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Preserving Old Computer Games Is Harder Than it Seems

There’s an art and a science to resurrecting now-defunct PC games

(Blake Patterson (Flickr - Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

As computers get sleeker, faster and ever more connected, PC gaming has changed. But some people still feel nostalgic for those old games that captured their imaginations — and hours of their life. And just like old board games or card games, historians care about preserving these kinds of past times. But Rock Paper Shotgun’s Tom Bennet reports that preserving classic games is a strangely complicated task.

You might think that preserving old games is as easy as pressing a few buttons. You’d be wrong. Bennet writes about the complicated world of “reverse engineering code written more than 20 years ago, unraveling knotty licensing issues left behind by defunct development studios, and battling lethargy on the part of skeptical publishers” — all part of turning old games into something that can be played by 21st-century humans.

It’s kind of like film restoration, Bennet notes: Engineers at old game purveyor GOG.com must get creative as they build relationships, pull off crazy coding feats and comb through the bizarre behavior of games that were built for much older, less robust systems.

The challenge is one that’s familiar to GOG. Formerly known as Good Old Games, the company has been in existence since the mid 1990s, when a Polish duo began importing American games for Polish play. Forbes reporter Erik Kain writes that Polish gamers often preferred older games that “they tended to pirate.” In search of a way to get Polish gamers to actually buy games, Kain reports, Marcin Iwinski and Michal Kicinski began to build a stable of classic PC games. Today, they sell their painstakingly restored classic games online.

When it comes to classic videogame restoration, GOG isn’t the only shop in town. However, each genre of video game (arcade, console, and PC) has its own restoration challenges. Luckily for people who just can’t hit the ESC button on their favorites, the internet offers many havens filled with information for everyone from nostalgic gamers eager to properly store their beloved Super NES consoles to people who need specific schematics for that old Joust game.

For a fascinating glimpse into the complex world of both taking games seriously enough to preserve them and then pulling it off, be sure to read Bennet’s article.

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