What's So Secret About Classic Game Curation?

What's So Secret About Classic Game Curation?

Services like Virtual Console and PS Classics provide a valuable service, archiving gaming's history. So why won't anyone talk about it?

Everyone has their obsessions; mine, for some reason, is video game history.

I don't know exactly how or when that obsession came to be, but it must have begun during the 16-bit era. Up until that point, games seemed to me like a linear progression in terms of quality - sorry, Atari 2600 fans - with each generation of consoles and arcades boards not only improving on the last, but obviated what had come before. But sometime around, say, 1995 I remember going to a flea market where an older gentleman had a stack of NES games for sale. On the top of the stack I saw a game I had fixated on for months in junior high before finally completing it. But like the rest of my old NES collection, my copy had long since been sold off to finance the acquisition of my Super NES library.

Standing there in a flea market, looking at this game I had loved and so quickly been willing to throw aside in order to fund the latest and greatest, I had this strange stirring of an unfamiliar sensation. It wasn't quite nostalgia or regret, but they were its cousins. We sat at the cusp of an entirely new generation of consoles to replace my Super NES in 1995, and the realization that these older games would soon vanish forever struck me, and it filled me with disappointment.

I didn't buy that game that day, because I no longer had a system to play it on. But a couple of months later, when my girlfriend and I crashed at her cousin's place as we drove across the country on vacation, I happily relived old memories when I noticed he had a dusty NES and a copy of Metal Gear in his guest room.

The summer after that, I discovered the early stirrings of console emulation, and all bets were off.

Like so many obsessions, my newfound interest in the old took on its own life, slowly mutating over time. Sometimes taking a step backward; sometimes leaping forward in waves of compulsive determination. But I think the core of my interest in game history made itself most apparent when I launched my very first personal website not long after, sometime in 1997, and began reviewing old and new games on equal terms. I created no "retro" section, no artificial demarcation between current and archival releases; explorations of PlayStation and Nintendo 64 fare sat on equal footing with NES and Master System reviews.

Changing times

That approach may have been practical in 1998, when the NES was only four years out of active production and you could still find remaindered games for the system at Toys R Us, but today - more than 15 years later - it makes considerably less sense. You'd be hard-pressed to find a gaming site that evaluates releases for dead systems by the same standards as current productions. Nor should you; the medium has simply changed too much.

Perhaps more to the point, the people who want to read about old games rarely want to read about current blockbusters, and vice-versa. The audience itself has become segregated, a fact that sits at the front of my mind on a daily basis. With USgamer, we try to treat games as a continuum, treating the old with the same respect as the new, but everything we publish demands a trade-off: When we dig into the past we stand better-than-even odds of turning off people who want to read about the latest (and future) hits, and when we tackle an upcoming release, we run the risk of alienating the retro fans. There's a very good reason most site specialize in one facet of the medium or the other - new or old - only occasionally dipping a toe outside the waters of their respective focus.

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.

If you want to play a game like, say, The Guardian Legend (which I gave a nod to in last week's "Best NES Games of 1988-89" feature), your only legal option is to track down the original cartridge on eBay or Craigslist and hope your dusty old front-loading NES still works (spoiler: It probably doesn't). We'll probably never see the game in any form ever again. The original developer of The Guardian Legend, Compile, went bankrupt in 2002, splitting into Compile-Heart and MileStone. With its focus on vertical shooters, MileStone probably had the strongest connection to The Guardian Legend, but the company shut down last year when its president was arrested for financial improprieties.

Many of Compile's properties ended up with Sega, though others have landed at Hudson (which was swallowed and shut down by Konami). Meanwhile, the U.S. version of The Guardian Legend was published by Brøderbund, which was absorbed by The Learning Company, which in turn was purchased by Mattel. In Japan, Irem published the game. So who owns the rights to The Guardian Legend? Sega, Irem, and Mattel, most likely. And what are the chances that these three companies are going to sit down at some point in the future and say, "Hey, let's spend time and money to sort out the rights for republishing this obscure NES game that'll probably sell a thousand copies"? The probability numbers look startlingly similar to zero.

Vanishing history

And so it goes for countless classics and near-classics. I can't imagine many people will be heartbroken if, say, the shoddy NES port of Cinemaware's The Three Stooges never makes it way back to widespread availability, and no one wants to play Alf for Sega Master System unless they're just being ironic. But what about Vic Tokai's Clash at Demonhead, a quirky game that helped inspire Scott Pilgrim? What about Compile's Zelda-esque Golvellius: The Valley of Doom? Or even a fairly well-known property like Bonk, which now rests in the hands of Konami, a company that's demonstrated remarkable indifference to the extensive Hudson library it owns?

