Technology Alone Couldn’t Save These Bizarre Retro Games

Think about your favorite game from childhood and head to YouTube. Give it a search. Chances are, you’ll find a wealth of footage to pore over. If that doesn’t satisfy your nostalgic urges, you can likely find the game online to purchase and play on an older console or PC.

It’s easy to see that, in this day and age, most games are hardly inaccessible. We can rely on ROMs, emulators, classic platforms, and programs like DOSBox to bring even the oldest games from our childhoods to life once more. It’s truly a digital archivist’s dream.

It’s fantastic to think that, in many cases, you can have a classic game up and running an hour or so after it drifts into your head. But that’s not true of all releases. Unfortunately, despite the advanced technology available to us, all of that still isn’t enough to preserve select games. It may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the hard truth is that some games that remain unplayable.

From Electronic Arts, via the CBSi tape library.

A Different Kind of Scare

It’s astounding that we’ll never play some games as they were originally intended. Whether that’s due to unobtainable source code, obsolete systems, or missing components. It’s a reality that’s slowly falling away with each generation of hardware, but for many of us looking into the past in 2018, it’s a stark reminder that we need to bolster archival and digitization efforts more than ever.

A recent controversy surrounding P.T., the “playable teaser” for the canceled Silent Hills project by Hideo Kojima and Konami, whipped fans into a panic. Rumors swirled that the massively popular horror game’s demo was bricked on PlayStation 4. Users lashed out on social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. The game was initially removed from the PlayStation Store. Although it remains playable on systems that downloaded and never deleted it. P.T. fans were convinced that Konami had followed up with a mandatory “update” to the demo that rendered it unplayable.

Of course, the rumors were false. But the fear of no longer being able to access a game in this manner when we digitize, archive, and analyze just about everything else in our lives is chilling. The removal of our favorite game from the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Marketplace, or Steam (or any digital platform) is only one executive decision away. If no one makes an effort to save it, it could be lost forever. This is a very real fear some players have when going all-digital: “If a game is removed from the digital marketplace, how do I access it again?”

Sometimes, you simply can’t—we’ve already seen it happen with physical games and systems. In the case of P.T., there are countless YouTube videos and fan remakes. The demo itself is widely available and documented online. But what about the older games that weren’t given an exhaustive amount of preservation effort? A quick look back at the annals of gaming history reveals several examples of titles and platforms that weren’t so lucky.

majestic printer
From Electronic Arts, via the CBSi tape library.

Forgotten Majesty

Majestic was Electronic Arts’ attempt to immerse players in a “realistic” narrative that utilized real-world communication methods to advance its storyline. The sci-fi thriller, based on a government conspiracy theory, went far beyond typical storytelling methods. It utilized everything from phone calls and email, to AOL Instant Messenger chats and faxes.

Interestingly enough, the game played out in real-time. Progress was limited to ensure hardcore players couldn’t complete Majestic in one sitting. The forms of communication that were key to moving forward—like phone calls—were meted out over the course of real-time days, with interactive chat conversations,

EA.com’s now-defunct Platinum Service distributed the game. Although it went offline in 2002. It simply didn’t have enough players to support. There’s currently no way to play Majestic for yourself now, 16 years later. Not only are the servers unavailable, but tools like AIM simply don’t exist anymore—and the subscription-based content has all seemingly evaporated. That is unless the folks at EA have those old story faxes preserved somewhere for a rainy day.

tabula rasa intro
Tabula Rasa shut down in Feb. 2009.

Hard-to-Find Hardware

Everything else, such as fax machines, phones, and special websites would obviously fly, with the right support. But the rest of the ambitious (yet commercially unsuccessful project) is now lost to time. Luckily, a few YouTube results offer a glimpse into what it was like to play the subscription-based ARG. There’s just nothing that effectively emulates the experience the way it would have played out when Majestic hit retail shelves. Sure, you could pick up a copy via eBay, if you watch closely enough, but beyond initial setup you simply couldn’t progress without the aid of a live server and the content literally delivered to you to propel the game’s story.

Deactivated servers are a problem for any game with online components. And MMORPGs are especially susceptible. One by one, these games have fallen due to studio closures, lack of funding, and even lack of player interest. Many still retained small, bustling communities, such as Monolith Productions’ ambitious The Matrix Online. It had just under 500 active players before the game closed down for good. Others, like Tabula Rasa and PlanetSide, saw their player counts dwindling as well.

Unplugging the servers means killing most MMORPGs, for all intents and purposes. Luckily, in the case of games like World of Warcraft’s upcoming Vanilla release, developers have the power to make what was old new again. That unfortunately can’t happen for all games. Fans can only do so much without developer support. Although it’s certainly fantastic to see Blizzard breathe new life into the old version of WoW. Some fans would otherwise never experience Azeroth as it was originally envisioned.

satellaview soundlink
The Satellaview never officially made it out of Japan.

Over the Air and Gone

MMORPGs and ARGs aren’t the only unplayable games, of course. Japan’s Super Famicom was privy to a special peripheral Western Super Nintendo owners didn’t get to play around with: the Satellaview. The satellite-powered modem for the console debuted in 1995. It received signals broadcast via the Japanese TV station WOWOW’s satellite radio organization, St. GIGA. The Satellaview was instrumental in playing special “Soundlink” games. These games enhanced themselves with radio broadcasts of music and vocal narration, on a system that otherwise couldn’t handle such detailed audio.

Without the recordings, many of which have been lost, we only have facsimiles of the original experience. In many cases, there are backups of the software. You can even purchase the Satellaview itself online. But the supplementary satellites no longer broadcast Soundlink games at regular intervals (or at all). The best you could do is play a recording back That’s assuming the audio has been archived and/or translated.

While some games have unfortunately been lost to time in their original forms, this certainly doesn’t have to be the way of the future. We have the tools and means to share and archive the games we enjoy today. Anyone can record supplementary audio. We can take comprehensive video capture and high-resolution photographs of physical add-ons with our phones. We can’t just assume that technology, and the companies behind it, will preserve our oddball history automatically. But we can use the tech we have today to do it ourselves.  There’s honestly no excuse to accept anything less.

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Brittany Vincent

Brittany Vincent is the former EIC of G4@Syfygames and has been covering video games and tech for over a decade for publications like G4, Popular Science, Playboy, Empire, Complex, IGN, GamesRadar, Polygon, Kotaku, Maxim, GameSpot, Variety, Rolling Stone, Yahoo and more. She's also appeared as a speaker at video game conventions like PAX East and has coordinated social media for companies like CNET. When she's not writing or gaming, she's looking for the next great visual novel in the vein of Saya no Uta.

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