How Preservationists Keep Gaming History Alive

In 2008, a fire ravaged through a backlot in Universal City, California. Thousands of irreplaceable master recordings were destroyed in the blaze, the scale of which we’re only learning about today. According to The New York Times, recordings from the 1940s through the 2000s were affected, including artists as diverse as The Who, Tom Petty, The Damned, Buddy Holly, Primus, and more. That part of music history – including countless unreleased and unheard tracks – has now been scattered to the winds.

That kind of story is the thing that keeps historians and preservationists up at night. What could have been done to prevent such a tragedy? In the gaming world, efforts to officially collect and safeguard history are a relatively recent phenomenon. To be blunt, the game industry isn’t organized or centralized enough to have a singular event like the Universal fire. Instead, we lose history in tiny flashes every time a dev tosses out an unwanted ZIP drive from a project, clears out an old storage locker, or recycles piles of their old design notes.

Frank Cifaldi walks editor-in-chief Andy McNamara through some of what he’s done with our magazine archives

Frank Cifaldi is one of several people who has devoted his life to preserving our gaming heritage. His organization, the Video Game History Foundation, is working to give researchers and academics access to source code, prerelease game information, and other historical artifacts. Thanks to his organization, the public can learn about how the Genesis version of Aladdin was built (and look at unused sprites), explore the unreleased NES version of SimCity, and check out a flyer for an abandoned Nintendo game called “Donkey Kong’s Fun with Music.”

But first, breakfast.

Cifaldi has been in Minneapolis for more than a month now, away from his home base in the Bay Area. It’s hard not to walk away from a conversation with him and not feel energized. He’s passionate and driven, and also incredibly approachable. He’s now been here long enough to be considered a temporary Minnesota resident, he notes. Perhaps more importantly, he’s been here long enough to master the art of producing exactly one quarter of a waffle in his hotel’s self-service breakfast area. If you’ve ever been half awake in motel lobby and struggled with those contraptions, you know that respect is owed.

Cifaldi is in town to take on what he says is the organization’s biggest task yet: cataloging and preserving a section of the Game Informer’s archives. A small army of out-of-town volunteers has been hard at work scanning flyers, sorting and organizing boxes of unmarked CD-ROMS, and ripping discs of promotional images and press materials. It’s a huge task, considering how much we’ve collected over the decades, and it’s compounded by the fact that we haven’t saved it with usability in mind.

Still, every time I talk to Frank he’s happy to explain what they’re up to and share the coolest or strangest new find. Perhaps it’s an unreleased Saturn port of an old sports game or screenshots for Symphony of the Night on the Game.com. Or maybe it’s an inflatable lemming stuffed into a box. Regardless of a discovery’s historical significance, it’s clear that Frank is excited by the raw potential of all of this. He’s working on a tight timeline, which means that he doesn’t take long to sit still, but I did manage to corner him for several hours to learn more about his past and how he ended up getting into this line of work in the first place.

Before optical media was prevalent, unreleased games were distributed via EPROMs

Building A Foundation

Frank may be professionally focused on the past, but he’s refreshingly unsentimental about his own history. He was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1982 to Italian parents. They had an Atari in the house when he was small, but he shrugs off any notions of a singular gaming origin story. “I was a kid in the ’80s, and Nintendo came out. And like all the other kids, I played Nintendo,” he says. “For me, it was a toy that I had as a kid.”

He took a break from the hobby in the mid-’90s after getting into girls and music. He can thank grandma for pulling him back in when he was in high school. She was a bingo player, and she used her winnings at one point to buy him a PC – something his mom wasn’t thrilled to have into the house. From there, his world opened up, in no small part thanks to the early days of the Internet. This was around the time of file-sharing and Napster, when people had a vague idea of what was and wasn’t legal but weren’t overly concerned with the consequences.

“I think that’s when I actually started figuring out who I was, but also got into video games at the same time,” he recalls. “And that was mostly just from looking around for stuff about the games I used to play, which led a personal interest in discovering emulation and falling in love with the concept of being able to access all of these ancient-ass games. Well, they felt really old, then, even though we’re talking about games from like, five years [earlier]. For some reason, they felt like they felt ancient.”

These banks of CD rippers automate the process of archiving old press materials – something that would be extraordinarily slow if done manually

Frank says he was thrilled with the idea of being able to play games he grew up with, and also being able to check out games he’d only read about in Nintendo Power. Better still, he was able to play games that had only come out in Japan and had a strange aura of mystique around them. “It’s like, ‘Wow, these are games I’m not supposed to play,’” he says. As fun as playing the games was, his natural curiosity led him to think more deeply about what he was experiencing.

