On Video Game Preservation

My dad believes that the ’70s and ’80s were the best decades for music. If you look in our basement you’d see a shelf full of vinyls, stacks of CDs, and a massive stereo set. When my siblings and I were young, dad was determined to teach us “the classics.” He left no musical stone unturned — Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd, Journey, our home was essentially the Billboard Top 100 Museum.

While I didn’t enjoy every song, I was happy just being there, taking it all in. Even when I was young, I loved seeing how passionate he was. Because of him I caught the music bug, too. I’ve learned several musical instruments and I’ve even dabbled in songwriting. I’m grateful to carry on a cultural heritage from Brahms to Blink 182. It’s as if I’m a part of something greater than myself.

I want to be able to do that with my own kids someday. Obviously I wouldn’t want to force them to like video games or a certain game genre, but I’d want to at least expose them to Pokemon, Zelda, and Metroid and show how these shaped me as a person. I want to share that cultural heritage from Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Odyssey.

Yes I realize that half of my boxed 3DS collection is Pokemon games

But here’s the problem: those video games need to be able to last long enough, or at least still be accessible through modern means, in order for me to do that.

Let’s Get Physical

To achieve my goal, I usually pick physical media over digital, with most indie games as the exception. I simply prefer holding the actual boxes and cartridges — probably something I picked up after living with my dad’s music collection. And I also enjoy not worrying about an online store ever closing.

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However, physical media isn’t fullproof, either. Technology changes — older consoles can’t plug into HDMI televisions, save batteries die, and natural wear and tear means every disc and cartridge is on a timer. For personal purposes, I believe physical copies will last as long as I need them to, but there’s always that uncertainty of just how much time I have.

As a product with around 20-ish years of life, physical games are okay for one person. But if we’re going to extend gaming’s impact and history, we’ll need something with more longevity.

Emulation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Now before you put your hands on your hips and shake your finger at me, hear me out. Emulation, as underhanded as it may be, solves several problems at once: 1) a person keeps the files on an easily accessible device, 2) those games can backed up onto external hard drives indefinitely, and 3) ROMs and emulators allow for patches to make older games more palatable and Japan-only games translatable.

Now should you pirate the next Pokemon game coming out? Heavens no. Should you emulate games at all? That’s for you to decide. Emulating forgotten games or games that were never localized leaves things in a gray area. Emulation sites, whatever you may think of them, have been the Atlas of gaming preservation, carrying a world of games on their backs that would’ve otherwise been lost.

Even then, emulation has its own problems. Sure you could back up your 3DS games onto an emulator, but how do you replicate the touch screen, or the stereoscopic 3D? There are features unique to a console (mostly Nintendo consoles) that may not translate well into an emulator, leaving an incomplete experience.

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The best scenario is when companies make official ways to emulate their classics. Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii was the first to popularize it, although Nintendo is frustratingly wishy-washy when it comes to keeping their legacy content on current hardware. We’re 2 years into the Switch’s life, and we’re back to square one with only a few dozen NES games available through a subscription.

Which is why I adore the mini-consoles. Not only does my SNES Classic have spot-on emulation, it has a large library of almost all the important SNES games, and you even get a recreation of the controller. It’s the full experience — both with hardware and software — a perfect preservation. But even then, this classics approach depends on Nintendo’s willingness to actually make the dang things. Nintendo made such impactful games with the N64 and Gamecube that it’s a historical crime that they have no plans for preserving those as well.

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The Dilemma Down the Stream

When Google revealed Stadia, a new streaming service for video games, I felt a spectrum of emotions. I was excited that a new gaming market could open up, making gaming more accessible than ever. I was skeptical about the games actually working, with the reality of data caps and limited internet access. But most of all, I was dismayed realizing the consumer would loose ownership of the product entirely. In our coming digital age, it may be more accurate to think of our purchases as “renting” the game rather than “buying” it. Right now that may not a big deal, but in terms of preservation, that’s a nightmare.

Netflix cycles through shows all the time; new ones appear while old ones fade away. Will this be the same with games? What if someone doesn’t finish a game before it’s taken down? Will it be available for the next generation to experience 15 years later? I truly hope that streaming will end up being one of many options for consumers, instead of the only method of access.

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I Have a Pipe Dream

A while ago my wife and I visited the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, where we saw an exhibit of Rene Magritte’s paintings. Magritte was an amazing, bizarre artist whose works prompt you to question how you perceive reality. As we left the museum, I was both inspired from his work and jealous of the MOMA itself. Magritte gets to be painstakingly preserved by passionate curators and displayed in a museum, and his work certainly deserved such efforts, but who knows if Breath of the Wild will be preserved with that much care 50 years from now.

It makes me excited to see places pop up like the National Videogame Museum in Frisco, Texas and the World Video Game Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. We need places like these where we can experience some small part of our history. Not everything can be preserved, unfortunately, but the truly amazing and impactful works can be kept safe for new gamers to experience and new game developers to look to for inspiration. Someday I wish to visit them.

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I realize not everyone feels this way. With this post I risk coming across as a stubborn Millenial that’s already acting crotchety. I may be set in my ways, but I enjoy my physical games and my classic mini consoles, and I’m going to keep doing that. And I’ll continue to ask for an N64 and Gamecube classic. There are just too many masterpieces on those systems to simply let them go quietly into the dark night of forgetfulness…

What do you guys think? Do you have your own “rules” for emulating? Do you consider backing up your older console games? Do you like the idea of game streaming? I’d love to hear what you have to say, as this is a discussion I think the gaming community should be having.

2 thoughts on “On Video Game Preservation

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