The Collectors Who Save Video-Game History from Oblivion – The New Yorker

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The Collectors Who Save Video-Game History from Oblivion

Where does a game like Star Fox, Super Mario Bros., or Sharknado: The Video Game actually come from?

Illustration of a room full of vintage video games

Illustration by Rakhmat Jaka Perkasa

Michelle Flitman, a recent art-school graduate who lives in a suburb of Chicago, grew up in a home full of video games. To her dad, Mark, they were the odds and ends of corporate life: he was a game producer and designer who worked on NFL Blitz 2003, Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage, and WWF Raw. But to Michelle, they were part of the fabric of childhood, and she thought her father deserved some recognition.

Michelle tried to interest YouTube hosts and Web-site owners in the relics she grew up with, but nothing came of those efforts. Then, in college, she took a course on video-game history, and her professor nudged her to write a research paper. When we spoke recently, she recalled a realization that she had: “Historians care about this stuff. ” She decided to post photos of her dad’s collection—shelves of games in black-and-red boxes, some of them still in their original shrink-wrap—on a subreddit devoted to game collecting. “​​My dad was a video game producer for multiple companies in the 90’s/2000’s, ” she typed. “We plan on selling most of his collection. Here’s a fraction of what’s in it. ”

The thread quickly filled up with commenters who clearly saw the value of Mark’s stuff. “You can make a living out of these games, ” one person told her. Someone else said, “I want that boxed copy of castlevania 4. I’ll give you all of the money for it. ” The most popular comment joked, “Do you need kidneys? I’ve got kidneys. ” Another said, “I think I have some unwanted family members lying around here somewhere. ”

Out of a hundred and forty-nine comments, one or two urged Michelle not to sell the games and to preserve them for posterity instead. One of these comments referenced an organization called the Video Game History Foundation . It was downvoted enough times that it appeared at the very bottom of the thread, but Michelle chose to send the foundation an e-mail.

Two days later, she was on a Zoom call with Frank Cifaldi, a Bay Area preservationist who incorporated the foundation in 2016 and opened it to the public in 2017. He directs it alongside Kelsey Lewin, the co-owner associated with Pink Gorilla Games, the retailer that sells retro video games in Seattle. Cifaldi and Lewin agreed to fly out to Chicago to sift through Mark’s hundreds of games plus dozens of dusty boxes. They have been working to archive his selection ever since.

The oldest video games are now about seventy years old, and their stories are disappearing . The companies that created early games left behind design documents in addition to production timelines and story bibles, but these kinds of ephemera—and even the games themselves—are easily lost. Paper mildews. Disks demagnetize. Bits are said to “rot” as small errors accumulate in stored data. Hard drives die, and so do the people who produced games in the first place.

Generations of kids grew up playing these video games and helped to jump-start the digital revolution. But games aren’t always treated as a serious part of the culture, and historians and even archivists are only starting to preserve them. (One museum curator even told me that a federal grant for his game-preservation work ended up on a U. S. senator’s list of wasteful projects. ) The challenge isn’t just technical: it’s also about convincing the public that game history is history, and that it’s well worth saving.

In June, Cifaldi and Lewin traveled to Chicago to visit another game designer’s trove, and they took the opportunity to revisit Mark’s stuff. I tagged along to witness the work of the Video Game Background Foundation. The Flitmans live just down the street from a suburban high school, and their two-story brick house is so nondescript that I initially drove right past it. By the time I finally found the place, Cifaldi together with Lewin were already hard at work in the living room, hunched over piles of old documents. The house, I noticed, was full of cat-themed décor.

Lewin, who is compact and laser focussed, suddenly pulled a magazine from a pile and exclaimed, “Year of the dinosaur! ” She had discovered her favorite-ever issue of Game Informer , from the nineties.

“The early days of Game Informer were very out of touch, ” Cifaldi, who is tall, with an air of intense concentration equal to Lewin’s, told me.

The article about dinosaurs was buried in the back of the magazine, and it wasn’t even really about video games. Cifaldi summarized it for me: “Here’s a few stuff coming out about dinosaurs. ‘Jurassic Park’ looks cool. Here’s some dinosaur facts, kids. ”

“This is the longest-running and additionally most-subscribed-to video-game magazine within the U. S., ” Lewin observed. Listening to them, We felt like a kid on an unchaperoned field trip.

