Remember the excitement of getting a new video game as a kid? You’d rush home from school, grab some snacks and immerse yourself for hours—those were the days, and those truly special memories will stick with you forever. But what if the childhood games you were so fond of were at risk of being lost forever?
Unfortunately, the threat is all too real. As the years go by, more and more games are being lost to the passage of time and the big gaming companies aren’t doing much to prevent it. This is where game preservation comes in like a knight in shining armour here to save the day. So grab your go-to nostalgic snack, settle in, and join us as we embark on an epic journey to save your most treasured games.
What is game preservation?
Put simply, game preservation is a special way of storing a video game so that it will be available to play for many years to come. “But why?” you ask, “they’re just games, right?” Oh how wrong you are. Imagine paintings like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night being left to rot, forgotten or even discarded. There would be a public outcry. The same applies to video games. They are more than the silly thing you’re supposed to grow out of—they are art in their own right. So many experiences, so many stories, so many worlds lovingly crafted and slaved over for the masses to enjoy and immerse themselves in, slowly losing the game of time.
The problem with video games is that they aren’t really physical things. They’re not like paintings where restoration work and specially controlled environments can be used to preserve them. Sure they come on CDs and cartridges, but these are plentiful and easy to replace. The issue lies in the data that is on them—if the original data is lost, so is the game. To add insult to injury, as new games and consoles are released, old games stop being produced and then become increasingly hard to find, and their prices skyrocket.
Take Square Enix’s beloved Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) Chrono Trigger. Released in 1995 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the game was originally sold for $80. In 2022, to purchase a sealed copy, you’d have to shell out nearly $500. As if things couldn’t get worse, as technology advances, retro consoles become obsolete too since there is no way to connect them to current televisions. You’d have to go hunting for an old CRT TV which, once again, is hard to find, and will set you back a pretty penny to boot.
Can you see the problem here?
Quick history lesson
Unlike films, video game preservation has only really come into the limelight in the last few years. These days, you can find hundreds of films, 30, 40, 50 years old, all backed up and archived, ready to be watched at a moment’s notice. There is hardly anything like that for games. In an interview with Axios, Xbox CEO Phil Spencer said, “I think we can learn from the history of how we got here through the creative […] I love it in music. I love it in movies and TV, and there are positive reasons for gaming to want to follow.” So it’s nice to see one of the big three—Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo—wanting to start looking after games. But perhaps it’s not fair to say they are the only ones making moves.
In March 2021, Sony announced it would be closing the Playstation 3 (PS3), Playstation Portable (PSP) and Playstation Vita (PS Vita) online stores for good. Doing so would remove a whole host of online store exclusive games forever—especially since they are not available on other platforms. Following a huge backlash from fans, the company was forced to revise its decision. In a statement shared on Sony’s website by Jim Ryan, CEO of Playstation, he said, “We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future, so I’m glad we were able to find a solution to continue operations.”
Nintendo is also starting to do its bit by utilising its subscription-based service Nintendo Switch Online, which was first revealed in April 2021. First, the company announced that players would be able to gain access to Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games. SNES games soon followed and in October 2021, it divulged that Nintendo 64 (N64) games and Sega Megadrive games would be joining its already huge roster.
This library of software is ever-expanding, with new titles being added at regular intervals. With Nintendo’s old cartridge-based games and systems being increasingly hard to find, their prices being astronomical and ways to use the hardware becoming almost impossible, it’s a joy to see these retro games preserved in such a fantastic way.
Important then, important now
So why is it important? Why not just forsake the old games and look towards the future? Just like with art, music and film, video games are full of stories and messages that need to be told and passed on. They even have their own legends. Music has Frank Sinatra, video games have Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon. Losing these games also means losing their creators. Imagine not being able to listen to your favourite album from 30 years ago because it wasn’t protected. You wouldn’t know why David Bowie was such an icon. It doesn’t even bear thinking about. It’s about preserving a slice of history and culture for the future generations to experience and learn from. As Joseph Redon, president of the Game Preservation Society quite wonderfully put it “Let us work together to let the children of tomorrow know the charm of the games of the past.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, Joseph.
While Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft are finally getting their act together in pursuing game preservation, there are those out there who have said ‘enough is enough’, and begun the process themselves. The Game Preservation Society is one such institution. Based in Tokyo, Japan, it strives to protect Japan’s rich gaming history. From arcade games to PC games, this non-profit organisation of volunteers painstakingly documents, records and preserves games from Japanese history. The biggest issue it faces, as mentioned earlier, is with the degradation of data which Redon finds very concerning. “Some might know this, but there is a unique problem for game preservation that is unseen in other preservation efforts, known as ‘data degradation’. If nothing is done to preserve it now, the data will be lost forever.”
A similar organisation, the Video Game History Foundation is dedicated to preserving video games and the history behind them. Another non-profit organisation, it is aiming to conserve the history of video games and provide resources for study, education and broadcast the issue of game preservation to the world. It has built the world’s first dedicated video game history research library, has collected rare behind-the-scenes materials, built pop-up museum exhibits, and even recovered lost art for video game companies. This incredible mission is quite an undertaking, and along with The Game Preservation Society, both are saving the digital world one game at a time.
So when you’re rifling through your childhood memorabilia and stumble across your copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time from 1998 remember—you’re holding history in your hands. Cherish it.
Introducing game preservation, the movement conserving old video games for future generations