It’s no secret that my current game, Bombs Away, takes inspiration from the old Atari game Combat. Combat was a pack-in game for the Atari VCS, later called the Atari 2600, a game largely a copy of one of Atari’s first games in a genre that these days is largely dead and buried. While every Atari collector seems to have a large collection of copies of just Combat, not every game is that lucky. Furthermore the lessons and oddities of the past within the game development world are being lost.
These days it’s increasingly a trend within the game design sphere to follow trends or attempt to do something original. But also to simply put away old games as games from a time gone by, and like the hardware they run on be viewed as dated, clunky and slow compared to what we have now. Quite frankly, I understand why you’d want to follow trends or be original and the view that old games are more often than not dated, clunky and slow but all that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us anything.
A good example “The Tower of Druaga” and notes sharing to beat the game. The Tower of Druaga is an action maze arcade game where your goal is to pass 60 level by defeating enemies, finding keys and solving puzzles such as inputting a specific code with your joystick on a specific level. The latter making the game unpopular outside it’s native Japan.
The puzzles that are required to beat the game require the player to be either fully dedicated to understanding every nook and cranny of the game or share information with other players. However these days a game like this simply wouldn’t work due to how readily available information about a given recently released game is, it’s not weird to have any game with some popularity have solutions to all puzzles online a few days after release.
A game requiring some form of note making or collecting and sharing information about how to beat certain parts is already an issue, let alone one that almost requires the sharing of notes and other giving solutions by word of mouth. But from all this lots of interesting design lessons can be pulled from the flow of information locally, the asymmetric collective winning of a game, asymmetric teamwork, introduction of false information, etc. but these lessons are rarely looked at with any level of seriousness. And it’s sad these lessons go lost to time while even to this day you can make interesting games with them. And this isn’t just lessons from The Tower of Druaga that get lost, but loads of lessons from Starflight to Pong get lost. Which leads me to the next subject.
Big companies still rerelease their old back catalog of games, it’s almost exclusively their greatest hits. While big companies still can rerelease their hits, not all of them can; like Sega with Sonic 3 & Knuckles arguably one of the most popular games on the Megadrive/Genesis couldn’t be included in the recent Megadrive Mini console due to music licencing issues.
(And based on rumors, due to Micheal Jackson’s estate as he is said to have worked on the music for the game but went uncredited due to sexual assault allegations at the time) On top of that it’s not an uncommon practice to rerelease old games with either tweaks to gameplay or text and graphical edits to fit more with our current acceptable norm, the Tetris that used to be played on a gameboy in 1989 isn’t the same Tetris as we have now with things like the 7-bag.
While big companies rereleasing their old games is great for legal preservation efforts, the reality is most games can’t be preserved that way. Lots of games are in legal limbo where multiple people own a certain part of the rights to the game. Or the exact opposite, where nobody knows who actually owns the rights to the game. Some games can’t even be properly played on modern hardware like the classic Pong, which requires to 2 rotary controllers. This in turn set the only effective form of preservation of games as piracy and to a lesser extend emulation.
While most games can be quite well preserved from piracy as copying data from a chip or disc and sharing it online, it also isn’t ideal. In a perfect world disc rot doesn’t exists, chips don’t corrupt, capacitors don’t leak and machines run perfect forever. As emulation doesn’t 100% emulate the actual hardware it’s being played on, let alone each hardware revision. While in the modern day these differences are minor, they are still there. And both weird, rare or unpopular system are either hard to emulate or there is simply not enough people can and willing to do the work. A simple example of a old system that is hard to emulate is the Microvision: the first handheld console that supported cartridges.
The issues with emulating a Microvision properly is that it used cartridges that had overlays build in and used a rotary controller as well as a 12 button pad. But worst of all, the early LCD screen technology used in it was susceptible to “screen rot.” They weren’t backlit, but if exposed to sunlight, they started to go bad and eventually ceased to function. Many if not most working Microvisions out there have this problem now, and eventually, they all will stop working. To fully emulate the Microvision in all it’s glory you’re almost required to rebuild the device from scratch. And the Microvision isn’t the only console with such emulation issues, another easy example is the Vectrex: a semi-portable console with a vector based CRT display, a type of screen that hasn’t been made new for more than a decade now.
But even ignoring all the issues with emulation at the moment and imagining they’re all solved. The issue with piracy as is that their goal isn’t preservation but rather, well, piracy. Which means in some cases anti-piracy measures are removed, which can be historically interesting but also that data is lost in the pursuit of playing games without buying them. An easy example of this is piracy on the Dreamcast, where the support for a interactive music CD format could fool the Dreamcast into playing pirated games. The issue however was that GD-ROM’s, the Dreamcast’s official disc format, could hold around 1.2 Gigabyte of data while a normal CD only 700 Megabyte. To get around this issue pirates down-sampled audio or video from games, making them lower quality, or outright removed audio or video all just so the file size would fit within the limits of a burnable CD. And obviously preserved games with purposefully lower quality or missing content aren’t fully preserved. And a similar situation exists for any game that requires some sort of physical booklet or prop to play.
And all of that isn’t even talking about games that are already lost, games that weren’t pirated, have no working physical copies and are for all intends and purposes lost to time.
The loss of gaming history
Both of the issues combined, losing understand of older games and losing physical media and data, create a situation where in essence gaming history is slowly getting erased. Maybe not all the giant hits of the time, but the smaller parts of gaming history. All while there is so much to be learned from those games. And while this whole article might be a bit doom and gloom it isn’t all bad, to this day there are people both repairing and upgrading old hardware so that they stay working longer and with the advent of the retro-gaming scene preservation for preservation sake has become a lot more popular.
All I’m saying is:
“Losing the history of the medium we love and the lessons it taught us due to negligence would be rather sad, especially in an era where we realistically still can preserve nearly everything”.