Mark amassed his series during two decades in the video-game industry, first as a quality-assurance tester and later as a producer. He worked for numerous game-makers—Mindscape, Acclaim Entertainment, Konami, Midway Games, Atari, not to mention NuFX, which became EA Chicago—at a time when Chicago was a video-game capital of the world. The city was the birthplace regarding such familiar arcade game titles as Rampage, Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam. But when the era of the arcade ended, the city’s bigger game-makers began to go extinct, and they left reams and also reams of material behind.

Thankfully, Mark had a habit of hanging on in order to anything that he thought might be important later. “You know, this is my career, ” he told me. If one of his former employers solved a new technical problem, he wantsed to be able to share the solution with his new colleagues. The stacks of documents that he kept—press kits, employee handbooks, temporary rewritable cartridges, old issues of gaming magazines—are like the strata of a very recent archaeological site.

In the basement of the Flitman house, down a flight of brown-carpeted stairs, Mark set Cifaldi and Lewin loose on archival boxes filled with once-confidential documents. (During a visit to his parents’ house, Mark had come across material that they hadn’t looked at yet. ) I required the opportunity to see the rest of the basement, which was filled with the remnants of a career in online games, toys, and film production. I spotted a few new-in-box Furbies, and the wonder must have showed on my face.

These days, Mark is semi-retired, doing a bit of screenwriting and working on a memoir that is tentatively titled “It’s Not All Fun and Games. ” Mark left the video-game industry, he told me, because even the success of major publishers didn’t last very long. “Midway is gone now, ” he said. “Mindscape is gone. Atari is fully gone. ”

What’s left tends to live in basements like this one, waiting for someone interested to come along. When you play games, they don’t feel ephemeral; the particular classics, like Tetris or Super Mario Bros., can feel like they’ve always existed. But when you see how games are produced and what they’re made of—dated computer code as well as scraps of paper and a thousand accumulated behind-the-scenes decisions—it’s easier to understand what Cifaldi and Lewin are trying to save.

Cifaldi first got interested in video-game preservation when he was a teen-ager. He had played video games as a kid, but he viewed them as little more than toys, and he stopped playing them in high school. But , in the late nineties, this individual got his first computer and access to the Internet. He searched for the eight-bit Nintendo games that he had played as a kid, and was fascinated to learn that many of them could be played on emulators, or even computer programs that allow people to use software designed for other machines. “I still think it’s magic, ” he told me.

One of Cifaldi’s first contributions to game preservation has been one of the cartridges he couldn’t find online, Super Spike V’ball / Nintendo World Cup (1990), a pair of sports games featuring volleyball plus soccer. He mailed it to someone who could get typically the code off the cartridge in addition to onto the Internet. After that, he was down the rabbit hole—scouring local thrift shops for games, importing cartridges from Taiwan, and even flipping stuff on eBay.

Still, Cifaldi often found those online communities unsatisfying, he told me, because games tended to be uploaded without context. “I would discover these whole-ass games—like, entire video games that were completed together with done, sold to people—and we didn’t know anything about all of them, ” he said. This individual didn’t like that the story seemed to end as soon as playable code was posted online. Again and again, he found himself wondering, Who made this?

In 2003, Cifaldi created Lost Levels, which he or she describes as the first Web site dedicated to documenting unreleased video games. It shared the history involving featured games, alongside some sort of download link. (“To me, documentation also includes the file, ” he said. ) It helped him launch a career, first as a freelance writer and eventually as a video-game producer and designer. In 2014, he directed a video game based on the sequel towards the made-for-TV movie “Sharknado, ” in which the player weaves through the flooded, shark-infested streets of New York City. By the next year, Cifaldi was working as the lead producer on the Mega Man Legacy Collection, which placed the first six Super Man games in historical context. “And what a surprise, we sold, like, 1 . 1 million of those things, ” said Cifaldi.

After five years of game development, Cifaldi has been ready to go into game preservation full time, so , with the encouragement and financial support connected with his wife, he quit. In 2016, he incorporated the Video Game History Foundation in the East Bay like a nonprofit with the goal with “preserving, celebrating, and teaching the history of video games. ” He rented a physical space from his former employer and gradually filled this with historical ephemera.