The availability of classic games in readily accessible forms has plummeted over the past decade. During the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 era, a wide array of publishers kept their back catalogs in circulation through the release of anthologies and compilations. These became far more scarce last generation, though, thanks to the advent of digital distribution on consoles, Steam, and mobile devices. Publishers began experimenting with different means of keeping their properties alive, both through standalone releases and archival services like Nintendo's Virtual Console, Sony's PlayStation Classics, and Microsoft's Game Room.

None of these ventures have lived up to their potential. Virtual Console started strong but fizzled out after a couple of years, and the service has undergone an effective reboot for Wii U - a process that has left most of the consoles supported on Wii out in the cold, including all third-party systems and even Nintendo's own N64. Game Room was even shorter-lived, with developer Krome throwing in the towel almost immediately (or more likely having the tower thrown in for them). Only PlayStation Classics seems to have made the transition to the current generation, with all but a handful of releases playable on PlayStation Vita - though, significantly, not PlayStation 4.

The veil of secrecy

The most baffling thing about these console services, though, is how utterly opaque they are. The processes behind Virtual Console remain almost as much of a mystery today as they were when it launched in 2006. Who curates the games? Why are some platforms so poorly represented? Why did Nintendo President Satoru Iwata make Virtual Console Arcade a cornerstone of his 2010 Game Developers Conference keynote address only for the service to fizzle before ever republishing a single classic Nintendo arcade title?

Who Owns What?: Electronic Arts

Few publishers have been around as long as Electronic Arts, and few (if any) companies have as extensive a list of acquisitions as they do. Most of these subsidiaries have been shut down. This is by no means a comprehensive list; it's merely the highlights, and the key classic properties involved.

  • Westwood Studios: Command and Conquer, Dune II
  • Maxis: SimCity, The Sims, Spore
  • Bullfrog: Populous, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper
  • BioWare: Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights
  • Criterion: Burnout, Black, Redline Racer
  • Origin: Ultima, Wing Commander, Crusader: No Remorse
  • Dreamworks Interactive: The Neverhood, Jurassic Park: Trespasser, Medal of Honor, Skullmonkeys

Nintendo remains resolutely silent on these matters, repeatedly turning down all attempts I've made over the years to talk to someone about the mechanics of Virtual Console (a tale I've heard repeated by my like-minded friends in the press). Third parties also remain tight-lipped, at least on the record; my attempts over the past few months to get a conversation going with several different publishers with a strong presence on Virtual Console and PlayStation Classics have withered at different points on the vine. One very vocal publisher volunteered to provide some insights into the processes at work behind these services but never responded to multiple follow-ups. Another third party's responses were shut down by its marketing department. And so on, and so forth.

To date, the only company willing to comment at all on its classic archive processes has been Sony, who allowed George Weising (a Managing Producer in Product Development at Sony Computer Entertainment America) to field some questions via email.

"I manage a small team of producers, two of whom (Chris Fusco and David Alonzo) work with me on the PS Classics initiative along with R+D Emulation team programmers in the United States and Japan," Weising writes. "Our team, International Software Development, works with teams all around the world to bring titles into our territory."

Who Owns What?: Square Enix

Square Enix actually represents the collision of three major powerhouses from the '90s: Squaresoft, Enix, and Eidos. Each of those companies in turn owned a number of subsidiaries, making the current company a juggernaut of classics... most of which rarely resurface.

  • Squaresoft: Final Fantasy, Mana, SaGa, Einhänder, Bushido Blade
  • Enix: Dragon Quest, Valkyrie Profile, Star Ocean
  • Quintet: ActRaiser, SoulBlazer
  • Eidos: Deathtrap Dungeon, Hitman, Fear Effect
  • Quest: Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre
  • Taito: Space Invaders, Elevator Action, Qix, The New Zealand Story, Bubble Bobble
  • Ion Storm: Deus Ex, Thief
  • Crystal Dynamics: The Legacy of Kain
  • Core Design: Tomb Raider

Behind the veil

Weising offers a glimpse into the process through which archival PlayStation and PlayStation 2 releases make the trip to PSN. While Sony's process likely differs from Nintendo's, you can nevertheless get a sense of the complications involved in something seemingly as simple as republishing a beloved classic. For starters, the systems that support PS Classics - PSP, Vita, and PlayStation 3 - don't run on the same architecture as PS1 and PS2 games did, and the difficult act of making those older titles compatible becomes a major factor in the process. In fact, for Sony, that's where things begin.

