by Harry Rabinowitz
“Can I take a look?” Rebecca asks me, gesturing towards the blue-screening copy of Mega Man III.
I open the lid of the Nintendo Entertainment System, a piece of equipment a little under a decade older than me, caress the cartridge of Mega Man III out of the system and pass it to Rebecca, a visiting videogame preservation expert. She flips the large square upside down. It rattles a bit.
“What’s that?” I ask. “Sounds like a bead or something.”
“It’s bad. Really bad.” She frowns.
Rebecca explains what the sound means. I ask more questions, naturally curious about games and a console I never had the pleasure of owning. It gets complicated. About a half-hour later I get the gist of it.
That copy of Mega Man III is dead. We won’t be able to get it to play anymore.
I work in the NYU Game Library. Every day, I sit at my desk placed in front of hundreds of cartridges. Atari, NES, N64, Sega Master System, SNES, GameBoy, you name it. I’ve probably only played three of them. Slowly but surely, each and every one of these games will degrade. The cartridge might get “finicky”. The consoles might run a game strangely. And one day, a Legend of Kage or Zelda II with have its final death rattle. It might literally start rattling, or just show a silent blue screen, and that’s that. If I were more versed in this kind of hardware, I could open up the cartridge and try to bring it back. But I’m not, and I don’t know a single person in my generation who is.
60 years from now will people still be able to play any of these NES cartridges?
Videogames are not like other art forms. We cannot just put a copy of The Legend of Zelda in a glass display somewhere and be satisfied. To understand a game, you need to play it. With companies like Sony and Microsoft abandoning backwards compatibly, the likelihood that my stack of PlayStation 2 games will ever see playtime is shrinking every day the console gets older. Nintendo is trying its best with the Virtual Console store, but they do not offer nearly the amount of titles that sit behind my work desk.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to physically preserve the consoles and games I work with everyday. But I do know how to digitally preserve them.
I am, of course, talking about emulators.
Things for from grim to hopeful (albeit a bit complicated) with the turn of a page…