Cifaldi once gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about the challenge for selling old games, and additionally there he made a provocative argument: that emulators should be seen as a form of video-game upkeep. Game creators aren’t compensated for games that are uploaded for free online, so several console makers and publishers consider emulationly a little better than software piracy. At the time, Nintendo’s corporate Web site described emulators as “the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers. ” But Cifaldi said that without tools like emulation, video games would go the way of historic films. More than half from the films shot before 1950 are believed to be lost, as are between seventy and ninety percent of all films shot before 1929.

This argument is starting to take hold in game-preservation circles, according to David Gibson, a digital-project coördinator at the Library of Congress. “It’s really just another way of repurposing the content so that people can have access to it, ” they told me. The Library about Congress preserves physical materials such as video-game periodicals not to mention strategy guides, but it “didn’t really start collecting games until around the mid-nineties, ” he said. Its game collecting started with CD- ROM s, which means that decades of video-game history are missing from one of the largest libraries in the world.

Lewin learned about the Video Game History Foundation shortly before she graduated from college. She had recently become the co-owner of Pink Gorilla Games and liked to research the quirks of video-game history—“things like the Game Boy sewing machine or the Super Nintendo Exertainment bike, ” she told me—but Google searches often turned up little more than a Wikipedia article. So she sent Cifaldi a direct message on Twitter and offered her services as a public-relations volunteer.

Lewin lived hundreds of miles away, in Seattle, plus Cifaldi already had someone doing P. R., so he brushed her off. In response, Lewin signed up for the foundation’s Patreon page at a donation level that included a monthly Zoom meeting with Cifaldi. “I started paying for that just so I could be saying things to his face, basically, ” she told me. “And I never went away. ”

In 2017, just after the foundation launched to the public, Cifaldi relented. “She just really was persistent, wouldn’t go away, ” Cifaldi told me. “She was a volunteer. She didn’t know that she was the particular volunteer! ”

Lewin helped curate a pop-up exhibition about Atari at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. Then, in 2019, Game Informer enlisted Cifaldi and Lewin and a rotating team of volunteers to digitize the magazine’s entire archive at its Minnesota headquarters. After five weeks of intense work, Lewin became the particular foundation’s co-director. They still live in different cities, but , because they often travel to collections that they want to acquire or digitize, they see each other several times a year.

In the fall of 2009, a group of archivists and researchers published a paper called “Before It’s Too Late” in the American Journal of Play , an academic publication from the Strong Museum of Play, in Rochester, New York. “Electronic games have profoundly changed the way people play, learn, and connect with each other, ” the authors wrote. “If we fail to address the problems of game preservation, the digital games of today will disappear, perhaps within a few decades. We will lose access to the history and culture of contemporary games. ”

Since the paper was published, many more people and institutions have become involved in game preservation, Jeremy Saucier, the journal’s editor, wrote to me in a recent e-mail. But that doesn’t mean the upkeep problem has been solved. Video-game conservation is “a moving goal post, ” in part because new games are constantly coming out in new formats. How do you preserve a cell-phone game like Flappy Bird, which enjoyed massive popularity but then vanished through app stores because the developer felt that it was too addictive? “Game-streaming services are also posing new challenges, since there may be nothing from the game itself left behind to preserve, ” Saucier wrote.

Today’s game-preservation efforts can seem haphazard and underpowered, Jason Scott, an archivist and software curator at the Internet Archive told me. “What would have happened if nobody recognized paintings as collectible until the nineteen-sixties? ” Scott asked. “What if we thought about them like we think about paving stones, or house paint? ” The Internet Archive largely collects digital games, but Scott said that he’s currently cataloging an enormous archive of online games made with Macromedia software. (The company had an unusual software program license that asked designers to send in physical copies of their games. )

The actual work associated with preserving video games can be surprisingly difficult, even for familiar titles. The 1989 fantasy game Prince of Persia, for example , spawned an enduringly popular franchise—Jake Gyllenhaal played the prince in a 2010 film—yet the game’s original source code was lost until 2012. It was only recovered because the creator’s father happened to find the original 3. 5-inch floppy disks during some spring cleaning.

