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/