"The process is initiated when our team in Japan develops a new emulator," says Weising. "They assign resources in each territory to develop the emulator and test it against titles in the catalog, starting with first-party titles. As the emulator expands its capabilities to run the classics without technical issues, we will add them to a master list of titles that 'work,' and then put them through a legal clearance process. The emulator development is coordinated globally with teams in each territory testing the emulator on titles from their own region."

Who Owns What?: Konami

Konami doesn't have many holdings, but it's an interesting of an example of a single company having absorbed another publisher with a legacy almost as vast as its own.

  • Hudson: Adventure Island, Bonk, Bomberman, Military Madness, Star Soldier, a massive portion of the TurboGrafx-16 library

"In order to make PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games work on newer systems, our R+D teams needed to develop virtual emulation platforms that work just like the actual hardware. Our emulation teams are amazing both here and in Japan, and they work very hard to be sure each game runs as well as it did on the original hardware. This takes a lot of testing of a lot of games."

While Weising didn't indicate precisely how much input the Western side of Sony has into determining the prioritization of getting classics up and running, it's likely negligible. That's most likely because PlayStation Classics are driven more by tech than content. Sony's preservation process begins with the development of an emulation shell into which software can be slotted and tested; Sony's developers generally work by creating one-size-fits-all tech and then figure out which titles work best with the new shell.

The tech-first approach is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, though. As Weising explains, "If a publisher has the rights to release a title and reaches out to SCE to release it, we begin working on it right away and do everything we can to release it."

Who Owns What?: Atari

The Atari name has had a rocky life. After the video game crash of the early '80s, Atari split into two, and the home console and computer side was shuttled around to a variety of owners. Today it's in the hands of French publisher Infogrames, which rebranded itself Atari - representing a massive portfolio of American and European companies alike.

  • Atari Corp.: Lynx system and all first-party games, Jaguar system and all first-party games, Missile Command, Centipede, Pong, Tempest
  • Infogrames: Drakkhen, Shufflepuck Cafe, North and South, Alone in the Dark
  • Ocean: Mr. Nutz, Zero Divide, Batman
  • GT Interactive: Oddworld, Unreal Tournament, Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Total Annihilation, Doom, Lode Runner, Hexen, Driver
  • Hasbro Interactive: Frogger, Monopoly, Clue, Battleship, Glover, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit
  • MicroProse: RollerCoaster Tycoon, Civilization
  • Shiny Entertainment: Earthworm Jim, Enter the Matrix
  • Melbourne House: Shadowrun, Way of the Exploding Fist, Nightshade
  • Gremlin Interactive: Monty Mole, Jungle Strike, Body Harvest, Top Gear

Still, this generalist approach - working at the platform level rather than targeting individual titles - likely accounts for why games that used very specific types of programming or were developed "close to the metal" and worked outside of Sony standard library are slow to arrive or even entirely absent. And while this approach may be efficient in terms of software development resources, it clearly demands considerable resources on the testing side, meaning the cost of reissuing classic games doesn't end with programming.

"I can't get into exact numbers [regarding costs], but we feel like curators of PlayStation's heritage. We take quality very seriously. Testing and QA is a big part of that," Weising confirms.

Technical perils

It's not simply enough for a game to work on the latest emulator shell, either; as Weising explains, it has to be the correct version of the game as well.

"PlayStation and PlayStation 2 were fixed systems," he says. "Games were released without patches and system software updates. It was common practice for publishers to release several different versions of a game with each manufacturing run as they made improvements. This means that there can be multiple versions of a game available, so we always need to be sure we have the final master version and that we are testing that version."

Beyond that, each game must also navigate the more daunting straits of bigger technological concerns beyond mere emulation as well. They have to be made to work with contemporary technology, bridging the gap between old and new interfaces.

"We are very concerned with the importance of capturing the nostalgic feeling of playing these older games," Weising explains. "We want to make sure consumers have the best experience possible on each platform that PS Classics are designed to run on. We do this by taking advantage of the DualShock 3 and PlayStation Vita D-Pad, analog control inputs, as well as modern HD flat screens."

Who Owns What?: Non-Gaming Companies

Equally vexing are game rights still held by their original owners... when those owners have long since departed the games business. This is quite common among smaller Japanese publishers who were most active during the '80s; during the Famicom boom, countless companies doing business in other industries jumped in to ride the 8-bit gravy train. Squaresoft, for example, began life as the software publishing branch of an electric company.

