A few weeks ago while scrolling through Twitter, a particular video clip caught our eye. It showed Slipstream, a 1995 F1 arcade game from Capcom. Using Sega’s System 32 board, it was produced in very limited quantities for the Latin American market and never saw wide release.
As you can see from the tweet below, it’s a beautiful looking, colourful game with some nifty sprite scaling techniques, but at a time when 3D racers like Virtua Racing, Daytona USA and Ridge Racer were showing the potential of polygons, sprites – however cleverly scaled – were viewed as a backwards step and Slipstream was destined to be ignored. Looking back now, it looks remarkable and we’d love to take it for a spin on Switch or any other modern system.
So, how do we get our hands on it? With every game in history seemingly coming to Switch, surely there’s space for this beautiful-looking curio amongst all the mobile ports and 99 cent downloads. Unfortunately, if you’re not au fait with ROM hunting on the internet, you’re out of luck.
Cue angry gamers decrying Capcom and the vast back catalogue of games it's hoarding while churning out REmake after RErelease. Capcom, Sega and the rest seem happy enough to pump out the old standards again and again – the Sonic the Hedgehogs, the Street Fighters – but ignore a trove of gaming treasures locked away in their vaults. Why won’t they let us play these games legally? Why won't they take our money?
We'd be happy enough with a bare-bones ROM package for the right price. The Resident Evil Switch ports show us that companies like Capcom aren’t too precious about showcasing the games at their very best – good enough is invariably good enough. Dumping Slipstream into an emulator package and throwing it on eShop would be right up Capcom’s alley, no?
Unfortunately, gamers frequently ignore the business realities that accompany bringing any kind of software to market. “If a game is still out of print, it's because its owner doesn't know how to make it profitable,” says Frank Cifaldi, video game historian, preservationist and developer with Digital Eclipse, the studio behind retro revivals including the excellent Street Fighter 30th Anniversary, Mega Man Legacy and Disney Afternoon Collections as well as the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection. “Money's always the issue. I can't think of any situation where a game is out of print for any other reason. But money can mean more than just ‘we don't know if we can recoup the development cost,’ there are a lot of hidden costs to consider.”
In addition to Quality Assurance, certification from the platform holder, ratings certification with various global bodies and other requirements, there are often licencing issues to consider and simply investigating the possibility of a potential release can present a sizeable barrier. “Researching whether a company still has the rights to a game can be a tremendous legal cost,” Cifaldi continues. “Or sometimes the rights to a game are split up. Let's say a game's composer is owed royalties every time you sell their game. If you're the company that owns it, actually tracking that person down, renegotiating the rights, etc. is a cost. As would be actually doing the accounting work to pay that person, which is especially difficult if you're a company that doesn't already have that accounting machine in place.”
It's this risk-averse environment that means we see the Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly rereleased
It's not unusual for publishers themselves to be hazy regarding exactly what rights they have retained or sold through the years, and these issues only get murkier as time goes by. Things are further complicated – often intentionally so – by companies who acquire IP in order to ‘sit on’ it with a view to taking legal action should a confused party green-light a project blindly assuming they have the rights tied up. In the process of writing this piece, we spoke to a senior member of staff at one major third-party publisher (who will remain anonymous) who was recently surprised to learn that it no longer owns the rights to republish one of its most famous games from the early '90s, and that the original developer, when contacted, had sold the rights to another company for a tiny fee only a few months previously. As time passes, rights are sold and resold and old, paper-based contracts get lost, so even checking terms can be tricky, time-consuming and costly. Simply put, many publishers don't even know what they own, and taking the time to find what they do own has a cost attached to it.
With profit margins on many ‘niche’ retro titles already extremely slim, the risk of having to fork out a licensing fee to a previously unknown rights holder or face potential litigation creates an atmosphere of risk to an already-questionable venture. No wonder so many games remain locked away; uncertainty makes such projects untenable from a business perspective.
And remember, this is before any development work can take place – this is preparation for a reheated ROM to be ‘lazily’ thrown on digital storefronts sans frills. It's this risk-averse environment that means we see the Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly rereleased – SEGA knows Sonic has the pop-culture cachet to sell on every platform, every generation. That affection is a huge part of the success of Sonic Mania, for example; a Kickstarter campaign from one of that game's co-developers looked to tap into a similar vein of 16-bit nostalgia with a new IP and ran aground almost immediately. Would a retro release like Slipstream make enough to even cover the most basic costs of unearthing it?
In the case of Slipstream, there's the additional issue that it features real-world brands. Whether Foster's, Mobil and the other brands adorning the billboards were consulted at the time of release is immaterial now (they probably weren't, given the standards of the time – Sega was famously sued by tobacco firm Philip Morris due to unauthorised Marlboro cigarette advertisements in Super Monaco GP); licences would need to be (re)negotiated or those assets removed – more work and, crucially, more money.
In order for developers to be able to go above-and-beyond and provide added value and modern features, further investment is necessary – financially, of course, but also by providing access to archival resources and not closing down potential outside avenues. “SNK was a really great partner," says Cifaldi of the company's willingness to engage with its past. "What we loved about them is that not only do they acknowledge past employees as having contributed to the company, they go as far as to talk to and even pay them. Yoshino-san [Kasatoshi Yoshino, SNK veteran] for example, is someone who worked at SNK in the ‘80s and hasn't been there in a long time. SNK actually paid him as a consultant to work with us, and to scan a lot of his vintage material that you see in the game's museum. It's a rarity for game companies to do that, we were blown away by the level of respect they give to the people who actually built their legacy.”
