As a media junkie, I simply love the fact that I live in a time where any film and any song I want is at my fingertips. The usual suspects of YouTube, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon etc ensure all those films and songs that I cherish will be preserved till kingdom come, or till the internet goes kaput. When you think about it though, its quite a testament to these services that we have the ability to enjoy films and music that are decades sometimes centuries old. Preserving the history of these mediums hasn't been easy, many a film and song have been lost to time irrevocably so. Yet for the most part the vanguards of these art forms have done an adequate job of not only safeguarding these mediums, but making them readily available to the public. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the video game industry. Yes as the years go by many a game is being cast aside, sometimes a victim of exclusivity, antiquated software / hardware, or the dreaded reseller. Should we be up in arms over this? Does the industry need a reality check in preserving its legacy?
They made a game based on that? A sequel to this? When did that come out? Think about how many times have you've asked such questions when a little gem of gaming history is revealed to you. For me it was the discovery that Capcom back in 1989 made an arcade game for the sword and sorcery classic Willow. Within an instant I was hitting Google to see what platform if any had this game been ported to since its release more than twenty years ago. Perhaps I would find it on Steam, PSN, or maybe even some random app store. Low and behold I learned that Willow was and still is an arcade exclusive, for shame indeed. Outside of an emulator or buying the arcade board itself, there is no way for anyone out there to enjoy this game. Willow is just an example of hundreds if not thousands of titles that remain in this quasi limbo. The game can be played, the means however involve a cataclysmic hole in your wallet, or a trip into the back alleys of the internet. Either way you slice it, you don't come out clean.
Imagine this scenario, your favourite cult film from the 80's, critically and commercially panned (the public just didn't 'get' it) is forever relegated to the Betamax format. No VHS, no DVD, in short, no love. To enjoy this film you have to resort to a poorly rendered digital conversion that you got from a guy who knows a guy, or scour a thrift store for a Betamax player. While the consensus is that yes this film exists, you are going to have to jump through some hoops to experience it. This rarely happens to movies, to put things into perspective, even Ernest Goes to Jail received the Blu-ray treatment, twice. Yet as gamers we are supposed to be okay with the idea of saying bon voage to past titles as they board the ship to the Undying Lands never to be heard from again? Well, I don't know about you, but I'm not okay with this.
The emulation scene, and by proxy the pirate sites of the world ensure that all games have a home right? While I cant help but applaud these individuals for ensuring that the legacy of these games live on, even these avenues have their limitations. Take the case of Underground Gamer, a private tracker that dealt exclusively in retro games. Many of these games couldn't be found anywhere else online let alone the real world. Unfortunately for Underground Gamer, one simple cease and desist letter was all it took to bring the site offline, and with it all the content it was preserving. Instances like this will always prove to be the Achilles heel when it comes to unsanctioned distributive methods.
Going back to Willow though, like many of its contemporaries from the 80's and early 90's emulation and accessibility is easy as pie. Why I remember running ZSNES in my junior high's computer lab. I was subsequently banned from the computer lab for doing so, among other things, lets just chalk it up to kid mischief hmm? The point is graphical and technical know how need not apply to run these games.
Of course there are caveats to this, glaring ones in fact. In short, to emulate each successive generation of games, the PC prowess and accompanying price to run such titles increases, exponentially so. Along the way certain systems and arcade platforms receive far less support and for all intensive purposes they languish in development hell. It is in these instances where the option of emulation obviously fails. What are we left with then? Waiting for the good grace of developers?
The answer in my humble opinion is that the gaming industry needs an equivalent to the Criterion Collection. For those of you that do not know, Criterion is a video distribution company that in their own words is “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, (that) has been dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” Is it not so far fetched to believe that the gaming industry has room for a company that does the same exact thing? Because at the end of the day countless titles are unavailable to us simply due to the fact of licensing and copyright laws. What better than a company which can foster relationships with all developers and intellectual property holders all in the name of video game preservation? There is no loser in such a scenario. Who wouldn't like to see Capcom's Aliens vs. Predator made available on the PSN? Or the classic Sega Star War Trilogy Arcade appear on Steam? Such a company could even engage in physical print runs on an order by order basis as many movie companies engage in similar practices for more avant-garde titles.
There is of course the possibility that the industry could suddenly up the ante in bringing back games from the past. Certainly the concept of the remaster this generation has been somewhat of a polarizing issue for gamers. Whereas the idea of backwards compatibility has usually been meet with the universal 'oh yes please.' Yet even the idea of implementing backwards compatibility is more of a band aid than anything else. At the end of the day we are dealing with finite supplies of games and any collector knows the pain of seeing that must have title essentially being held for ransom by resellers.
This of course begs the question do we even need Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo to do what online communities have already done through emulation and piracy sites? For me the answer is a resounding yes, we do need them to step up. As I've already stated, while access to emulation sites is free, accessibility and utilization of them comes with its own set of issues. Do we preserve the history of gaming in a house of cards? As someone who loves this art form, I want these titles readily available to everyone with ease. I don't want you to have to tinker with plugin settings just to get a simple game to run. I don't want your computer to be infected with some virus, or you facing a DMCA notice. More importantly, I want those responsible for making these games to continue to be compensated for their hard work. Until that time, the preservation of games will continue to straddle the line between the right way and the ideal way. Finding the middle ground though, that is when we will be able to call it a day and truly give these works of art the respect they deserve.
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