In 2008, a fire was ravaged by a building lot in Universal City, California. Thousands of irreplaceable master shots were destroyed in the blaze, the extent of which we are only now getting to know. According to the New York Times, recordings from the 1940s to the 2000s were affected, including such diverse artists as The Who, Tom Petty, The Damned, Buddy Holly, Primus and others. This part of music history – including countless unpublished and unheard titles – has now been blown up.
This kind of story keeps historians and heritage keepers busy at night. What could have been done to prevent such a tragedy? In the gambling world, efforts to officially collect and protect history are a relatively recent phenomenon. To be honest, the games industry is not organized or central enough to host a unique event like the Universal Fire. Instead, we lose the history in tiny flashes each time a developer ejects an unwanted ZIP drive from a project, deletes an old locker, or reuses stacks of his old design notes.
Frank Cifaldi leads Editor-in-Chief Andy McNamara through some of his work with our journal archives
Frank Cifaldi is one of several people who have dedicated their lives to preserving our gaming heritage. His organization, the Video Game History Foundation, works to provide researchers and academics with access to source code, pre-release game information, and other historical artifacts. Thanks to his organization, the public can learn more about the creation of the Genesis version of Aladdin (and look at unused sprites), explore the unpublished NES version of SimCity, and get a flyer for an abandoned Nintendo game called “Donkey Kong’s Fun with Music.”
But first breakfast.
Cifaldi has been in Minneapolis for over a month, not in his hometown in the Bay Area. It’s hard not to break from talking to him and not feeling agitated. He is passionate, dedicated and incredibly open-minded. He has been here long enough to qualify as a temporary resident of Minnesota. Perhaps more importantly, he’s here long enough to master the art of making exactly a quarter of a waffle in the self-service breakfast area of his hotel. If you’ve ever been half awake in the lobby of a motel and struggling with these inventions, you know you deserve respect.
Cifaldi is in town to do what he thinks is the organization’s biggest task: to catalog and keep track of Game Informer’s archives. A small army of volunteers outside the city has been working hard to scan leaflets, sort and organize boxes of unmarked CD-ROMs, and rip discs of advertisements and press materials. Given the amount we have accumulated over the decades, this is a big job. In addition, we have not saved them from the point of view of usability.
Every time I talk to Frank, he’s happy to explain what they’re up to and share the coolest or strangest new find. This may be an unpublished Saturn version of an old sports game or screenshots of Symphony of the Night on Game.com. Or maybe it’s an inflatable lemming stuffed into a box. Regardless of the historical significance of a discovery, it is clear that Frank is thrilled with the raw potential of it all. He’s working on a tight schedule, which means he does not have to sit still for long, but I’ve managed to corner him for a few hours to find out more about his past and how he’s getting started came in this direction is place.
Build a foundation
Prior to the proliferation of optical media, unpublished games were distributed via EPROMs
Build a foundation
Frank may focus professionally on the past, but is refreshingly unsentimental about his own story. He was born in 1982 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the son of Italian parents. They had an Atari in the house when he was little, but he shakes off any idea of a unique gaming history. “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 I had as a kid.”
In the mid-nineties he took a break from the hobby, after he had dealt with girls and music. He can thank Granny for pulling him off when he was in high school. She was a bingo player and she used her winnings once to buy him a PC – something his mother did not want to bring home. From there, his world opened up, not least thanks to the beginnings of the Internet. This was in the time of Filesharing and Napster, when people had a vague idea of what was legal and what was not, but not too much concerned with the consequences.
“I think at that moment I started figuring out who I am, but I also played video games,” he recalls. “And that was mainly because I was looking for things I used to play. This has sparked my personal interest in discovering the emulation and falling in love with the concept of being able to access all these ancient games. Well, they feel very old, although we are talking about games of about five years (earlier). For some reason, they felt ancient. “
These CD ripper benches automate the archiving of old press materials – which would be extremely slow with manual editing
Frank says he loved the idea of playing games he grew up with, as well as games that he only read about in Nintendo Power. Better yet, he could play games that had only appeared in Japan and had a strange aura of mysticism. “It’s like,” Wow, these are games I should not play, “he says, fun as it was, his natural curiosity led him to think more deeply about what he was experiencing.
