Opinion » Cybernaut


The games must go on



Nobody is sure exactly where the game of chess originated; India, circa 500 A.D., is the best guess of historians, although a version of the game was played in China and in Persia around this same time.

For a serious chess player, there’s simply no better game on the planet – it uses the whole brain, left and right, plus your heart and guts. It combines the science of logic with the art of our unique creative intellects, which is why it takes a supercomputer to beat the best players in the world.

In the words of chess grandmaster William Ewart Napier, "Of chess it is said that life is not long enough for it – but that is the fault of life, not chess."

I feel the same way about Donkey Kong, Joust, Bump’n’Jump and some five dozen other video games that I sunk my allowance into growing up. That includes arcade games, Colecovision games, Commodore 64 games, Amiga games, Nintendo games, Sega games – name the system, and I’ve probably played it.

Poor graphics. Pallets limited to eight, 64 or 256 measly colours. Pathetic 8-bit, 16-bit, or 24-bit processors. Controllers with one or two action buttons and eight directions to choose from. Paradise.

None of the games are as simple and elegant as chess, but I would argue that for some people they are just as timeless. Unfortunately, game development companies don’t see things the same way – even games that were sold last year can be hard to come by.

Although they weren’t exactly a positive influence on my generation, these lost games meant something. They kept us up nights and most likely interfered with our math homework and university thesis papers. They stole our allowances, and our sunny afternoons in the park.

Like it or not, these games are bona fide relics of our collective childhoods, intangibles of the electronic age we live in, and as such they deserve to be spared from oblivion. You won’t see a copy of Knight’s Quest for the Commodore Amiga on the Antique Road Show anytime soon, but in 50 years, who knows?

Meanwhile, games are disappearing from the face of the earth. Hardware platforms are disappearing, operating platforms and systems are disappearing, and the software programs – the games themselves –are going with them.

Some enterprising Web sites have made it their mission to save as many gaming titles from this fate as possible, archive them, and share them freely with the people who used to love them.

It infringes upon just about every copyright law you can mention, but the game development companies are far more worried about the theft of new, profitable titles than a bunch of games that are no longer for sale, and hopelessly outdated by today’s technical standards.

It’s called abandonware, and according to a recent article on Wired.com, it’s a growing phenomenon.

One site called The Home of the Underdogs ( www.theunderdogs.org ) has 2,600 computer games in its archive that are no longer for sale. More than 30,000 people visit the site on peak days, which is a lot when you consider that most of these visitors are downloading large gaming files.

The Underdogs’ creator, Sarinee Achavanuntakul, pays the hosting and bandwith costs out of her own pocket and has turned to banner advertising to cover her costs. Most of the games are free, although there are links to games on developers’ sites that are no longer available in stores, but are available onlne.

If she sold the games, she would be profiting from copyrighted intellectual property and shut down by court order within the week. But because this service is free, and operated as a kind of online museum where you can download the artifacts, she is generally left alone.

A lot of the more popular titles are missing from the catalogue as companies purchase the rights to these old games with the intention of releasing them to a nostalgic public. That includes games like Donkey Kong, Frogger and Pac Man.

You can browse through the archive of games by type (application, action, adventure, educational, interactive fiction, puzzle, role playing game, simulation, special, sport, strategy and war), by company (i.e. Access Software, Acclaim Entertainment, Accolade, Activision), or alphabetically.

There are also picks of the week, and features on popular games that have slid into the realm of abandonware.

Another good abandonware site for gamers is Bunny Abandonware ( http://bunnz.oldiesoracle.net) .

The creator of the site is another woman, Michelle McClellan, which is odd when you consider that boys make up the bulk of computer gamers by a long margin. A fanatic is a fanatic, however, and McClellan is definitely enthusiastic about preserving our electronic gaming history.

Other abandonware sites include the Abandonware Ring ( www.abandonwarering.com) , Flashback Abandonware ( www.flashback-aw.net/) , Legal Abandonware ( http://pluto.spaceports.com/~godork/legal/) , Free Oldies ( www.freeoldies.com/) , and Internet Trash ( http://internettrash.com/users/corn_am)i/) .

History was never this much fun.