The VGHF built an archive of gaming history — and is making it available online

Super Sushi Pinball, a game that does not prominently feature sushi, never actually launched. It was meant to be Sony’s second game in the US, intended for the NES during a time when such news would not have melted the brains of console diehards, and was marketed in video game magazines for over a year. “This is a game that was last seen by anyone in 1990 at a trade show,” said Frank Cifaldi, founder of the Video Game History Foundation. “It just disappeared from the world.”

That is until Cifaldi found it in the basement of Ed Semrad, retired editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly. “One day, when I was planning a trip to Chicago, I just kind of shot my shot and … he invited me to his basement,” Cifaldi said. In that basement, Cifaldi found boxes of video game history: cartridges of prototypes for preview, marketing materials, photos, and more.

Across the United States, there are many more basements like Semrad’s filled with treasure troves of video game history that Cifaldi has dedicated his career to finding. And with its new digital library initiative, the VGHF hopes to share that treasure with the masses.

Founded by Cifaldi in 2017, the Video Game History Foundation was always going to build a digital library. “Most of us who study and write video game history grew up on the internet,” Cifaldi said. “And I thought that a proper resource for studying video game history should be online.”

When people think of video game preservation, they typically think of saving cartridges and disks. With a name like the Video Game History Foundation and a mission statement of, “preserving, celebrating, and teaching the history of video games,” one could be forgiven for assuming its goal is to save actual games before cartridges go bad or a publisher shuts down a digital storefront. But to the VGHF, preserving physical media doesn’t always mean rescuing a Super Mario Bros. cartridge from 1985. In fact, it’s not one of the foundation’s main concerns. “To my mind, at least for old stuff, it is a solved problem,” Cifaldi said.

Of course, Cifaldi doesn’t mean “solved problem” in that there is no longer a concern that there will always be access to older games and hardware. The VGHF recently put out a study saying over 80 percent of games from 2010 and before are “critically endangered.” Rather, he meant there are other interest groups that do a much better job of what one would traditionally consider “video game preservation.”

“We don’t have a complete snapshot of how people responded to games in their time”

“We’re not going to do a better job than the groups that [preserve game software],” he said. “But what [those people] can’t do is earn the trust of the guy who ran Electronic Gaming Monthly and get invited to his basement. That’s where we try to fill our niche.”

At the heart of this niche is the idea that a game’s software alone is only one part of a larger narrative, and the VGHF would focus its efforts on finding the materials to tell that wider story. “The big problem I had in my own research is that … we don’t have a complete snapshot of how people responded to games in their time,” he said.

Video game magazines help flesh out that snapshot. The VGHF has a collection of roughly 8,000 magazines across 200 publications that it is working to scan and upload as a part of its new digital library tool. (And that’s just the stuff the foundation has managed to catalog. The VGHF also houses a number of trade, specialty, and foreign magazines it hasn’t yet sifted through.) “The kind of thing we’re building is a digital representation of a physical archive,” Cifaldi said. “We want you to read video game magazines, and we want all of the text in it to be searchable. Which sounds like something that’s really easily solved, but it’s not.”

In addition to the technical problems associated with trying to digitally parse magazines that have layouts that are like “vomit” on a page, Cifaldi has to thread a fine needle of copyright protections and fair use laws. “We’re kind of pushing the envelope a little bit, in that we’re putting things up where there’s maybe not as clear copyright rules,” Cifaldi said. 

Sharing a long-out-of-print issue of a magazine on the internet can sometimes feel like playing whack-a-mole with the magazine’s publisher. “Whenever someone writes a headline on a blog, ‘Hey, you can read every issue of Nintendo Power,’ Nintendo’s lawyers email the Internet Archive, and then they’re gone until three months later, when someone uploads them again,” Cifaldi explained. “We want to build something more robust. Where we can say, ‘No, this is ours. We own this. This is our magazine where this is fair use.’”

Formatting this archive of materials like a library — an institution that similarly lets people peruse copyrighted material for free — is no guarantee against a Digital Millennium Copyright Act request should a rights holder’s lawyers come knocking. But Cifaldi hopes that it demonstrates enough good faith for publishers to work with the VGHF to ensure that, while materials maybe aren’t freely accessible to everyone, they’re not completely inaccessible to those who don’t know where to “look.”

And by “look,” Cifaldi means piracy.

“That’s our only tool for so much of video game history,” he said. “So a lot of this library concept is building something that hopefully makes us a little bit less reliant on essentially game history whisper networks. I just don’t think that’s sustainable.”

The VGHF digital library isn’t limited to magazines; it also contains the personal collections of developers and other industry-adjacent professionals, offering insights not just on an individual’s career but wider industry trends at the time. One of these collections is from Mark Flitman, a former producer who worked on licensed games like WWF Raw, the MLB Slugfest series, and several anime games. The VGHF video announcing the digital library used Flitman’s work as an example.

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An assortment of concept art, marketing materials, and reference guides from the Video Game History Foundation’s Mark Flitman Collection
Images: The Mark Flitman Collection at the Video Game History Foundation

“I think what will excite people about the Mark Flitman collection is that this is a snapshot of what it took to work with license holders and make a video game in the early ’90s that fit their standards,” Cifaldi said. “Bringing in these special collections that are really deep snapshots of a career are what will inspire the best stories.”

And while Cifaldi hopes he’ll have basements to plunder in perpetuity, he recognizes that as time goes on, such opportunities will dwindle, if not wholly disappear. He cites technology as one of the threats to future preservation efforts. Because of increased security and the use of proprietary software tools, it’s harder and less likely that developers, once they leave a company or retire, will take valuable documents with them.

“Most of the stuff we have from the past is kind of by accident,” he said. “People put things in a box and forgot. We don’t have physical things we put in boxes anymore. We don’t even keep things offline anymore. We don’t put things on our hard drives. We just kind of trust the cloud.”

“Most of the stuff we have from the past is kind of by accident.”

However, some of the problems of the modern video game industry, like increased consolidation and decreased access to out-of-print games, Cifaldi reluctantly sees as a potential “bright side” to game preservation. “We’re in a situation now where it is very much within every corporation’s interest to preserve their own work, because remasters are just an understood thing now,” Cifaldi said. It is a double-edged sword, though, as the material companies are holding onto doesn’t typically get released to the public for study.

Entropy is another hurdle impeding the VGHF’s work. “People throw things away,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that nine times out of 10, when I find someone and ask them if they held onto anything, they tell me about the time that they threw everything away.”

According to Cifaldi, the future of video game preservation, at least the kind the VGHF does, will rely on people making intentional choices about keeping things. “You almost have to recognize ahead of time that someone’s going to give a shit about you someday,” he said. “It’s really hard to recognize that, but I think you have to. That has to be your first step.”

The second step, however, involves a bit of daring. 

“Everything’s extremely corporate now and proprietary, so it’s really hard to steal things, but you should do it anyway.”

By 111 Tech

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