“It just led me down this path of being really fascinated by where these files come from, like, how did they get there?” he says. “How do they get from a cartridge to the Internet to my computer? And I don’t think the word “preservation” came into play until years later, but you know, for me, it was discovering that there were organized groups that really cared about this stuff.”

These online communities were coming together to document lists of released games for various platforms, which Frank found irresistible. He decided that he was going to focus on the NES. “I think what probably inspired me was the fact that there was a list of any games that you couldn’t get on the Internet yet,” he says. “There was like a wanted list. And it wasn’t that big.”

That enthusiasm turned to frustration, as he saw interesting, obscure titles getting dumped online without any kind of context or fanfare. He put together a web site where he set out to address that issue as he saw it. “What I tried to do was just take a day to play through it, and maybe not review it, but just have something to say about it,” he says. “Like, show screenshots. Just to do something, to be like, ‘Hey, this is f—ing cool. We just did magic. We just magicked a game cartridge and put it on the Internet. This is still really exciting! Let’s look at this game for a minute.’”

The Video Game History Foundation’s physical space includes complete runs of a wide array of classic magazine

There was always friction between collectors and the people who wanted to share games online, and eventually things bubbled over for Cifaldi. “The next evolution for me was anger. Being angry at the gall of people having these like, goblin hoards of games that don’t belong to them that they are controlling,” he says. “Like, the biggest collector back then was at a video game magazine that had been around back then and was basically just pilfering their archives. But, you know, I was very angry at the thought of a person being a gatekeeper for work that they nothing to do with.”

Rather than spending his energy fuming impotently about the issue, Cifaldi decided to do something with that emotion. He started his site Lost Levels, which documented the histories behind unreleased games. “The idea behind Lost Levels was, hey, just because a game didn’t come out, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have or that it’s not worth examining,” he says. He began pooling his money with other like-minded players and worked to outbid other collectors on eBay to rescue old games. “That’s how we saw it, anyway.”

Frank was working a day job at the time, doing clerical work at a mental-health clinic and taking college classes at night. He launched Lost Levels at the Classic Gaming Expo at 2003, where he had a booth. “I dressed like a pirate,” he says, adding that he’s not sure exactly what he was trying to say with that costume choice.

A Professional Path

Frank says his first professional interview was with Neil Gaiman, who he cornered at a Comic-Con. There, he resisted the urge to fanboy out about Sandman and comics, and instead Cifaldi interviewed him about the old PC games Gaiman had written. His work on Lost Levels led to other opportunities, as editors saw the potential in a writer with a passion for old games. Over the next few years, Cifaldi worked at several other outlets, including Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Gamasutra, and 1UP.

Frank then moved to Atlanta to take a job at GameTap, an online video game service setup by Turner Broadcasting. “You know how we always talk about ‘The Netflix for games?’” Frank says. “Yeah, we already tried that.” GameTap gave subscribers streaming access to more than 1,000 games for $10 a month. Cifaldi was the editorial director of the game client, where he wrote the little house ads to guide players on what to play.

Eventually, he got a job at Digital Eclipse, where he helped to produce games and also curated content for more historically based titles such as the Mega Man Legacy Collection, the Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, and the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection.

“There needs to be something like a Criterion Collection for games,” Frank says. “And I don’t think we’re there yet. Yeah. But we need to start making the kinds of products that we want to see, you know, that that are full of context.”

Some of the most interesting pieces in the foundation’s collection are promotional materials for abandoned games and peripherals, like Nintendo’s foray into knitting

With the Street Fighter collection, for example, he and collaborator Brandon Sheffield created a timeline of the series that included more than 1,000 pieces of art – more than half of which hadn’t been released online before, including images of a prototype version of Blanka that was a black guy in chains. He added a boss-rush mode to Mega Man for its Anniversary Collection, and modified Tailspin to let players start out with fully powered-up characters from the start.

Frank says he’s probably proudest of the SNK collection, which includes tool-assisted playback of each of the games being played that players can seize control of at any moment. Since the SNK collection is filled with obscurities, there’s a particular emphasis on education and historical context. Frank says he’s not as interested in mastering these old games like it’s suddenly 1980 again. Instead, he wants to give players insight as to what these games were and how they fit into the larger arcade context at the time of their release.

It’s easy to look back at someone’s life with the benefit of hindsight and pinpoint a trajectory, but it’s hard not to see a preservationist throughline that threads it all. I’m not alone in seeing it. “I think my entire career has been an excuse to do this,” Franks says.

Before the team can start scanning in flyers and other documents, they have to sort through the materials and see what they have

Laying Out The Pieces

Back in our offices, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Frank and his team have assembled. They’ve commandeered several offices in our administrative floor and converted them into a scrappy data-processing center. After sorting CD-ROMS of press materials – not retail product, to be clear – volunteers feed stacks of the discs into banks of automated machines, which then rip and process the info before snapping an image of the disc itself with a webcam. It’s thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Foundation’s technical director, Travis Brown, a volunteer from Atlanta whose day job is as a programmer at Twitch.tv.

