The Fight to Save Video Game History Starts in Basements and Garages

With the increasing emphasis on digital distribution, gaming preservation is more important than ever. Publishers certainly aren’t doing it for us. Rather, companies like Nintendo go to the very public effort of shutting down “ROM sites” — where digital backups of old games linger long after being abandoned by license holders. Preserving and archiving games of years past, and their requisite development builds and press materials and so on, is integral to creating an accessible and comprehensive history of the medium.

Enter The Video Game Project, a one-man initiative to create an online database for prototype versions of games, as well as stories and images surrounding their release. It’s already impressive, and what’s visible on the site is just the start.

“I’ve amassed a huge collection over the years, but it was and is all either stored away in boxes or in disorganized, overcrowded, heaping shelving units,” Alan Binley, owner and founder of The Video Game Project told me. “At the moment I’m just not getting the enjoyment I should be from such an interesting collection. The website is just my way of documenting what I have and sharing it with others.”

Street Fighter Collection

A Hoard of History

A fan of games since the Nintendo Entertainment System, Binley went on to get a job in the industry in 2003. This gave him access to in-development and debug hardware and software. He began collected these pieces of history, accumulating what has become a hoard of hard-to-find items.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be gifted some of them by friends or development teams, others are from working on various projects directly, and others I bought,” Binley explained. “I’ve a couple of unreleased and unfinished games from some big developers that are very cool and many others that differ widely from their released versions.”

His enterprise is a welcome one to those already established in the space. Efforts like these, with the kind of catalog Binley has at his disposal, are necessary to legitimize and push forward preservation efforts — especially given his emphasis on the cultural ephemera that surround games.

Mega Man Legacy Collection

Contextualize the Past

“If you don’t have things like the marketing material, the packaging, or something as simple as video game magazines that were published when it came out, it loses context,” said Frank Cifaldi, a video game historian and founder of the Video Game History Foundation. “I like to bring up Citizen Kane as a great analogy. You watch Citizen Kane on its own and it’s a perfectly entertaining movie with a lot of heart and humor. But if you put in the second disc of that DVD set and start watching the documentaries about it — if you go and study the making of the movie and the people who inspired it — the movie takes on so much more meaning. Unfortunately for most video games, researchers just don’t have access to the kinds of materials that film historians do.”

Not only is there a wealth of substance for film historians, there’s now a cultural expectation that home media will include more than just the film itself. Outside of collector’s editions, that expectation doesn’t exist for games. Cifaldi wants to change that.

A former games journalist, for the last several years Cifaldi has worked firmly within preservation, occasionally turning his hand to development with Digital Eclipse, a company that specializes in Criterion Collection-esque re-releases. Their special editions — such as the Mega Man Legacy Collection and the recent SNK 40th Anniversary Collection — emphasize faithfully recreating the original titles while providing an assortment of extras for fans to explore. One of the biggest challenges they face is that, in many cases, they’re the first ones to try and collect this material.

Digital Degradation

“You’d think that for a company with as many fans as SNK, we’d have a really solid understanding of its earliest days, but we really don’t,” Cifaldi told me. “Until we put one together, there wasn’t even a complete list of titles — at least, not one written in English — and until we went and tracked down former staff and asked direct questions, we didn’t even know which titles were commercially released.”

There’s also little-to-no record of SNK’s earliest games. That means they may simply be lost forever. To make matters worse, companies aren’t always keen on their past being excavated so publicly. For a Street Fighter compendium he worked on, Cifaldi had a lot of content cut because Capcom felt it contradicted their current branding. And Binley has already received a slap on the wrist from a team for exhibiting things they didn’t want to be seen by the public.

Things are made worse still by the looming specter of digitization. So much of the culture of games only exists in cloud storage, email inboxes, and on the backends of websites, facing historians with new challenges.

SNK 40th Anniversary 1

Hope for the Past and Future

“Paper lasts forever, so we still have surviving examples of press and promotional material from the earliest days of video games that tells us a lot and even helps to solve some mysteries,” Cifaldi continued. “Even going into the ’90s and the early 2000s, we have a lot of digital press material, as it’s still on CD-Rs that have survived. But as soon as data started getting sent via email, or FTP, or whatever, that data started degrading and disappearing. And in terms of the games themselves, yeah, we’re kind of screwed with some platforms.”

Binley is a bit more upbeat. He believes that as long as people are gaming and taking an interest, it’ll find a way to survive: “I’m a strong believer in encouraging all gaming. Anything that encourages anyone to pick up a controller, or phone, or tablet, or whatever is good in my book. If people continue playing games nothing will be forgotten!”

Only time can tell if such optimism is misplaced. In the meantime, The Video Game Project ensures the established gaming history we already have isn’t lost. That gives the gaming historians of today and tomorrow one more vital resource in this never-ending battle to save the past.