I’m always happy when any forgotten media gets discovered and released.
A group of dedicated game preservationists has obtained a set of obscure Japanese Kirby games from the Super Famicom era in order to archive them for future generations. But the uncertain fate of such early games presages a much bigger problem facing digital game preservation going forward.
Even die-hard Kirby fans would be forgiven for not knowing much about Kirby’s Toy Box, a collection of six mini games that was only available through Japan’s Satellaview, an early satellite-based distribution service for the Super Famicom (the Super NES in the West). That system only let you download one game at a time to a special 8-megabit cartridge, though, and you could only download when that specific game was being broadcast across the narrow satellite feed.
Thus, existing copies of most Satellaview games are available only if they happen to be the last game downloaded to individual cartridges (Satellaview broadcasts ended in the late ’90s). While some of these games have been publicly dumped and preserved as ROM files, many exist only in the hands of Japanese collectors. Sometimes, those individuals are reluctant to release the digital code widely.
That’s why gaming historians were so intrigued when a Japanese auction popped up listing four of the Kirby’s Toy Box mini games (Circular Ball, Cannon Ball, Pachinko, and Arrange Ball) for sale on four separate Satellaview cartridges. As Video Game History Foundation founder Frank Cifaldi put it on Twitter, “finding 3 different ones from 1 seller is a miracle.”
Preservationists including Cifaldi and Matthew Callis sought out donations to help win the auctions and preserve the game data for future generations. Yesterday morning, the group announced it had won all four cartridges for a total of ¥85,500 (about $813.08, as reported by Kotaku). “Still missing most of Nintendo’s Satelleview [sic] output, but at least we’ve got most of the Kirbys now,” as Cifaldi put it.
A growing digital preservation problem
The shaky fate of these early digital downloads likely points to future issues we’ll face when it comes to longterm preservation of modern games distributed exclusively as downloads. Last year, Sony shut down PlayStation Mobile, cutting off access to plenty of great Vita titles from smaller indie publishers. Xbox Live’s Indie Games program will fully shut down in 2017, leaving quite a few hidden gems of its own without an online home. And Apple has begun the process of culling “problematic and abandoned” older games from the App Store, continuing a process of game removal already started by many iOS game publishers themselves.
When Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo eventually shut down their PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii servers for good, hundreds of digital download games will only exist as scattered copies on various console hard drives. That’s already happening with games like P.T., Konami’s free cult horror classic that was pulled down from PSN unceremoniously in 2015. That move led to a spike in prices for secondhand PS4 consoles that happened to have the game trapped on their hard drives.
Sure, we’ll likely be able to find copies of many of the biggest and most popular of these digital-exclusive games in order to export them to a more permanent and emulatable archival format (a recent DMCA decision makes this whole process easier when it comes to mimicking authentication servers). But as servers go offline and games are scattered among myriad distinct consoles, assembling anything close to a complete understanding of today’s digital game marketplace is going to get very tough very quickly. As is the case with many early films that have been lost forever, we may not know what hidden gaming treasures have been lost to history.