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Video Game Preservation: An Impossible Dream?

By Peter Suciu
Feb 20, 2015 5:00 AM PT

Fuel Industries last year sought to find the long-rumored cache of buried E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video games. The games, made for the Atari 2600, long have been linked to the video game industry's crash in the early 1980s.


Surplus copies of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial -- a notoriously bad gaming experience -- were dumped in a landfill after failing to sell at retail. By burying its shame, Atari hoped to wipe the title from the gaming community's collective consciousness.

Ironically, it's now enshrined in the Smithsonian.

Atari E.T. Cartridges
Some of the Atari E.T. Cartridges Found at Dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico (Photo: taylorhatmaker; CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Many other games have been forgotten, though, with a lot less effort.

The mere passage of time has left many games all but mere memories, yet even those fondly remembered are often practically unplayable. Classic games from the early arcade days such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong have been reissued for a new generation of gamers, but many games from less popular franchises have been relegated to oblivion.

This is quite a contrast to movies and music. Those industries have reaped rewards from releasing old titles on new media. The movie industry continues to find value in old films, while the music industry is practically supported by recordings in the vaults.

With video games, however, it is very much a case of the next big thing being all that matters. Yesterday's games are simply old news -- there's little value in reissues.

Hardware Choices

When it comes to console systems, it isn't hard to see why old games are often unplayable. To play an original Atari 2600 game would require the gamer to have a working Atari 2600. Many times those original systems stop working long before the games are unplayable. Companies like Atari sometimes find it profitable to introduce new versions of the classic consoles, complete with built-in libraries for third-party game studios, but there is no other way for those titles to be reintroduced.

Video gamers flock to next-generation systems -- now developed by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but by Sega and Atari before them. The manufacturers promote the migration, hyping the features of the new consoles.

The new consoles routinely offer better graphics and other improvements. There's a lack of incentive to bring old stuff to the new hardware -- especially as it likely won't move the needle for the new system hardware sales.

Without the old systems, the games are unplayable, and with each passing year there are fewer of the original old systems out there.

"Unfortunately, hardware degrades, plastic rots, metal rusts, batteries die -- and before we know it, some games, at least in their purest form, will be extinct," said Jon Gibson, co-curator of Iam8bit.

"It's simply impossible to create a scenario, even under the most perfect of environments, where technology doesn't become defunct," he told TechNewsWorld.

Classic Collections

Occasionally, older games are released on new consoles as some sort of blast-from-the-past roundup, yet even those collections are few and far between, due to a variety of issues.

Wolfenstein 3D

"The issues are generally a number of things -- from who owns the license to how much it costs, and whether there is any money to market the result," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"Microsoft had a set of these games they used to sell for cheap on the Xbox -- but it was clear that after the first time, it just didn't seem to be worth the trouble to port and support them, given folks thought the result should be really, really cheap," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Every few years, someone typically does find a way to bundle a few of these up, but the increasingly older folks that might be initially attracted to them aren't exactly the prime audience for the newer game systems," Enderle pointed out, "so we should expect these will be increasingly less frequent."

Emulating Experience

One option with older games is to utilize a software emulator. There are a number of such options on the PC, including browser-based ones that can provide the authentic look and sounds of old games. For hardcore fans, though, it might feel as if you really can't go home again.

"Preserving videogames is the ultimate conundrum," said Iam8bit's Gibson.

"Emulation, while a natural go-to, isn't authentic to the source material," he noted.

An emulated game can look right and sound right, but for the fans who knew the original, it likely doesn't play the same.

"The consoles and controllers that games are played on are just as integral to the experience as the game itself," Gibson pointed out.

Computer Games Are Lost Too

Although consoles are especially susceptible to the ravages of time, the preservation issue for PC games is just as complex because of incompatibility with operating systems.

Gamers may save their old console systems, even if they end up collecting dust in the closet, but when it comes to PCs, each new software update leaves some old games behind. The first notable loss occurred when Microsoft introduced Windows 95, rendering many DOS-based games unplayable. With each subsequent release of Windows, older software titles fell by the wayside.

Of course, this doesn't even take into account all of the computer games developed for non-PC systems in the 1980s -- such as the Commodore 64 and Atari ST computer systems. Emulators for those systems and others exist, but the issue is successfully porting original titles from the old computers.

Many publishers have gone out of business, leaving some once-hot game franchises exist in limbo. Publishers that are still around may frown upon their properties being emulated -- creating legal headaches for those trying to preserve the old games.

"Technology is always moving on. It's a miracle we get to play these PC titles unhindered for as long as we do," said video game industry analyst George Chronis, industry analyst with DFC Intelligence.

"The industry can't be faulted here," he told TechNewsWorld. "There is no financial incentive to ... update and distribute low-volume catalog PC titles."

In the Archives

For PC games, at least, there is hope. Many recent classic titles -- those released in the past dozen years -- have found homes on Valve's Steam and via digital distribution platform GOG.com.

Many older games, even from the DOS era, can be played via DOSBox, the free software emulator distributed under the GNU General Public License. It makes many older DOS games somewhat accessible to a new generation of gamers, and was even used by id Software to update the original Wolfenstein 3D and Commander Keen for release on Steam.

Other publishers, including LucasArts and Activision, also have brought out old games, making them available on Steam or GOG.com.

"There is a perfect partner in GOG.com," added Chronis. "It does a fantastic job of making old games playable on new systems at reasonable prices to the consumer."

The question still remains why there is so much effort to preserve old movies and music, whereas games aren't treated with the same respect for their artistic merits. It could be due to the fact that with games, the best we can do is emulate the past.

"Music is still music, whether you play it on a Walkman or a record player," noted Iam8bit's Gibson.

"You can record the purest form of music and infinitely replicate it without any quality degradation. It can be preserved digitally without dependence on hardware," he noted.

"Consoles and controllers alter the experience of games too dramatically to dismiss them as separate from the game itself," Gibson said. "They are one and the same, whereas a song can still be enjoyed, quite authentically, be it on tape or vinyl."

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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