“It just set me on the road to being really fascinated by where these files come from, how did they get there?” He says. “How do you get from a tape to the internet to my computer? And I do not think the word “preservation” came into play until years later, but for me it was a discovery that there were organized groups who were really interested in this stuff. “
These online communities came together to document lists of published games for various platforms that Frank found irresistible. He decided to focus on the NES. “I think what probably inspired me was the fact that there was a list of all the games you could not get on the internet,” he says. “It was like a wanted list. And it was not that big. “
This enthusiasm was frustrated when he saw interesting, obscure titles that were published online without any context or fanfare. He put together a website where he tackled the problem of how he saw it. “What I tried was to play through for a day and maybe not repeat it, just say something,” he says. “Like, show screenshots. Just to do something to say, “Hey, that’s cool. We just did magic. We have just conjured a game cartridge and put it on the Internet. That is still very exciting! Let’s take a look at this game for a minute. “
The physical section of the Video Game History Foundation includes complete runs of a variety of classic magazines
There was always friction between collectors and the people who wanted to share games online, and at some point things were going on for Cifaldi. “The next development for me was trouble. Angry at the amount of people who have games like goblins who do not belong to them and who control them, “he says. “The biggest collector at that time was in a video game magazine that already existed at the time and that basically only looted the archives. But I was very angry at the idea that someone is a goalkeeper for work he has nothing to do with. “
Instead of using his energy without power, Cifaldi decided to do something with that emotion. He launched his site Lost Levels, which documented the history behind unpublished games. “The idea behind Lost Levels was, hey, just because a game did not come out does not mean it should not, or that it’s not worth investigating,” he says. He began pooling his money with other like-minded players and worked to outbid other collectors on eBay to save old games. “That’s how we saw it.”
Frank was working at the time a day job, worked as a clerk in a mental hospital and attended at night in college. He started Lost Levels at the Classic Gaming Expo 2003, where he had a booth. “I dressed like a pirate,” he says, adding that he does not know exactly what he meant to say with this costume choice.
A professional way
A professional way
Frank says his first professional interview was with Neil Gaiman, who he cornered at a comic-con. There he resisted the urge to be interested in 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 the editors recognized the potential of a writer with a passion for old games. Over the next few years, Cifaldi worked in several other stores, including Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Gamasutra and 1UP.
Frank then moved to Atlanta to accept a job at GameTap, an online video game service set up by Turner Broadcasting. “Do you know how we always talk about Netflix for games?” Frank says. “Yes, we’ve already tried that.” With GameTap, subscribers were able to access more than 1,000 games for $ 10 a month. Cifaldi was the game editor’s editorial manager where he wrote the small house ads to show the players what to play.
Eventually he got a job at Digital Eclipse, where he helped produce games and curated content for more historic titles such as the Mega Man Legacy Collection, the Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, and the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection.
“There has to be something like a collection of criteria for games,” says Frank. “And I do not think we’re still there, yes, but we have to start making the kinds of products we want to see, you know, they’re full of contexts.”
Some of the most interesting pieces in the foundation’s collection are advertising materials for discontinued games and peripherals, such as Nintendo’s knitting approach
For example, with the Street Fighter collection, he and his colleague Brandon Sheffield created a timeline of the series that contained more than 1,000 artworks – more than half of which had not yet been published online, including images of a prototype version of Blanka that was a black one Type in chains. He added a boss-rush mode to Mega Man for his Anniversary Collection and modified tailspin so players can start with fully charged characters right from the start.
Frank says he is probably the proudest member of the SNK collection, which includes a tool-based rendition of all the games played, allowing players to take control at all times. Since the SNK collection is full of ambiguity, there is a special focus on education and historical context. Frank says he is not as interested in mastering these old games as it is suddenly 1980 again. Instead, he wants to give players an insight into 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 on a person’s life and find a way, but it’s hard not to spot a conservatory line that sums it all up. I am not alone when I see it. “I think my entire career was an excuse,” says Franks.
Lay out the pieces
Before the team can scan flyers and other documents, they have to sort the materials and see what they have
Lay out the pieces
Back in our offices, it’s hard not to be impressed by what Frank and his team have put together. You have commanded several offices on our administration floor and converted them into an old data center. Volunteers sort CD-ROMs of press materials-of course, not retail products-and feed stacks of discs into automated machine benches, which then rip and process the information before capturing an image of the disc itself with a webcam. This is not least thanks to the foundation’s technical director, Travis Brown, an Atlanta volunteer who works as a programmer at Twitch.tv.