Then there’s the challenge that games are more than cultural artifacts—they’re also business ventures and social experiences, and to contextualize them you need things like marketing-strategy documents and media booklets and dinosaur-themed magazine issues. That’s difficult when everything that goes into a video sport may be confidential. Since video-game companies only want consumers to see the final, polished, purchasable product, the preservationists rely on the Mark Flitmans of the world to squirrel away industry secrets. (In 2015, Scott urged game developers to do exactly that inside a talk called “Steal From Work. ”)

Cifaldi gave the example of Super Mario Bros., one of the most popular and influential games in history. Today, you can play it on an old-school Super Nintendo console, a Nintendo Switch, or even your friendly neighborhood emulator. A newcomer to the online game could figure out that the main character, an apparently Italian plumber, is named Mario and is very good at jumping. But where did its ideas and references and innovations come from? “It’s kind of a combination of all the games that came before it, ” Cifaldi told me. “They had the particular scrolling from Kung-Fu Master. They had the springs”—platforms that will bounce characters higher when they jump on them—“from Donkey Kong, Jr. ” And resources like commercials and sell sheets, or one-page documents that pitch ideas for video games, “show how Nintendo like a company was thinking about this game when they marketed it. ”

Right after Lewin and Cifaldi finished sorting boxes at the Flitman house, we piled into cars and drove to the public library, where Michelle works part time. Mark wanted to keep possession of his collection, so everything needed to be digitized locally. The archivists brought external hard drives, the box from the basement, and a micro-spatula to pry staples out of paper.

At the library, Michelle plus Cifaldi headed downstairs to digitize video tapes. The first one had been taped over, so we were briefly treated in order to scenes from the film “Die Hard 2 . ” The second, however , featured an advertisement from a game studio that was hoping to secure work from a publisher. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could sell on eBay, but it helped me imagine the inner workings from the industry.

Upstairs, over the comforting noise of a scanner, Lewin told me that will even people in the video-game industry sometimes wonder why historians would be interested in their work. “I think a lot of people tend to just not realize they are a part of something important, ” she told me. “These were just jobs to them. ”

She and Cifaldi couldn’t disagree with that more. “This stuff is so important that we’re just going to spend the money digitizing somebody else’s stuff and figuring it out later, ” Cifaldi told me.

When I was a teen-ager in the early two-thousands, I loved Star Fox for Extremely Nintendo. I knew nothing about the game’s origins, but for some reason, I could not get enough of Fox McCloud’s fight against the evil scientist Dr . Andross. Maybe it was the slick, futuristic design of the Arwing spacecraft, the alien polygon landscapes of the Lylat system, or the fact that I played this after school with my younger brother, before I knew much about the world at all.

It would be easy to assume that Star Sibel, like so many excellent nineties games, grew out of Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. But video-game-history buffs know that it was programmed by a British company, Argonaut Games, which also helped to design 3-D graphics chips for some Manufacturers cartridges. That was part of the video-game story, too: small companies were often called up to co-create beloved games. (Much of this history has been popularized by documentaries such as the Netflix series “High Score. ”)

Of all the bits of history that Cifaldi and Lewin found at the Flitman house, one was undeniably a treasure: a disposable black-and-white cartridge loaded with Eclipse, a rare software demo which showed off technology that Argonaut had developed. “That technology was the ability to render 3-D on the Game Boy, ” Cifaldi told me. Mark got their hands on the demo whenever he worked for the video-game publisher Mindscape, but it also caught the attention of Nintendo.

At the time, many Sport Boy games used elegant but simple pixel art. Argonaut had a knack for making realistic tanks seem to move and three-dimensional spaceships seem to fly through space—the kinds of things that shouldn’t have been possible on such rudimentary hardware. Nintendo began to work with Argonaut on X, a Japan-only space-combat game for the Online game Boy. Cifaldi described the demo as “the DNA of what led to Star Fox. ”

Dylan Cuthbert, who coded the demo when he was seventeen and then became a lead programmer of Star Fox, agreed. “That demo was your pivot point for Argonaut and got us flown to Kyoto, and the rest is history, ” he wrote in a message. He said he wasn’t aware of any surviving copies, either. “It’s remarkable it nevertheless exists at all. ” Celebrity Fox came out in 1993 and became an instant hit; it has been a flagship Nintendo franchise ever since.

There in Mark’s living room, I realized that I had never actually taken the time to look up who made the game that I loved so much. To my childhood self, the game seemed like a perfect, contextless object that experienced sprung out of nowhere. Yet here was a piece of background that helped reveal where it had come from. ♦

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