Play it again: One fan’s quest to save old video games

by

Special To The Japan Times

We now recognize the late Yasujiro Ozu as one of Japan’s finest film directors, but his early works are lost to history, victims of a time when cinema was seen as disposable entertainment and not an art form worth saving. Joseph Redon doesn’t want the same thing to happen to video games.

“You wouldn’t classify opera as ‘old music.’ It’s classical music. Video games are the same. These titles are classics and should be valued as such. Even a lousy game hints at how the medium evolved so we must preserve everything, not just the best sellers.”

A network engineer by trade, he has a broad smile and a way of speaking that’s as measured and methodical as a clean line of code. When the French native moved to Tokyo in 2000 to research and archive retro Japanese PC titles he was shocked to find collections left to languish within an inclusive community. He wormed his way inside through online auctions and forums to contact others who shared his passion. In 2011, he established the Game Preservation Society, an NPO to save gaming from the landfill of pop culture.

We meet at the four-story apartment, in Tokyo’s Todoroki neighborhood, that serves as the group’s workshop, archive and Redon’s residence. I admire his vision. But why would anyone today care about, say — I pull a random package from the shelf — “Morita Shogi,” an unassuming shogi (Japanese chess) simulator? Redon doesn’t miss a beat.

“Oh, Morita-san was an exceptional programmer who wrote beautiful algorithms. Computer magazines used to sponsor reader-submitted game creation contests and he was a winner. It wasn’t unheard of to pocket ¥10 million in prize money and royalties per game.”

Redon has an anecdote for each title in his archive. The disks are more than data. They’re a record of the forgotten history that today’s gaming industry is built upon. Imagine a generation of self-taught programmers, the Bill Gates of their day, striking it rich in magazine contests before going on to develop software for Nintendo, Sega and Sony.

But you won’t find their names at the national video game museum hall of fame. You won’t find such a museum in Japan, period. Video games are part of the Cool Japan soft power initiative, so why isn’t the government taking steps to preserve them — or promote their artistic value — in the same way it does with film and anime?

There seems to be a conflict of interests. Redon was asked to advise a government-sponsored video game database only to see it strangled by red tape.

“Politicians decide where the money goes. The whole point of funding an organization is to secure your position as a board member post retirement. Except politicians don’t want to be seen to be associated with video games,” he explains. The ordeal was a waste of time, and time is the one resource Redon can’t afford. By his estimate, a floppy disk has a 30-year lifespan under ideal conditions. Japan’s humid summers are far from ideal.

Redon guides me to a climate-controlled storeroom on the second floor. It’s a large walk-in closet lined to the ceiling with custom-made cases that protect over 20,000 disks. The room is kept under 20 degrees Celsius year-round and should the humidity rise above 60 percent, an alert is sent to nearby members who rush to the scene. If mold takes hold on a disk, it’s game over.

It’s a precarious and temporary solution. His endgame, then, is to transfer the data to a stable environment. Except disks have copy protection. Cracking the protection ruins the data’s authenticity and may introduce game-breaking bugs. Under the strict criteria of digital preservation, altered data is as worthless as a watermarked replica of the Mona Lisa.

Enter the KryoFlux, a credit-card sized device that exports a perfect, unmodified copy from the disk drive of a retro PC to a modern machine. It maps the magnetic memory of a disk similar to the way an MRI maps your brain activity. From here you can load the game into an emulator or write the data to a fresh disk to run on the original hardware — assuming it still works.

Games are meant to be played, after all, so Redon and his team also help maintain retro arcade cabinets.

“Think of it as restoring a classic car,” he says. “Sure, you could rebuild the engine with modern parts, but the ride would feel different. So enthusiasts pay more for the original. It’s a hobby for the rich.”

To illustrate, he pulls out a box of custom-ordered pinch rollers — the rotating part that spools a tape reel — used in DECO Cassette System games, a format all but lost before Redon recovered it. The prototype alone cost ¥10,000. He ordered 80.

If you want to take history for a spin Redon recommends the Natsuge Museum arcade and used software shop Beep, both in Akihabara. Ideally he’d like to develop a commercial emulator to bring retro PC games to the public but resources are limited. Even with 17 core members the NPO needs government or industry support to take its activities to the next level.

Redon’s hobby has become his life’s work. What will he do once the archive is complete?

“Actually, there’s a long list of classic titles I haven’t played through,” he admits with an embarrassed grin. “Maybe someday I’ll finally have time to sit down and enjoy them.”

For more information on the preservation of video games, check out the Game Preservation Society at www.gamepres.org, the Natsuge Museum at www.t-tax.net/natuge and Beep at www.akihabara-beep.com/info/

  • artfuldgr

    there is a whole movement of this that has gone on for ages with people writing emulators for the old machines like commodore and amiga… not to mention that steam and others offer these old games going way back to the dos era using a dos emulator as well..

    news thats not news…

  • JohnS

    That’s not quite true, artfuldgr. Download services such as Steam and the Virtual Console have maybe 1% of all of history’s games. Some games, due to licensing issues, will never be reissued.

    Furthermore, the Game Preservation Society is doing forensic preservation. They’re not just making a ROM dump for emulation, which often involves cracking or modifying a game’s code. They actually make a “scan” of a floppy disk’s entire surface, and keep all the data intact, including copy protection and sections of data that might never be accessed.

    This type of forensic style archiving requires a new set of technologies and skills to achieve. It’s taking things to a new level.

    Another thing that makes this significant is that it’s happening for Japanese games. Western systems, such as the ZX Spectrum, or Amiga as you mentioned, have a long history of being preserved. For the Spectrum there’s the website WorldOfSpectrum, which even has magazine scans. But Japan has always had much stricter copyright laws, and the general public has long been wary of them, meaning Japan has been slow to catch up with the West in terms of preserving its videogame history.

    The GPS is significant because only now is there a big effort to preserve everything, and at the same time because it has taken so long, the magnetic media games are stored on (tapes, floppies, etc) are more in danger of being lost than ever before.

    Plus, because the person doing it is European, there’s less of a language barrier when asking questions. For a long time Japanese games history has been obscured behind a language barrier, and only Westerners who could speak Japanese could understand it.

  • http://letterboxd.com/dragoonenregali/ Pasokon Deacon

    Great little write-up on the Game Preservation Society! As for developing commercial emulators to play Japanese PC games, that’s been done already by D4 Enterprises for their digital game download service Project EGG. Preserving these games in their entirety, not simply cracked or modified versions of the originals (multiple release versions aside), is important, especially in the case of Japanese PC games which heavily relied on digital rights management for commercial purposes. I hope GPS can secure more consistent funding in the coming year; Redon mentions BEEP as a place to visit for checking out these classic games, and they’re at least doing better and better it seems (a new location’s opening in Akiba).