If you owned a PlayStation in 1998, you might've cast a scornful glance at a 2D platformer going by the unfortunate name "Punky Skunk." But while it was dismissed as a Sonic the Hedgehog clone at the time, Punky Skunk holds up as a decent side-scroller. Punky Skunk is worth looking back on not just because it's a bit of a "lost gem," but because it's at the center of a strange tale about game preservation.
Punky Skunk began as Cooly Skunk, a platformer developed for the Super Famicom by Ukiyotei (a small company founded by former Capcom employee Kenshi Naruse). Unfortunately, by the time Cooly Skunk finished development, the PlayStation was king and the Super Famicom was no longer profitable. Ukiyotei developed another version of Cooly Skunk for the PlayStation—the version we received as Punky Skunk.
The Super Famicom version of Cooly Skunk was never committed to cartridge, and thus faded away—but not forever. Earlier this month, game preservationists recovered the "lost" iteration of Cooly Skunk and made it available to the public. It's always heartening to see games pulled from obscurity, but Cooly Skunk's Super Famicom rescue is especially intriguing. While it never hit store shelves, a demo was released through Nintendo's Japanese-exclusive Satellaview service. A Satellaview subscriber just so happened to download the demo to a memory pack 24 years ago. The pack wound up in a Japanese game store, and several game preservation enthusiasts chipped in $500 to buy it. A user named "MasterF0x" managed to unlock the full game from the demo, and thus Cooly Skunk's Super Famicom glory is restored.
The Satellaview service was remarkable for its time. Users could access game "broadcasts" like BS The Legend of Zelda in addition to sampling demos like Cooly Skunk. What seemed like magic on Satellaview is now the norm for the games industry, which raises more and more concerns about game preservation. You can put a game cartridge on a shelf. It's harder to permanently capture streams of data that download directly onto your console or pass through a streaming service.
"Without physical cartridges or discs, preservation can be challenging when games can be delisted at will, or servers (and indeed satellites) decommissioned," writes John Linneman of Digital Foundry. "For me, this highlights the dangers of a purely digital marketplace—if not for the memory pack on which Cooly Skunk was saved, it may never have been found at all."