Video games have a shelf life. While we tend to think of the data that games come in as immutable, the reality of gaming isn’t so simple. Over the years and decades, all games will have to face challenges of decline and death, and at the end of 2022, this is as true as ever. Fortunately, the flexibility of game systems allows a level of preservation afforded by few other types of media, but this protection isn’t always simple.
Older Systems and Games
The most anticipated form of death that video games face comes not from the titles we play, but the systems on which they’re placed. Video game consoles and computers, even when maintained at the best quality, are subject to physical laws of decay. Over time, the components in these systems will begin to fall apart, and with replacement parts no longer being produced, this can leave the games out in the cold.
For the older consoles, the degradation problem was often the result of low-quality production practices. According to an article at TimeExtension, a common failure component is what is called surface mount technology (SMT) electrolytic capacitors. Leak protection against some of the di-electric fluid stored in these devices was flawed, where inevitable leaks reacted with and damaged surrounding circuit boards.
In more modern systems and computers, it’s the batteries that tend to be the most problematic aspect. Like SMT systems, these would be damaged over time, this time because of internal chemical processes. Common in older complementary metal-oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) batteries, this would again cause leakage onto systems not protected against battery acid.
The games themselves could face similar issues if they came from a generation that included batteries on the cartridges, like certain early Legend of Zelda titles. Battery decay, even if it didn’t damage the cart, could cause the game to fail to load. More commonly, rust on the contact pins would cause games to fail reading checks. In the CD generations, basic scratches have been the most common issue.
Fixing degradation to consoles, computers, and their games is often a losing battle. Sometimes lifespans can be extended, but never into permanence. Since games are just data, and consoles are just ways to read this data, it’s possible to come up with entirely software-based solutions that overcome the challenges of time. As a solution, it’s emulation and remaking games that often come to save the day. The Nintendo Switch’s Virtual Console is a prime example of this idea, as is the new remake of FF7: Crisis Core. It’s also worth noting that this type of rebuilding isn’t unique to video gaming.
Digital gambling services also had to walk a similar route when Macromedia’s Flash was discontinued. Flash used to be the backing of both casino websites and their games, so when it lost support in major browsers, the industry faced an unprecedented challenge. As a solution, in platforms like an online casino, games like Double Deck Blackjack or the Lucky Fortune slot were rebuilt with newer HTML 5, to future-proof and allow players to keep access to their favorite games.
The Online Equation
Emulation and code preservation can help keep single-player games safe, but larger online games are another beast entirely. In a single-player title, a player can have a complete copy of all the code they need to play a game. In an online title like an MMORPG, however, important parts of the game’s operation are saved on a game company’s server. This code is rarely given out to players, so preservationists have no easy way to download it and keep it safe.
In 2022 alone, titles like Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier, Jump Force, Project CARS, and TERA all saw their official servers shut down. While some aspects of these games remain, this change made it impossible to play the games to their full capacity.
Solving this issue is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The most tech-savvy users out there can piece together large parts of how a server works by experimenting with the client side. Add to this experimentation performed while the game is still alive, and many popular online games have been saved through the introduction of what are called rogue servers. As discussed at MMOFolklorist, some of these, like the MXOEmu server for The Matrix Online, have maintained online games for more than a decade beyond their official shutdown.
The takeaway from the challenges of game and system decline and decay is that, if a game has fans, its survival will find a way. No matter the publisher’s and developer’s interests, preservationists recognize that video games are a part of media history. Even if they’re bad, they tell a story of how we got here, and they deserve to be saved. While there are always risks of catastrophic data loss and permanently removing titles from our history, as long as there is a will, for gaming life, there is a way.