During a reconnaissance visit a few years ago, Cifaldi rummaged in a file cabinet with old flyers and promotional materials that had not been opened since 2001 (we may have lost the key). As soon as the lock was drilled out, he brought out a treasure chest full of mayflies, which in all likelihood would otherwise have been thrown away. Today, the foundation’s co-director, Kelsey Lewin, is housed in a conference room where she prepares the documents for scanning. Lewin is co-owner of the retro gaming business Pink Gorilla in Seattle, which recently hit the headlines when he bought a copy of the rare 1990 Nintendo World Championships cartridge from a salesman – after telling him about the fair market value of about 15 to 20,000 USD had informed. Removing staples and organizing flyers from Majesco’s old E3 setup may not be as stimulating, but important.
Andy and Frank are looking at some old slides. So we got pictures of companies for print layouts
There is a feeling that the team is competing against time in many ways. Frank and his team are in our offices for only about a month and have a tremendous amount of work to do – with no real chance to get everything done. In the meantime, these old optical discs are slowly crashing and losing data, along with the story burned on their surface. CDs are not designed to last forever, but they are pretty sturdy if stored well. CD-ROMs are much more susceptible to data corruption, as they were considered a cheap and easy way to easily move large amounts of data. In many cases, the press kits we received from publishers at fairs were burned on the cheapest CDs to understandably save money. For this reason, these are a special focus of this visit.
“Digital storage and research have a multi-layered approach where your zero priority is to remove existing data from sensitive formats,” says Frank. “So, if you take it to a place where we have pictures that can now be redundantly stored in the cloud, where they’re safe.”
The co-director of the foundation, Kelsey Lewin, searches through piles of old CD-ROMs
The damage has already happened here. Frank says his team, when working through our collection, kept a so-called graveyard pile on which the data rots. “We’ve already lost part of your story in old age,” he says. “It’s gone now and the rest is ticking bombs.” What is it all about? Unlike the Strong National Museum of Play or the National Videogame Museum, the Video Game History Foundation is not a museum. The 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 their main focus. Instead, these materials will eventually be cataloged and made available to researchers, writers, and historians who make an appointment to visit the Foundation’s physical space in Emoryville, California. The Foundation is also working to give researchers access to the source code. This is a challenge, considering how secretly the industry deals with the raw materials that make up a game.
“There is a possibility that you never know why it matters,” says Frank. He imagines a situation where someone might find out that Claire Redfield’s outfit is different in a number of pre-release screens than in Resident Evil’s retail version. And this is, you know, the purpose of the foundation, people think we’re a museum all the time, and of course, we’re charitable, and we make sure historians have the tools they need to know the story of the video to tell. “
During his visit, Frank discovered these images of the canceled EarthBound 64 …
… and this early look at Super Mario 64
Cifaldi’s notion of scientists and historians is also generous and extends to YouTubers and amateur journalists – a term that blends in with his early populist roots. “I do not want people to have trouble looking for video games,” he says. “I want these barriers to fall. I want people to be able to access primary source material and study that material so you can not just play the game or, as you know, just read the coverage or whatever. And, and I want people to bring this story to life, until they tell interesting stories. … What we do is for people like Kelsey who are doing historical review videos on YouTube and struggling to explore obscure topics because there’s no place to go. “
Cifaldi has the natural ability to tell interesting stories and get people to work together. For example, he heard of a strange entry in the series “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego,” based on North Dakota, and managed not only to track down the people involved in the development, but also a fully functional version of get the game. (He describes it as by far the most difficult in the series, not least because of the fact that the history and geography of North Dakota is not exactly into the consciousness of pop culture bubbled.) Not everyone can persuade a film crew to help with the logistics however, why the foundation’s work is beneficial. A centralized repository greatly facilitates research when visitors can switch between ideas when inspiration comes up.
Once the data has been ripped on the CDs, the information is uploaded to a redundant memory to keep it safe
“You do not know what the story is until you start connecting the dots between all those things,” says Frank, grinning. “You’re like,” Oh, s …, wait, you know, that tiny picture in this magazine? I know what that is. Because in this other thing, this guy said that and waited a minute … “The biggest feeling in the world is putting this stuff together and doing something new, you know, I think I enjoy it the same way Musician, do you know what I mean, that’s my art to me. “
How to help
The Video Game History Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. For more information on their mission and their contributions, visit www.gamehistory.org. There you can also read a variety of features on subjects as diverse as video game violence (circa 1976), the history of print advertising, and the lessons Nintendo learned from the discontinued NES version of SimCity.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Game Informer.