Game preservation is a very different prospect than preserving other types of media. Books can be preserved through simply copying the same text and images into any object or device that can display them. Movies and TV can be played back with pretty much any format capable of portraying crisp picture and sound and can even be copied between different types of physical media with relative ease. But because video games are so much more dependent on specific technology, preserving them for future use is inherently more complicated.
The idea of preserving online multiplayer and live-service games is a whole different can of worms that is outside the scope of this article. This is more of a simplified look at the challenges of game preservation from a general hardware perspective.
Especially in the days when gaming technology was more limited, developers had to be efficient and wring as much power out of the hardware as possible. They had to be very specific and efficient for the device they were designing the game for. Because of that specificity, and the fact that there was much less standardization in hardware architecture, what worked for one console would not necessarily work for another. For instance, you could not just take a game designed for Sega Genesis and easily get it up and running on a Super Nintendo. If a game was coming to multiple consoles at the time, they were, more likely than not, entirely different versions. There were probably notable, fundamental differences in appearance and functionality, and they may have even been developed by different studios because developing for more than one console could effectively double the workload. Out of necessity, games would tend to be bespoke experiences for the hardware they were intended to run on. To varying degrees, this has continued through every console generation.
All of this is to illustrate the point that games are very dependent on their hardware. Many older games can be run with emulators, whether by official or custom means. But due to a variety of factors, they are not always perfect 1:1 representations of the original experience. A game designed to run at a 320x224 resolution on a CRT screen might not scale well or look all that good on a modern 4K TV. The code might also produce unexpected results when run through an emulator designed for general use, creating bugs that would not exist otherwise. You could simply play them on original hardware but keeping old consoles functional and accessible might not always be practical or possible. This is not even mentioning the fact that many publishers (especially Nintendo) hate consumer emulation and view it as piracy (though their stance is rigid, it is in fact completely legal to emulate a game if you are directly dumping a copy that you legally own).
Modern consoles and PCs have a much more standardized architecture, and many of the widely used game engines are already optimized to run on current consoles. While consoles all have different strengths and require specific optimizations, it’s easier than ever to release games across all platforms. Thankfully, backwards compatibility is, for now, seemingly more of a priority for at least Microsoft and Sony. Many titles from all Xbox generations are playable and purchasable on Xbox Series X/S. PS4 games are easily playable on PS5, with some select games from older generations available to emulate or stream. It’s not perfect, but long as this remains a priority, your collection of games should be able to retain much of its accessibility down the line.
Ownership and licensing is another significant challenge. The rights to games and characters might move around as companies sell off properties, which might cause legal issues with making older games available for sale. Games based on licensed characters usually have strict license expiration dates as well. As an example, Activision had a large suite of games based on Marvel and Transformers. All these titles are now delisted from sale and are only available through second-hand sellers. Even if the IP itself is wholly owned by a developer, there may be other licenses involved, such as music tracks. In many cases, it’s simply not possible or cost-effective to renew the licenses that would be required to keep the game available to buy.
Digital purchases are another challenge. In theory, buying a title through an online store, such as Steam, Playstation Network, or the Nintendo eShop, should entitle you to perpetual access to the game. Even if you delete the game, you still own a license that lets you redownload it. But what about when a store is taken offline? The Wii Shop Channel is permanently shut, making it impossible to redownload your purchases if the games are ever removed from the console’s storage. The Wii U and 3DS eShops are set to be shut down in early 2023. When a game has only ever been released through digital means, such as the WiiWare label of games, there may not even be physical copies that you could buy second hand. This means that a large catalog of games may become forever inaccessible to future generations if the rights holders don’t make them accessible by other means.
Further complicating things are when games are designed around specific control methods. For instance, would Wii Sports have nearly as much appeal if its events were played with a regular sticks-and-buttons controller? Without a way to replicate the unique features of the Wii Remote, the game would lose most of its identity. The same goes for every game designed around Xbox’s Kinect. These games are only possible to play via their intended hardware.
Game preservation is a complicated issue that cannot be easily addressed. But at Retro Gaming of Denver, one of our goals is to provide you with a means to enjoy your favorite games again. Take a look at our stock of classic titles and hardware if you get a hankering to dip back into an old favorite or experience something you missed in the past.