, though, it becomes a little more complicated: playing them the way they were originally meant to be played is about as important as preserving their code. And that’s also what people think about when they think of emulation, which is a wonderful way to preserve code that might otherwise disappear. But they never think about the hardware.
Feb 22, 2019
In the early 1990s, after making its name with a pair of successful pinball games, Digital Illusions — which would go on to become Battlefield studio EA DICE — tried its hand at something more ambitious. Called Hardcore, it was a run-and-gun shooter with huge, detailed levels and frantic action. “It could be said that Digital Illusions’ motivation for creating games comes from looking at other examples of genres, sneering, and making them better,” gushed a preview in British games magazine The One. “With Hardcore, though, the boys are aiming at a very competitive area of the games market.”Read Article >
Despite all of the hype, Hardcore never actually launched. Much like Nintendo’s Star Fox 2, it was a victim of timing. Hardcore was virtually complete, but it would’ve debuted toward the end of the Sega Genesis’ lifespan when much of the audience had moved on to flashier 3D games. It was ultimately canceled, and the developers shifted to new projects. Outside of a few magazine previews, little of Hardcore remained — until some people went looking for it.
Feb 24, 2014
The year is 2114, and somewhere, a researcher is about to visit a dead world. Turning on a computer, she metaphorically or literally dusts off a piece of software bearing the title "EVE in a Box." It launches, and her avatar appears in a space port 20,000 years into the future. But the station is deserted. She takes flight, navigating around a few automated ships. She is the only human being in the universe.Read Article >
This is, anyhow, what archivists at New York’s Museum of Modern Art hope might happen. When the museum began acquiring video games for its design collection in 2013, futuristic massively multiplayer online title EVE Online was near the top of the list. A complex, time-consuming game that lets players compete anywhere from the marketplace to the battlefield, EVE isn’t remotely close to the largest MMO. But it’s one of the most interesting. Players construct complex alliances and participate in devastating space battles that can involve thousands of pilots from across the globe. Playing EVE can be like holding down a full-time job. And unlike many MMOs, every single player lives, fights, works, and dies in one persistent universe.