Digital Eclipse Head of Restoration Frank Cifaldi's mission in his career is to preserve the history of video games and make sure that classics will always be available for future generations. His company recently put out the excellent Mega Man Legacy Collection for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo 3DS, and he claims that the technology used to immortalize these games can be shared across any platform for generations to come.
This is the magic of "emulation," programs that trick gaming platforms into believing they are other, older platforms and allow them to play classic games to sometimes near perfection. Of course, it's also seen as piracy in the eyes of many.
Cifaldi sees it differently, though, pointing at emulation as the easiest, cheapest, and utmost important way of preserving gaming history. At a session called 'The Challenge of Selling Old Games" at GDC this weekend, he spoke for an hour on how gaming is doing a horrible job of making its history available for all to enjoy and challenged the major publishers, especially Nintendo, on their stances towards emulation.
"According to the Film Foundation, over half the films made before 1950 are gone. I don't mean that you can't buy these on DVD. I mean they're gone. They don't exist anymore.
That terrified me. I wasn't particularly a film buff, but the idea of these works just disappearing forever and never being recoverable scared the crap out of me. So I started wondering is anyone doing this for games. Is anyone making sure that video games aren't doing the same stupid s*** that film did to make their heritage disappear?
And yeah, there were people doing this. We didn't call them archivists. We didn't call them digital archeologists or anything. We called them software pirates."
Cidalfi claims that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, gaming's current major platforms, barely even support 1 percent of the games created throughout history, and, by contrast, their libraries of movies, TV shows, and music through multiple streaming platforms towers over their gaming options. Citing an example, Capcom's NES classic DuckTales from 1989 is not available by modern digital means, but all ten of the top-grossing films from 1989 are.
"Of the 26 most notable games of 1989 according to Wikipedia, only five are available to buy today, of which only one is available to buy in more than one platform. Games could have been the same way, but we demonized emulation. By not embracing emulation as a tool, it's made video game history the preserve of piracy. All of this could have been prevented."
He also points out that remasters and remakes, much like DuckTales Remastered, should not count as a legitimate substitute for the original game.
Cidalfi claims that emulators like MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), DOSBox, which is legally supported through GOG, and MESS (Multi Emulator Super System) are not perfect, but they represent the foundation of what we can do to save gaming heritage.
"We're just a single studio. I can imagine someone like an Amazon forking MAME, bringing it in house, bringing it up to snuff and bringing games back."
He also stepped in to challenge Nintendo's official stance on emulation, stating that its draconian policy is part of the problem when it comes to casting preservation in a bad light, claiming that "[Emulation] is not illegal or threatening. It's not the same as software piracy, even though that is the perception people have. And no emulator has ever been ruled illegal in a court of law."