Emulation is the Key to Video Game Preservation

Emulation has always been a hotly debated topic in the community, since the ethics and legality of using them is gray at best. Despite that, the ability to archive and have access to games otherwise inaccessible to many is a net positive for gaming culture. With the recent closure of the 3DS and Wii U eShops, the discussion has once again come to the forefront. Apps like the Pokémon Bank can no longer be accessed unless they were downloaded prior to shut down, leaving the ability to transfer Pokémon in shambles for future trainers.


There have been attempts to preserve these games. For example, Jirard Khalil, The Completionist, and his team purchased every title up for sale on both eShops before they shut down, and they’ve donated those collections to the Video Game History Foundation. Their incredibly noble cause has helped immensely in the pursuit of video game archiving. With that being said, those titles are now no longer available to download and any physical copies will soon balloon in price, making many titles out of reach.

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The point is that this is an issue we’ll keep stumbling into if we don’t find a more permanent solution, which emulation can help with immensely. This was proven in the past when people found and messed with the code for Millennium Racer and Primal Rage 2 (as uncovered by The Verge), making both playable to the public. Millennium Racer was a rare, barely known game for the Sega Dreamcast and Primal Rage 2 only had 2 prototype arcade units made, only 1 being playable. In both cases, these games would be nigh-on impossible to come by for people. More games are becoming harder to get a hold of, much like the ones above. As old systems lose support, their titles can fall to obscurity.

Skies of Arcadia, a JRPG originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, has seen no remasters or re-releases since its GameCube port in 2003. Unless you have $200 to throw around for old games, you most likely have never played it. Emulation has made the game more accessible and allowed for it to continue getting new fans long after its last official release. Subsequently, rumors have been swirling of a remaster in the works at Sega, but we have yet to see it announced. Should that come to pass, then you can be sure that the game’s popularity in the emulation community would’ve played a big part in its revival.

Vyse posing for battle in Skies of Arcadia

In the future, I’d like to see a legal library of archived games put up for sale by their parent companies, much like Nintendo Online’s ever-growing library of older titles. Having the preservation come from the publishers and studios that made these titles will eliminate the legally gray nature of current emulation and archiving efforts. While each major platform has added old titles to their online stores in recent years, it’s a surprise they haven’t tried to go all-in on the subscription model for more of their old games. Once support gets cut for an older system, those games should be added to a digital library that gamers can continue to enjoy. This would allow companies like Nintendo and Sony to continue making money on their titles while also ensuring they’ll never fall to obscurity.

Preserving download-only games has always been a struggle. Look at Scott Pilgrim vs The World, which was originally released on the Xbox Live Arcade. For six years, the title was considered lost media, only accessible on consoles that happened to have it on their hard drives, until a “Complete Edition” was released in 2021 onto every available console. The same can’t be said for Konami’s P.T (Playable Teaser). The brief demo of the canceled Silent Hills was pulled from online shops in 2015, now only existing on consoles that still have the game downloaded. Once those consoles die, the legacy of the game will only remain in video form. The demo was a viral sensation and even now gamers remember it fondly. What happened to P.T. is nothing short of a tragedy for game preservation.

Scott punches two thugs in Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game

However, these games aren’t the only value emulation brings to the table. In recent years, there have been many leaks giving access to old beta builds of games, including those that never came out. This has given the community the chance to have a better glimpse into the game making process. These files have been revived and released to others to experience hands-on, allowing us to see what could have been. A great example of this is the leak for Earthbound 64, the canceled version of Mother 3. Fans have since taken those leaks and ran with them, hoping to recreate the entirety of the unfinished Nintendo 64 version of one of the most important JRPGs of all time.

Ness faced with Porky's forces in Earthbound 64 Beta

The leaks themselves may be questionable in their ethics, but the outcome has been nothing but positive for gaming history, giving us a peek “behind the curtain” of game design. Now, not only have we seen those builds of certain titles, but we can explore their code and examine what went into every part of creating them. The Pokémon Gold and Silver versions that were shown off at Nintendo’s 1997 Space World games convention have been released, showing a much different roster of Pokémon than what we received in the final product. While this information doesn’t add much to the existing series, it does give fans another piece of media to enjoy for a series near and dear to their hearts.

Pokemon Gold and Silver Beta Sprites

It’s clear that companies don’t currently see the benefit of game preservation like their fans do, but I hope to see them take it more seriously in the near future. More and more games are becoming digital only and, if P.T. has proven anything, that creates more problems. Until these companies dedicate more resources to making their titles accessible for the future, fans will continue taking the matter into their own hands.

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