As the economic boom faded and the barriers to entry for acceptable video game design rose, many of these companies decided to abandon ship, no longer seeing profits in game design. Most of them took their properties with them. Take Pony Canyon/FCI, for example: Their parent company, Fujisankei (aka Fuji TV), still exists, but they've long since abandoned video games. You'll likely never see their products republished - not only does Fuji demonstrate little interest in games, most of those products featured licensed properties.

Even more frustrating are cases like Irem, formerly hardcore-focused publishers who have dropped their support for video games. Irem decided to reorient itself as a gambling machine manufacturer; according to Kazuma Kujo, the director of games like Disaster Report and Steambot Chronicles, the company's decision to cancel the fourth Disaster Report in the wake of 2011's Fukushima earthquake wasn't precipitated by the quake itself; rather, Irem simply wanted to divest itself of its game interests, and the quake offered a convenient excuse.

Unfortunately, when Irem exited the games business, it took its properties with it. Irem titles (most notably the R-Type titles) were delisted from Virtual Console and PSN alike. While those games have resurfaced from time to time, they've been inconsistently available for the past three years.

In short, the PlayStation Classics emulators have to take into account factors like the input lag of current televisions - something that can prove exceedingly tricky, as any fan of music games like UmJammer Lammy can attest - and the change from old-style cathode ray tube televisions to current technology like plasma and LCD. This presumably makes games that were dependent on one factor or another in their original incarnations (or both, as with light gun games like Point Blank and Elemental Gearbolt) ineligible for rerelease.

"Most of the original games released for the PlayStation system didn't make the cut for legal and licensing reasons, and there are some PlayStation and PlayStation 2 titles we could not release for technical reasons (like non-supported peripherals and coding practices that make games difficult to emulate)," Weising confirms.

The chosen few

"Ideally, we would like to release all of the titles from the back catalog, but there are issues that can prevent a title from being released," says Weising. "These mainly fall into the categories of legal and technical issues."

Weising declined to comment on the legal matters that can affect a game's eligibility for reissue, but those challenges would seem by far represent the most significant complication in the archiving process. The "Who Owns What?" asides scattered throughout this feature only begin to touch on the tangle of legality and contracts that can affect a game. Everything from an obvious media property license like The Muppets or Image Comics to hidden disputes like voice acting contracts that never took into account digital distribution rights (a factor that barely even existed 10 or 15 years ago) can derail a rerelease.

Who Owns What?: Defunct companies

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.

Consider THQ: When its properties were parceled out last year, Deep Silver grabbed the Homefront franchise and is already working to expand it with an ambitious sequel. But what about THQ's lesser titles that no one really remembers? What happened to all of Acclaim's old games? Or countless European publishers who had a minor Spectrum hit in the '80s and vanished?

Between the technical ability to run a game on current platforms and the legal rights to do so, the task of republishing classic games involves navigating a tricky minefield. Assuming a game survives the gauntlet, though, the final leg of the PlayStation Classics process is simply one of scheduling.

"Once we have a list of titles that have no technical or legal issues, we look at a variety of criteria to prioritize what games we release, and in what order," Weising writes. "This includes things like gamer feedback and demand (especially the gaming community forums and websites), and even possible marketing tie-ins such as the launch of a new title in a franchise. Over time, as the initial backlog of titles is reduced, we simply release everything we're able to as soon as possible.

"Assuming there are no technical or legal issues, final say for a particular title falls on the studio or publisher that holds the publishing rights for a title. Our goal is to strive to release every title that we can.

"Third-party publishers have full control of the release and management of their own titles. We outreach to publishers and let them know when we have titles that are bug-free to get them to consider allowing us to release them. Publishers also reach out to us for release of their titles. As hardcore gamers ourselves, there are a lot of titles that we'd love to see released, and we are always pushing for more."

While clearly not a top-level priority for Sony, PlayStation Classics evidently have enough of an audience to make the endeavor worthwhile; not only do we continue seeing a steady stream of releases each month, but Weising indicates there's more to come.

"We know that our R+D teams are always working to improve their emulator technology, and we still have a great deal of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 Classics titles still to be released for current platforms."

Who Owns What?: Licensed properties

Things get especially murky when you start to deal with licensed properties. Those usually come with all sorts of caveats in tow - things like time limits, multiple stakeholders, and more. What happens when the original property is sold from one owner to another? Or when the property owner simply becomes defunct? And often in the case of a long-standing property like Batman or Star Trek, the rights to develop related games switches from hand to hand as well, meaning the old licensee and new licensee have to work together in order to reissue a classic title.

