Your weekly dose of nostalgia
September 14, 2014 3:36 AM   Subscribe

'I place the blame for gaming history at the feet of the medium itself, or rather the industry that runs it. You can turn on the radio and hear the entire post-Beatles spectrum of popular music history represented as you run down the dial; flip through cable channels on a Sunday afternoon and you're as likely to see yet another repeat airing of an '80s release like Die Hard or Back to the Future as you are something that hit theaters in the past five years. For games, though, you practically have to go digging to find the classics. And chances are you won't even find them.' Jeremy Parish on the preservation and availability of classic video games.

And what happens when a company simply goes out of business? On occasion, its catalog is snatched up in its entirety by another publisher. More often, however, its games are auctioned off individually to the highest bidder. We may learn where high-profile or high-selling brands end up, but more niche or obscure titles are just as likely to vanish into the vaults of someone who buys the rights speculatively only to never use them again.

Scroll down for a list of which company owns what franchises.
posted by ersatz (9 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The finest classics, all Williams games, are easy to find: Joust, Defender, Robotron.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 4:23 AM on September 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

For every Virtual Console gem, easily three just-as-worthy games will never be offered on that service, and that's only counting the NES. A substantial part of the NES' library came from Rare, for example, which because they're owned by Microsoft now means few of those games that aren't Donkey Kong Country (which presumably was produced under special legal arrangement) will see the day on Virtual Console.

This is contributing to something I've been tracking for a while, the division of popular culture into two tiers, the mass media tier, composed of everything you can obtain that's completely in the clear legally, and what we might call the "gray market," but I would instead call the enthusiast tier. There's loads of gaming stuff that's readily available, but only if you know the right magic words to enter into Google, or have invites to the right torrent sites.

But this tier, which is less commonly accessible than the mass media but, depending on the precise medium, can be much wider in scope, has some things you can't find anywhere else. This is the world where you can find complete remixes of New Super Mario Bros. Wii with entirely new levels, versions of Mario Kart Wii hacked to include additional tracks, and versions of Smash Bros. with new characters. It's also where you can find awesome television rarities (many surviving only because people had old VHS tapes), collections of awesome old Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon promos, collections of "highlights" of recordings of televangelists that have been hounded off of YouTube, and re-edits of popular movies like Star Wars prequels that fix widely perceived content and structural problems. Calling piracy theft was already laughable; these are sometimes new productions that wouldn't exist without some flaunting of the law, and, as the "consumer" ability to remix and modify has increased, are sometimes close to the original in quality.

And increasingly, it's not just a legal divide that separates the two. It just gets harder to find the latter material as search static from the mass media interferes with finding it, and the media companies' legal teams cook up new ways to make it harder to find the stuff, and once you have it it's not always a simple matter to utilize it. To play the Wii hacked games, you need a jailbroken Wii or the Dolphin emulator and a machine powerful enough to run it; to play AVIs of old content, you might not easily be able to do it from your smart TV or Roku, unless you happen across a happy intersection of player, app, bitrate and file format. And while I have no direct evidence, I can't help but think, if you're looking for work in one of these industries, it can be, um, harmful to your chances of finding employment with them if, in your online life, you reveal familiarity with these legally-questionable productions, even if interesting and important work is being done there.

The finest classics, all Williams games, are easy to find: Joust, Defender, Robotron.

I love all three of those games, but I have qualms about easily declaring the finest classics. Anyway, they're only easy to find legally if you have the right mixture of console, compilation and/or download service -- for example I have a Wii U, which has no path to any of those titles, excepting, on the outside, one that goes through the Homebrew Channel in its Wii mode.
posted by JHarris at 4:34 AM on September 14, 2014 [22 favorites]

The gray market has always gone hand in hand with gaming. Ms. Pac Man started out as a gray market (at best) hack of Pac Man.
posted by rikschell at 4:45 AM on September 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The finest classics, all Williams games, are easy to find

Except Williams Pinball tables in good repair.
posted by persona at 5:08 AM on September 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rare were complete dicks about their back catalogue way before Microsoft acquired them. For example to this day not allowing images of their old 8-bit ZX Spectrum catalogue from the early 80s, when they were called Ultimate Play The Game, to be available for emulators. And they wrote some of the best 8-bit games.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:59 AM on September 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I wish I had this guy's radio in my car
posted by thelonius at 7:22 AM on September 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

From the conclusion: "If copyright law worked the way it was intended, Donkey Kong would now be in the public domain, and anyone would be able to play the original version of this landmark video game creation."

Amen, brother.
posted by dylanjames at 7:33 AM on September 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

The gray market has always gone hand in hand with gaming. Ms. Pac Man started out as a gray market (at best) hack of Pac Man.

That's not really the same thing, although you might have been misled by my terminology -- anyone making an arcade back then, even as a bootleg of another, had to have the equipment to dump the ROMs and make replacements, not thinks an ordinary player, even one with access to a machine, would have.

Indeed, what Bally/Midway did in that case did was pragmatic and canny, and would be greatly welcome today. Instead of declaring unilaterally IT MUST NOT BE, they instead communicated with the bootlegger, GCC, and then worked together to release what might now be the most popular version of the game. It's ludicrous to consider Namco doing something like that now.

Here's a crazy fact: the company that put Ms. Pac-Man together, General Computer Corporation, still exists today as a manufacturer. They make printers!
posted by JHarris at 10:33 AM on September 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Video games are cultural artifacts akin to sound recordings and motion pictures. They belong in the Library of Congress or a museum of some sort for the legitimate classics. I'd almost go so far as to say grant or continuation of copyright should involve a requirement to have a copy of your artifact on file.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:44 PM on September 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

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