A study of some 1,500 old video games released in the United States indicates that 87 percent of them are unavailable to play, and could be at risk of vanishing altogether.
Of the thousands of video games released in the United States since the medium’s inception some 45 years ago, almost 90 percent of them are unavailable to play by any convenient means. That’s according to a new study carried out by the Video Game History Foundation and the Software Preservation Network, published on 10 July.
The study took a random sample of some 1,500 games listed for various systems on MobyGames’ database, and then looked to see whether they were readily accessible to the average gamer. In other words, can an end user readily find these games on, say, Steam, GOG.com or the Switch eShop? It found that, of those games sampled, just 13 percent of them were readily available without resorting to piracy (via emulation, for example) or buying the original software and the obsolete tech to play it on.
“For accessing nearly 9 in 10 classic games, there are few options: seek out and maintain vintage collectible games and hardware, travel across the country to visit a library, or… piracy,” writes the Video Game History Foundation’s Kelsey Lewin. “None of those options are desirable, which means that most video games are inaccessible to all but the most diehard and dedicated fans. That’s pretty grim!”
While the lack of availability might not sound like a big deal, the survey highlights just what a precarious state video game history is potentially in. Some of the earliest video games – those published before 1985 – are particularly vulnerable, with just three percent of them still available. More worryingly, research suggests that the availability of older games is actually worsening – when the 3DS and Wii U eShops closed in March, for example, around 1,000 games suddenly became unavailable. A whole raft of games made for the Commodore 64 are only available on Anstream's online retro gaming platform. “If Antstream shut down,” the VGHF writes, “the availability rate for Commodore 64 games would plummet to an apocalyptically low 0.75 percent.”
The situation is made worse by harsh copyright laws, which can often see the ROMs of obscure and hard-to-find games swept from the web and the industry’s intent on putting out new games rather than archiving and preserving the old.
“Imagine if the only way to watch Titanic was to find a used VHS tape, and maintain your own vintage equipment so that you could still watch it,” Lewin writes. “And what if no library, not even the Library of Congress, could do any better — they could keep and digitize that VHS of Titanic, but you’d have to go all the way there to watch it. It sounds crazy, but that’s the reality we live in with video games, a $180 billion industry, while the games and their history disappear.”
Read more: VHS | The future of game preservation?