If beloved classics have to fight tooth-and-nail to scrape a rerelease, what chance do unloved, average games have of seeing the light of day
Over the years, bankruptcies, acquisitions and name changes mean that SNK as an entity has fractured several times. The company as it is today had an interest in assembling and archiving its history, preserving its brand at the same time as documenting a prestigious past. The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection brings together a large number of games that were previously unavailable, and the company even coughed up for free post-release updates including more games. Not every title included is a classic, which is noteworthy; if beloved classics have to fight tooth-and-nail to scrape a rerelease, what chance do unloved, average games have of seeing the light of day apart from in these sorts of packages? Suddenly these collections become important archival documents themselves.
Of course, many would argue that most things are only a web search and a right-click away, and there’s a notion that the proliferation of ROMs online deters companies from doing the work to bring games back. Does the idea that Slipstream is probably already sitting on the hard drives of hardcore devotees discourage companies from releasing them in an official capacity? Cifaldi isn’t convinced. “I haven't heard anything from the clients I've worked with that re-releasing an old game is hopeless because of ROM availability. If that were the case obviously companies like Hamster with its Arcade Archives could not possibly flourish.”
In a sense, emulation has already ‘preserved’ Slipsteam and anyone can dive into MAME, tinker on their PC and sample its delights for themselves. There is, though, a group of gamers either unable or unwilling to bother with that process and its inherent hurdles (however easily negotiated). There are fans who lack the time or inclination to recreate the absolutely ‘authentic’ experience; they just want convenient access and a decent level of accuracy. How else can the success of the various plug-and-play mini consoles be explained? They strike a balance between authenticity and practicality which clicks with the vast majority of gamers. Even enthusiasts have to compromise; CRTs, Framemeisters and bulky original hardware often don’t mix well with kids, pets and mortgages in a three-bedroom semi-detached. No wonder we're rebuying all the classics on Switch.
Taking all these factors into account, don’t expect to see Slipstream on the eShop soon, however, well we believe it would fit alongside the likes of Virtua Racing. If stone-cold, sure-selling classics like GoldenEye 007 are stuck in licencing purgatory, what chance has an obscure Brazil-only arcade racer got?
In the old days we made the exact same mistake that the film industry did
We are slowly seeing progress, though, and there are examples of companies going above and beyond when it comes to game preservation that manages to make repackaging old games, classic or otherwise, attractive to all parties. “Screaming Villains is taking vintage video game remastering to the next level,” says Cifaldi. “Its version of Night Trap is now the definitive version of the game, and the extras they included are absolutely amazing.”
With devs like M2 and Digital Eclipse ready and willing to do the work, the onus inevitably falls on the big companies to greenlight retro projects and have the foresight to archive materials appropriately, something every dev should be endeavouring to do, whether tiny indie outfit or huge video gaming institution. On the face of it, Nintendo appears to have a decent record when it comes to preserving its history, as evidenced through the archived tidbits glimpsed in Iwata Asks interviews and the Hyrule Historia and the vein of material it taps into occasionally, often while promoting classic franchises like Zelda and Mario. Cifaldi cautions against having too much faith, though. “We really don't know what Nintendo's archiving practice is like, and I don't think any of us in the archiving world are comfortable with just assuming they've got their stuff taken care of.”
On the topic of the general state of archiving and awareness among developers, he believes it’s a mixed bag. “I think it's both better and worse. It's better in the sense that companies are making a much better practice of archiving actual video game source code, because we finally live in a world where there's a secondary market for a game. In the old days, we made the exact same mistake that the film industry did. In the 1930s, there wasn't really a secondary market for a film. You made it, you sold it to theatres, you moved on. There wasn't 'home video' yet – hell, there wasn't TELEVISION yet – so the idea of archiving a movie for the future made no sense. That's why almost all of those are gone now. Video games went through a similar time in the old days, but today the idea of doing a 'remaster' on a new console is so commonplace that it seems like source archiving is taken more seriously. On the flipside, almost no games are standalone, offline experiences anymore – they're these living, breathing things that are updated, that have online communities, etc., so I feel that in some ways archiving a game is harder than ever.”
What is clear is that games and peripheral materials are inevitably being lost and it’s a race against the clock to preserve many games, especially the lesser-known ones, for future generations. Everything might be available if you know where to look, but there’s a wealth of context in the form of materials and information being lost, whether passing with the people who made them or simply being disregarded because ‘who’d want to play a weird Brazil-only F1 racer, right?’
Well, we would. Cifaldi has discussed in his excellent GDC talks how he is striving to create 'documentaries you play with a controller' or 'coffee table books you play on a video game platform'. Making games themselves the document or ‘museum piece’ would seem to be the best way not only to present the software with some historical context (pretty much a necessity if you’re going to get much enjoyment from the NES version of Ikari Warriors, for example), but also put them into a profitable package. After all, it’s always about the bottom line.
There are many ways games could be adapted to also incorporate curated museum ‘tour’ features. Digital Eclipse incorporated a 'jump in' mechanic in the SNK Collection whereby players could watch a playthrough of the game and take control whenever they wished. Nintendo has done this in the past, although with its Luigi 'Super Guide' mode, and there are many ways this could expand in the future. For example, imagine a Mario Maker where you could not only flip between game styles, but also overlay original level templates, schematics, post-it notes and other design doc materials as you play. Perhaps 'gamifying' the museum exhibit is the best way to educate and preserve, and we've only scratched the surface of what's possible.
In the meantime, we should do our best to support titles like the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection and the Disney Afternoon Collection (given the chance, eh Switch owners?!), as well as all the retro delights that are coming to Switch and other platforms. There are plenty more games out there deserving of some archival love, and companies ultimately need to see profit in revisiting the past. "My two favourite games of all time are Mother 3 and The Secret of Monkey Island," Cifaldi concludes. "I think both are deserving of deeper explorations than we've seen."
Mother 3, eh? Never heard of it.