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The Hottest Place to Play Retro Handheld Computer Games? Try the Internet Archive

A new project hopes to save vintage technology before it is gone forever by preserving playable versions of your favorite old-school games

Remember me? (CC BY-SA 3.0/Tomasz Sienicki)
smithsonian.com

If you were a kid in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, you probably spent at least some time ecstatically jabbing at the buttons of a handheld computer game.

These retro digital devices, which first came onto the market with the release of Mattel’s Auto Race in 1976, are self-contained, easily transportable consoles that rely on video displays like VFD, LCD and LED.

But in a world where virtual and augmented reality have become the talk of the gaming world, handheld computer games are increasingly fading from the scene.

For those feeling nostalgic for the days where the now-vintage software was king, the Internet Archive has launched a program to keep them alive for generations to come. As Claire Voon reports for Hyperallergic, the Internet Archive has uploaded emulations of more than 70 handheld games that can now be played on a modern computer.

The collection, titled “Handheld History,” features such retro selections as Frogger, Sonic the Hedgehog and Tiger Electronics’ MC Hammer game. You can even clean up the poop of a virtual pet in the Archive’s adaptation of Tamagotchi. The available games “range from notably simplistic efforts to truly complicated, many-buttoned affairs that are truly difficult to learn, much less master,” archivist Jason Scott writes on an Internet Archive blog.

The games available through Handheld History are emulations of the originals created by developers with the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), a project whose mission is to prevent the loss of vintage software.

Preserving retro technology is often a complicated process. Sometimes, the chips of a circuit board can be read non-destructively, but this isn’t true of every game, Kyle Orland points out over at Ars Technica. LCD games, for instance, he writes, rely on a “pre-etched LCD layer, which uses non-overlapping notches that toggle on and off to create every possible animation and situation possible in the game.”

To get information from an LCD game, the console has to be taken apart so its components can be scanned, vectorized and traced. In an ironic twist, that can mean the physical machine itself must sometimes be destroyed in the process to preserve the game online. “[B]ut,” as Scott writes on the Archive’s blog, “the argument is made, quite rightly, that otherwise these toys will fade into oblivion.”

While playing with a Tamagotchi on your computer doesn’t quite capture the experience of the holding the little egg-shaped device in your hand, Handheld History is sure to jog some fond memories.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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