The retroactive loss of gaming culture
Yesterday, I dug my Gameboy out of its drawer and loaded up Pokémon Blue for a quick run-through of the Elite Four before work.
At the title screen, this greeted me:
- New Game
I stared at it for a moment before saying, “huh, that sure is an interesting way to spell ‘continue.'”
The game pack’s internal battery had run dry. Three year’s worth of progress had vanished without warning. My level 100 Nidoking, which I had hand-raised from a pup (none of that rare candy nonsense,) along with my other 90-some-odd ‘Mons, were gone. It was as if some terrible natural disaster had occurred and my player character, along with everyone he ever knew, had been wiped from existence.
This led me to a startling realization: this game was pressed in 1997. Why is that startling? Well, it means that 1997 is, for me, the new ‘point of no return,’ at which older games’ internal batteries run dry. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll break it down:
An internal battery is, well, exactly what it sounds like. It’s a simple battery that fits neatly inside of a game pack; most old cartridge-based games contained an internal battery: everything from a Nintendo cartridge to a Sega cartridge to Gameboy, N64, Atari, and… I dunno, what did that VirtualBoy thing use? Anyway, old-style cartridges contained these batteries. What the battery does, is keep an active log of what you’ve done in your game, in a particular save file. For instance, since we’re talking about Pokémon, let’s keep using it as the example: when you start a new file, the game requires you to name your character. You then collect items, Pokémon, and badges as the game progresses. The game pack keeps track of your runs against the Elite Four (the final boss characters in Pokémon’s particular equation,) as well as your total earnings and other small things. Now, Pokémon is not a game you can sit down and finish in one setting; this is why the internal battery is important. It allows you to save your progress from one play session to the next without worrying about having to start from scratch every single time you do so. Now, let’s take another famous game for a more in-depth example of this: The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda was one of the first games to take advantage of the internal battery on a large scale, (and even if it wasn’t, it’s still the game I’m using for the example) allowing players to make save files, and even impose less-than-perfect endings if the player didn’t complete the game under a certain set of criteria, which, if I remember correctly, included collecting all of the game’s items, or something banal like that.
Now, what this did was give players an incentive to reach 100% completion in order to reach the good ending (which, if I remember correctly again, was a secondary quest with harder enemies or something.) This was pretty darned groundbreaking at the time, when most games consisted of main characters that were little more than simple shapes of primary colors chasing dots around a screen while other blobs of color chased said main character around the screen (I’m looking at you, Pac Man, with your inexplicable popularity among the Young Folk*).
Now, about ten years back, I remember hearing one of my friends complain that his LoZ cartridge had inexplicably erased his saved game that he had had since the late 80s. I remember thinking that that was weird, but not knowing what an internal battery was at the time, not being able to theorize what could have happened to his game. We just wrote it off as a loss and went back to playing Goldeneye (OH HEY, DO YOU GUYS REMEMBER GOLDENEYE? HUH? HUH?)
A few years later, a roommate in the Marines clued me in on what an internal battery is, and I realized that that was what had happened to my buddy’s game pack! (I guess actually now that I think about it, about ten years ago was the real watershed moment, but the loss of my Nidoking is still fresh on my heart, so 1997 is the current year I’m focusing on in this post.)
What does this all mean for you, faithful gamer? Well, what it boils down to is that all of those game packs we collected over the years are just ticking time bombs waiting to go off. Sure, we can go out and buy replacement batteries if we know how to take apart the game packs, but all that really accomplishes is staving off oblivion for a few more years (or indefinitely, depending on just how committed you are to not losing that save file.) In any case, the batteries will die, and your save file will go poof. With the advent of CD technology, this looked like a non-issue, but I really can’t begin to recount all of the horror stories I’ve heard over the years of game save files on external memory (or even internal memory) inexplicably also going poof. It seems that, if we want our game files to not get lost, we as a culture are going to have to begin to turn our gaze to other avenues of game file-ular backup, namely, solid state electronic devices. Now, the past is already retroactively wiping itself out one game pack at a time; we can’t do anything about that. However, we can ensure that it doesn’t affect the future; I’m not condoning stealing games, but emulators and roms are out there for the hard-core (and copyright-infringing) enthusiast who wants to collect the classic games of his/her childhood again. Heck, for the more legal-leaning of us in the room, Nintendo is offering quite a few of its classic titles via download on their Wii platform. In any case, the major game distributors will soon be forced to admit that the classic games of yesterday are being lost one dead battery at a time, and will, I hope, take appropriate action to ensure that this classic bit of popular culture will not be lost for all time. Memory cards, internal batteries… they’re the way of the past. It’s time to look to the future… while there’s still time.
*Author’s note: I frigging hate Pac Man. I also dislike Young Folk in general.