One game designer interviewed for Tom Bissel’s collection of essays Extra Lives said of his work that he felt like he was writing his legacy in water. I though that was a remarkably poetic image and was impressed, but I also understood what was at the root of his concern. Video games, even popular titles and series, have a history of riotously nonstandard formats and radical changes in the span of only a few short years. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for example, was a machine that was the original home of many of the most memorable and popular game franchises in history. (It’s true that Mario got his start- kind of– in arcade games. We’re ignoring that asterisk here for simplicity’s sake.) These foundational games, these landmarks of the form and sometimes originators of genres existed only on plastic cartridges that could be read only by the port fitted in the NES. For most of the world, that means the only way to access these games- their visual design, music, gameplay mechanics, narratives, etc.- was and still is to dust off an NES, plug it in, dig up an old Ninja Gaiden cartridge, and say a brief prayer that your ancient console still remembers your touch well enough that it will work for you. By the way, that’s another thing. The NES (and the Sega Genesis, Super Nintend0, N64, etc.) were and are NOTORIOUSLY finicky. Even when they were not yet obsolete an in fact relatively new (within a period of five years let’s say) a bizarre, technical/superstitious ritual had to be observed to ensure both your system and the game you wanted to play would work when you wanted them to. The exact amount of pressure plugging in the wires, the exact amount of force inserting the game cartridge, the correct direction and number of times to blow on the electrical connectors to ward off interfering dust and malevolent spirits. This was an exercise from which no gamer was excluded in the era of cartridge gaming. So it was to the almost comically, certainly unreliable arms of these divinely capricious consoles that game designers offered their Mona Lisas, the best work they could do expressing the height of the technology available to them. And sometimes all they had to show for their diligence was a staticky green screen, until some toddler came along and spit on their masterpiece enough to get it to work.
Enter, then, in the 21st century, the ROM and emulator. Gaming technology has advanced as quickly if not quite a bit mores than the admittedly rapid pace of technology in general in the last several decades. A wristwatch in 2016 can do things it might have taken a whole room full of dedicated servers to do in 1996, or so my best memory of James Bond tells me. So then it comes as no surprise that the crowning achievements of technology in the early years of console gaming (circa 1985) can now be duplicated by a kid on his home computer between homework time and dinner. For the man who’s legacy was written in water, this is not as bleak as it may seem. With the type of processing power and storage space that comes with the average home computer today, it is a relatively simple task for them to duplicate, or emulate, the work done by the gaming consoles and cartridges of yesteryear. ROMs are more or less transliterated video game files, and emulators are pieces of software that allow your computer to run these ROMs as if you had taken an old Nintendo cartridge and somehow plugged it into the USB port. This means that anyone with a remotely new computer can play all of the old games he used to love, without relying on the clunky hardware to which they used to be bound. To further sweeten the deal, one day some charitable coder came along and designed an operation system called RetroPie, which would run on a tiny computer called the Raspberry Pi. The RetroPie OS collected emulators for a dozen or so game consoles like the NES and put them on one, easy to use menu. Once downloading the OS and installing it on a handy micro-SD card, all a nostalgic gamer would have to do would be to hit the internet and download the ROMs of all of her favorite games, load them up, and get playing. Thus, literally thousands of games, many of which are decades old and incredibly obscure, can now be made available to anyone with about $100 who isn’t overly nervous about copyright laws. Ironically, the advent of technology that the developer worried would wash away the record of his achievement like a new high score on an arcade game, has actually come around to save and maintain, if unofficially, the memory of his work. These collections can now be protected and curated as if by a museum, and they well should be.
Just like the printed word or the automobile, the video game is an example of a technology that was once privileged and has since entered a more common domain. And it has been this dissemination that has allowed for the preservation and continued cultural relevance of what would be called “classic” games. In essence, ROMs and emulators and their uses on the RaspberryPi are just an example of porting. When a game is ported, it is adapted from its originally medium (say for example, a standalone arcade cabinet) to another (like an NES cartridge, or more contemporarily a downloadable file). This was and is done all the time with games, so this evolution is no different except that it’s all done entirely by fans and enthusiasts rather than the corporate owners of the games and IP. The fact that game companies did not make greater provisions to preserve and maintain their game libraries is kind of mind-boggling. Even now, as Nintendo and Sony and maybe Microsoft too have mined their IP vaults for old titles that they can make available for download through their online portals and reboot and make new for next gen console, there are plenty of games that would never again see the light of day if not for the Pi. Game companies are only going to dedicate resources to revamping and remaking games that they think they can sell or that fit their brand, and beyond that there are plenty of games that were own by companies that are now defunct, making the the legal legwork before making the game prohibitively difficult. Unfortunately, the Pi is only a grassroots movement in terms of preservation, so these disregarded games are only tentatively held.
My experience with getting to know the RaspberryPi, its joys and frustrations, I’ll document later. The simple fact that it exists, and that with my meager abilities I can manipulate it, is still surprising to me and as I will explore in another post, would in 1995 have simply overwhelmed my eight year old self with the sensation of unlimited power. As far as I know at the moment, it stands as the only nearly comprehensive method of vintage games preservation that is widely available.