During a scouting visit a few years ago, Cifaldi dug into a file cabinet of old flyers and promotional material that hadn’t been opened since 2001 (we may have lost the key). Once the lock was drilled, he pulled out a treasure trove of ephemera that in all likelihood would have otherwise been thrown out. Today, foundation co-director Kelsey Lewin is set up in a conference room, where she preps the paperwork for scanning. Lewin co-owns the retro gaming store Pink Gorilla in Seattle, which recently made headlines for buying a copy of the rare Nintendo World Championships 1990 cartridge from a seller – after informing him of its fair market value of about $15-20,000. Removing staples and organizing flyers from Majesco’s old E3 lineup may not be as stimulating, but it’s still important work.

Andy and Frank look at some old slides, which is how we used to get images from companies for print layouts

There’s a sense that the team is racing against time, in more ways than one. Frank and his team are only in our offices for about a month, and they have a tremendous amount of work to go through – with no real chance of completing it all. Meanwhile, these old optical discs are slowly breaking down and losing data, along with the history that was burned onto their surfaces. CDs aren’t designed to last forever, but they’re fairly hardy if they’re stored well. CD-ROMs are much more vulnerable to data rot as they break down, since they were seen as a cheap and easy way to move large chunks of data easily. In many cases, the press kits we got from publishers at shows were burned onto the cheapest possible discs as an understandable way to save money. That’s why these are a particular focus of this visit.

“Digital preservation and digital re- search are given a layered approach, like your priority zero is getting whatever data there is off of sensitive formats,” Frank says. “So getting it into a place where, you know, we have images that can now live in redundant storage in the cloud, where it’s safe.”

Foundation co-director Kelsey Lewin sorts through stacks of old CD-ROMs

The damage is already happening here. Frank says that as his team worked through our collection, they kept a so-called graveyard pile where the data has rotted away. “We already lost some of your history to age,” he says. “It’s gone now, and the rest are ticking bombs.” What’s the point of all of this? Unlike the Strong National Museum of Play or the National Videogame Museum, the Video Game History Foundation isn’t, well, a museum. Its collection has and will benefit people who enjoy reading about video games and learning some of the strange stories behind their creation and marketing, but that’s not its primary focus. Instead, these materials will eventually be catalogued and made available to researchers, writers, and historians who make an appointment to view the Foundation’s physical space in Emoryville, California. The Foundation is also working to give researchers access to source code, which is a challenge considering how secretive the industry is about the raw materials that make up a game.

“There’s a possibility that you’ll never know why it matters,” Frank says. He imagines a situation where someone might notice that Claire Redfield’s outfit is different in a series of prerelease screens versus the Resident Evil’s retail version. “And that’s, you know, the purpose of the foundation. You know, people think we’re a museum all the time. And obviously, we’re a nonprofit that just makes sure that historians have the tools that they need to tell the story of video.”

During his visit, Frank unearthed these images of the canceled EarthBound 64…

…and this early look at Super Mario 64

Cifaldi’s idea of academics and historians is generous, too, extending to YouTubers and amateur journalists – a notion that dovetails into his early, populist roots. “I don’t want people to struggle to research video games,” he says. “I want those barriers to come down. I want people to be able to access primary source material, and study this stuff in a way that you can’t just playing the game or, you know, just reading coverage or whatever. And, and I want people to just bring that history alive until they tell interesting stories. … What we’re doing is for people like Kelsey, who make YouTube historical retrospective videos, who struggle their asses off to research obscure topics, because there’s not a place to go.”

Cifaldi has a natural gift for being able to suss out interesting stories and getting people to cooperate. For instance, he heard about an oddball entry in the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego series based, of all things, on North Dakota, and managed to not only track down the people involved in its development but to retrieve a fully working version of the game. (He calls it the hardest one in the series, by far, thanks in no small part to the fact that North Dakotan history and geography hasn’t exactly bubbled into pop-culture consciousness.) Not everyone can talk a film crew into helping out with the logistics, however, which is why the Foundation’s work is beneficial. Having a central repository makes doing research much easier, when visitors are able to bounce between ideas when inspiration strikes.

Once the data on the CDs has been ripped, the information is uploaded onto redundant storage to keep it safe

“You don’t know what the story is until you start connecting the dots between all these things,” Frank says, grinning. “You’re like, ‘Oh, s—, wait, you know, this tiny image in this magazine? I know what that is. Because in this other thing, this guy said this, and wait a minute…’” The greatest feeling in the world is piecing that stuff together and making something new. You know, I think I get the same joy out of that then like, a musician gets, you know what I mean? To me, that’s my art.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Game Informer.