Preserving Our Digital Past, One Video Game Cartridge At A Time

Mario looks heroic in his raccoon suit.

Mario looks heroic in his raccoon suit from Super Mario Bros. 3. vNES hide caption

itoggle caption vNES

A few friends and I recently formed a club called The Super Mario Brotherhood.

We have one serious purpose: To conquer every Mario game by summer’s end. We don’t own them all, but that’s not a problem. We’ll use Nintendo’s Virtual Console to fill in the gaps in our Mario collection.

Now that Virtual Console makes finding classic games easy, I assumed that the NES emulators had died out, but it turns out they are still quite popular.

Jamie Sanders, for example, created vNES in 2006 when he was 15. The site lets visitors play classic Nintendo Entertainment System games using their browsers and keyboards. It gets a few hundred thousand hits a month, and there’s no downloading involved, which Sanders says keeps the site out of legal trouble.

Jamie Sanders

Jamie Sanders is the programmer behind  vNES. Jamie Sanders hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Sanders

“I'm a Nintendo fanboy,” says Sanders, now 18. “I want to be able to share these awesome games with new generations.”

To that end, vNES has all the classic characters you’d expect to see: Mario, Mega Man and Link. But the vNES library isn’t just for Nintendo’s popular kids. It's stocked with more than 600 games, many of which have been forgotten or were never successful in the first place.

For Sanders’ purposes, the forgotten games are as important as the true classics.

It’s this part of Sanders that reminds me of a classicist who preserves the work of an obscure writer that no one really cares to read. The classicist would argue that all knowledge of the Ancient World is important, and likewise, Sanders says that even the most unappreciated NES games are worth saving. They are a part of our digital heritage.

“As we move in to the digital age, we run the risk of losing cultural artifacts stored on older technology, like the NES,” says Sanders. “This is a new problem for us as a society, as we haven't really had the issue of archiving digital artifacts before.”

For Sanders, vNES isn't about paying the bills. He says he doesn't make money from the site, although he does accept donations to cover hosting costs. He currently works for a few videogame startups, and plans on attending Wichita State University this fall. He says he’ll continue to improve upon vNES programming while in college.

It's a necessary step for Sanders' goal, because true to vNES' populist spirit, Sanders has  chosen to make it compatible with the highest number of web browsers and computer systems possible. In return, he's had to sacrifice some performance in its Java programming, making some of  the oldest NES games unplayable on the emulator. Someday, he hopes he can restore these "broken" games for popular consumption.

Sanders isn't the only one  helping old videogames battle obscurity. The International center for the History of Electronic Games in Rochester, NY says it has the world's largest public collection of videogames, while The Video Game Museum has screenshots from more than 13,000 current and classic games.

I can't say I'll play many of the obscure games on vNES, or pore over screenshots from The Video Game Museum. Still, it is comforting to know that someone is preserving these digital artifacts, and that if I wanted to, I could see what a kid in 1989 saw when he put in his copy of a forgotten game like Bad Street Brawler and pressed power.

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