Videogames, especially on home consoles, have had a massive impact on our culture for decades. If you’re old enough, you remember when they suddenly came onto the scene and forever changed how we use our T.V.s. If you’re young enough, you’ve never known a time when videogames didn’t exist. Knowing all this, why wouldn’t we want to preserve older games for future generations to enjoy, as well as appreciate for their historical value? Predictably, two of the main obstacles to this are rights-holders and money. But gaming geeks have been finding workarounds for quite a while, and they’re finally getting some support from one of today’s biggest gaming companies. It’s about damn time!
Personally, I love the idea of emulation: running a piece of software on a machine not designed to run it. I’ve had a near-obsession with it for many years, starting with emulating retro & arcade games on phones and tablets which was a hoot. Then I got into emulating stuff on Raspberry Pi and dedicated PCs, which let me revisit old PC/Atari ST games I used to play relentlessly in the 90’s. It’s a huge blast of nostalgia for me.
The problem with all of this is finding copies of the games. You can legally buy a lot of stuff on eBay or whatever, and there are sites like GOG.com that sell a lot of older PC games that are otherwise hard to get ahold of, a.k.a. “abandonware.” But if you just can’t find a game for sale anywhere, the only other option is downloading pirated copies. This is especially true when it comes to computer games (PC/Atari/Amiga/etc.), where most of the software companies don’t even exist anymore. With consoles, you might have to download a pirated ROM file because Nintendo no longer sells it and you don’t want to shell out $100 for that one copy on eBay. At the same time, Nintendo will sue the shit out of you for making those ROMs available to others. It’s a crappy situation for gamers who want to do the right thing but have limited options.
Anyway, all of this is why I was stoked to read this story about Microsoft’s VP of Gaming:
Microsoft’s Phil Spencer Wants the Gaming Industry to Embrace Game Preservation Through Emulation
He’s not advocating for video game companies to release all of their classic games on the internet for free and pretend like copyrights and trademarks don’t exist, but for all of the rights holders to instead embrace an industry-wide approach to emulation where every modern console would potentially be able to play thousands of classic games. Access wouldn’t necessarily be free, but in the same way that classic movies and TV shows can be enjoyed on many modern consoles and devices through the Netflix app, a similar streaming service could be implemented that allows gamers interested in retro titles pay to have access to them.
This would be especially easy for console makers, and I’m guessing they could make decent money with it. They’re already doing it to some extent — Nintendo has been selling downloadable copies of old games for quite a while, though it’s an extremely limited sampling of their catalog. They’re only offering the most popular stuff, but they could easily offer just about every game they’ve ever made. I think Sony and Microsoft are selling some emulated titles on their consoles too.
One company who has the right idea is Antstream, which streams 1000+ retro console games for a monthly subscription. That’s pretty awesome, and they’ve already put in the work to get those licensing issues worked out (except for Nintendo, which keeps a tight hold on its stuff):
Antstream can stream over 1,200 retro games for $10 a month
Antstream has games spanning all of console history, with titles from Atari, Sega, the Commodore 64, Amiga, and ZX Spectrum. “I wanted to serve the amazing legacy of iconic games that have been lost,” he said. “I wanted a legitimate way to play them. Because of the incompatibilities between devices changing so much, it’s just easier to move them to the cloud.”
Another company doing the same but for free (and it includes PC games!) is playclassic.games:
playclassic.games is a website focused mainly on the possibility of playing DOS games online, in a web browser, let´s say – in a modern way. Nowadays, there are many pages where you can read a lot about the old classics DOS games, but you can not play them. We are trying to combine these two aspects, so you can read about them, and you can also play them – right here, right now!
That one streams all the games and emulation stuff via your browser, which is pretty damn impressive. It’s not super great having to use your keyboard for everything, but it works. Frankly I’m amazed they’re not constantly being sued for copyright infringement (and I hope they never are).
The “nuclear option” for PC gaming would have to be eXoDOS, which is a package of 7,000 PC games (including manuals!) that run on the free LaunchBox app. It’s massive, clocking in at around 600GB, but there’s a good chance it has the games you’re looking for.
And let’s not forget the amazing work done by the people behind MAME, the system used for making old arcade games playable on just about every platform you can imagine:
MAME’s purpose is to preserve decades of software history. As electronic technology continues to rush forward, MAME prevents this important “vintage” software from being lost and forgotten.
Arcade emulation is extremely complex because of all the hardware differences, but the MAME team has made it pretty manageable. I have a dedicated Windows box set up with MAME and a bunch of other stuff, and I can play ridiculous 2-player arcade games from the 80’s with my husband on our living room T.V. It’s brilliant!
If it weren’t for the hard work of gamers with a passion for preserving all this software, a lot of it would have been lost forever. That’s why it would be great if more of the rights-holders recognized the value in this stuff and stepped up to contribute to these efforts,