What Is Video Game Preservation and Why Is It Important?

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If you have any interest in video games, you’ve probably heard the term “video game preservation” before. And while the concept is somewhat self-explanatory, there are many factors to video game preservation worth understanding.

Let’s discuss what video game preservation is, some ways that it’s done, and why this is so important.

What Is Video Game Preservation?

Simply put, video game preservation is the act of taking steps to ensure that older video games will be easily accessible and playable in the future. It’s similar to other forms of media preservation, but preserving video games poses several unique challenges.

Types of Video Game Preservation

To learn more, let’s dive into some forms of video game preservation, along with examples of how they look in practice.

Game Emulation

One of the most common ways to preserve video games is through emulation. An emulator is a piece of software, or a hardware solution, that imitates another console.

Read more: How Do Emulators Work? The Difference Between Emulator and Simulator

For example, you can download a Super Nintendo emulator for your computer and play titles for that system, just like you were playing them on an actual SNES. However, this comes with legal issues. While emulator software is legal, you need ROMs (which contain a game’s data) to play games on them.

Nintendo is notoriously anti-ROM, even if you manually create a ROM from a game you own. This means that you’re breaking the law if you download or export a ROM, even for a 30-year-old title that’s not easily accessible otherwise.

However, official emulation solutions exist. Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii and Wii U allowed you to buy classic games that ran on those consoles through emulation. And backwards-compatible video game systems, like how the Xbox One can run Xbox 360 games, are an example of hardware emulation.

Console replications are another type of emulation that have recently been popular. These include the NES Classic Edition and C64 Mini, among other products. These are styled in the form of the original console, but include modern display outputs, pre-installed games (which run on an emulator), and controllers.

Migration/Porting

While emulation allows you to play the exact same games on a new console, migration is the process of re-releasing older games on a newer system.

Examples of this include compilations, like Sega Genesis Classics on PS4 and Xbox One. With these packages, you get a bundle of many classic games in one, often with modern convenience features like save states and control customization added.

Another example is full remakes of older games for modern systems. For instance, the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy for the PlayStation was remade as the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy for the PS4 generation of consoles. These games are built from the ground up with new graphics, controls, and sounds.

While these are mostly faithful to the originals, they might fix dated or otherwise frustrating elements. Some even take an all-new direction, such as Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Other Game Preservation Methods

While the above two forms of preservation are the most common, fans find a lot of other ways to keep their favorite video games accessible too. For example, they might take a piece of abandonware and continue its development, or dig up the source code for a canceled game, finish the title, and release it to the public.

Projects like this are often legally complex; since video games are such a new medium, the copyright for them hasn’t run out in most cases.

Other forms of preservation are simpler. Wikis or databases that keep information about old games from the early days of the gaming industry seek to preserve as much information as possible about games most people don’t even know exist.

Why Is Video Game Preservation Important?

You may wonder why it matters whether people are able to play a bunch of old games from the 1980s. But whether you personally care about playing these games or not, anyone interested in video games should want to preserve them for generations to come.

While video games have only been around as a medium for about 50 years, a lot of titles from the past are already impossible or prohibitively expensive for most people to play now. This can be for several reasons, including:

  • The game is rare and was never re-released, meaning it costs a lot buy a second-hand copy.
  • Due to rarity or a lack of stock, it’s difficult to get hold of the console that the game plays on.
  • The game was removed from a digital storefront for copyright or other reasons.
  • The physical media that the game existed on is decaying.
  • Modern TVs are not compatible with the console the game is available on.

Video Game Preservation in Reality

These aren’t just theory—let’s consider some real-world examples of the above:

  • Shantae, originally released for Game Boy Color, costs over $1,000 to buy on eBay and similar sites. Until the game was released on Virtual Console for the Nintendo 3DS, there was no official way to play the game without spending loads of money. Many other games aren’t so lucky.
  • You can’t truly experience the games for Nintendo’s failed Virtual Boy without the console itself, due to its “virtual reality” gimmick. Buying a Virtual Boy and any games would cost hundreds of dollars.
  • In 2021, Sony announced that it was shutting down the PlayStation Store for the PS3, PSP, and PS Vita systems. Once the store is closed, over 100 games that are exclusive to those stores will effectively disappear. Other digital-only games, like P.T., have also been removed from digital stores and aren’t playable unless you already downloaded them.
  • The batteries in some Game Boy Color cartridges have already stopped working, preventing you from saving your progress. And these batteries aren’t easy for normal users to replace.
  • You already need an adapter to play old consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey on modern TVs, since they lack an RF connection. As time goes on, the once-common composite AV ports (used by consoles like the PlayStation 2 and GameCube) will disappear from TVs, causing a similar problem.

While these issues affect older systems right now, they will continue to prevent people from enjoying old video games in the future too. Game CDs will eventually rot and become unplayable. Today’s modern digital storefronts (like the Switch eShop) will shut down someday, rendering a lot of their titles unplayable.

This doesn’t even consider online-only games like Overwatch, which will be impossible to play once Blizzard shuts down the servers. There are also games that were only available for a limited time, such as the Japan-only Legend of Zelda games for the Satellaview.

There’s no legal way to play these games now, and in many cases, Nintendo is against efforts to preserve them for future generations.

Good and Bad Game Preservation

As we’ve mentioned, there are both good and bad examples of preservation today. Microsoft has made huge strides towards backwards compatibility across generations with the Xbox Series S|X, which can play the majority of past Xbox titles.

Read more: How to Play Old Xbox Games on Your Xbox Series X

Aside from its stance on ROMs, Nintendo makes a lot of anti-preservation moves. Notably, a lot of Nintendo’s beloved back catalog is not playable on modern systems. While there are some NES and SNES games on Switch, there are tons of older titles—available on Wii U and Wii through Virtual Console—that still haven’t made their way to Switch.

This leaves people with no legal way to enjoy these older titles, aside from spending tons of money to get an older console. And even if you bought an older game on Virtual Console for a past system, Nintendo wants you to buy it again when it’s re-released (see Super Mario 3D All-Stars).

And for some of the games that Nintendo has re-released, it has charged full price for them decades later. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD is $60 on Switch, despite costing $50 upon its initial release for the Wii in 2011 and being available on the Wii U eShop for $20.

The situation is thankfully a lot better on PC, where sites like GOG offer retro PC games that are playable on modern hardware. As long as GOG stays afloat, this offers lots of titles from decades gone by to anyone who wants to play them.

Video Game Preservation Matters

In essence, video game preservation seeks to limit scenarios where a game is locked to its original system and not easily available on any modern console. Those who want to play a game from 20 years ago should be able to enjoy it easily, just like people could back then. Watching gameplay or reading about a game is not the same as playing it for yourself.

Many of the problems discussed are unique to video games, due to the multitude of video game consoles, mix of physical mediums, and publisher decisions. In many cases, it’s way easier to watch a movie from 60 years ago than it is to play a game from 30 years ago, and that’s a shame for anyone who loves games.

Image Credit: WildSnap/Shutterstock


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