The ups and downs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game really demonstrates this. Konami developed and published the original version, but about a decade ago the rights to TMNT switched over to Ubisoft. Ubi republished Konami's game on Xbox Live Arcade, but eventually the rights lapsed somewhere along the chain and it was delisted. Likewise, Ubisoft republished Konami's original NES TMNT for Virtual Console for a while, but that too has vanished.

And TMNT is one of the few instances where the new rights holder has even bothered to make the effort to collaborate with the original licensee. Most of the time they just don't bother.

If anything could derail the PlayStation Classics effort, it would be Sony's own advances. The PS Now streaming service, which recently entered beta, would seem to moot the idea of ownership - provided, of course, that Mark Cerny's promise that the full gamut of PlayStation family releases will be available to stream on Now actually comes to pass. The beta service focuses entirely on recent releases, with no indication of older games on the horizon. And then there's the looming obsolescence of the PlayStation 3; with an incredible 10 million PlayStation 4s already sold through in just nine months, Sony has reason to be confident in the new platform and push ahead full steam on making that their main pillar... a pillar with no support for PS3 software, including PlayStation Classics.

"We're all excited about the upcoming PS Now service and think that Classics are a good fit for it in the long term," Weising agrees. "That said, there may be times when players can't access the Internet, like on a long flight or during vacation, so having the game running on their system natively is the best option. Some gamers also might prefer hanging on to their favorite games for nostalgic reasons.

"As far as [bringing Classics to PlayStation 4], we can't comment on that."

"Our goal with all of this is to curate our creative legacy at PlayStation and preserve our gaming history for future generations. Because we believe, new or old, a great game is a great game."

A clear and present danger

It's a noble goal, and an essential one. For anyone who believes in the validity of video games as a creative medium, game preservation has become a crucial concern. With games having existed on so many incompatible systems over the past 40 years, often on volatile and fragile media, essential and incidental works alike run the risk of vanishing forever.

Being as commercial a medium as it is artistic, though, games remain subject to the concerns of copyright and ownership. The recent Twitch video-on-demand announcements - in which video streams containing any matches to copyrighted material will be instantly muted in 30-minute chunks - really underscore the fact that while fans and enthusiasts may feel a personal connection to the games they love, the rights to those creations remain in the hands of corporations. While sites like The Lost Levels work for the noble purpose of unearthing and publicizing prototypes of unreleased games that otherwise would truly cease to exist, in the eyes of the law there's no real difference between that altruistically motivated venture and a ROM distribution site or torrent that functions as a clearing house for mass disbursement of others' property.

In the end, America's twisted copyright laws may pose the biggest threat to video game preservation. The original idea behind copyright was to protect creators for a reasonable amount of time - a couple of decades - before allowing others to create derivative works and distribute the original media freely. Over the years, though, copyright has been stretched further and further at the behest of major publishing corporations in order to maintain control over their oldest archival works.

Who Owns What?: Original game content rights

Even when all the stars line up and a classic game is an original property rather than a licensed work, the publisher is still active, and the brand in question is still viable, that still may not be enough. After all, contributors to the original work may have a stake in the game.

Soundtracks offer a perfect case in point. Many game composers retain the rights to their music - Yuzo Koshiro for example - which creates an extra complication in licensing for reissues. Likewise, voice audio can gum things up. Capcom still holds all the rights to the Mega Man Legends games, but by some accounts those have never reappeared on PSN (despite considerable demand) because of complications with the voiced dialogue. Hope you don't mind paying two or three times the original price of those games on eBay....

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. But instead, the arcade original sits locked away in Nintendo's vaults, evidently suppressed by a binding legal agreement in perpetuity. The only way to experience Donkey Kong properly today is to track down an increasingly rare, fragile, and expensive arcade machine... or to steal it from a ROM torrent.

The silence surrounding the process of console game preservation - save Sony - perfectly embodies the frustrations would-be video game historians and enthusiasts alike face going forward. An ever-growing pool of history rests in the hands of disinterested companies, and for every sought-after gem like EarthBound or Shantae that makes its way into rerelease, there are hundreds of games we'll almost certainly never see again. Short of swap meets, eBay, and ROM theft, the medium's heritage remains almost completely inaccessible. Legally available "Archives" largely consist of a cherry-picked selection of essentials and less-worthy games that their owners deem potentially profitable enough to send marching through the tech and rights gauntlets involved in reissues.

Video games, which represent the collective output of hundreds of thousands of people toiling for untold millions of man hours to bring their respective creative visions to life, deserve better than that.

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