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Gaming History Isn't For The Academics. It's for us!

Video games are aging so rapidly that we don't have them archived for study. Here's one personal story that begins to shed light on what it will be like for all games if we don't change our approach to the medium.

Originally posted on my personal blog.

Gather around young'ns, and listen to my story. It's a mystery plot with a totally rad protagonist. Indeed, follow our young detective as he slowly uncovers the hazy details that surround a shrouded game from his past. Watch in horror as, in the process of wading through endless chaos and incomplete records, he discovers that the very landscape of the electronic games that he so dearly loves is rapidly crumbling into nothingness, never to be recovered again!

Our hero Wombat sifts through photographs that had been secreted out of his parents attic mere hours earlier. He is visiting this childhood house for the very purpose of finding and scanning artifacts of his youth. Little did he know that one photo contained within the confines of this cardboard prison would change the course of his life, and help define his purpose for years to come.

Pew pew newbz...

But seriously, can it get any more rad than this?

A smile split his face as he lifted this ever significant and totally rad picture of himself into clearer view. Memories abound. Join him in his flashback to the colorful yet slightly faded late-1980s of middle-class American suburbia. A time when calculators could fit into your pocket, and computers played cassette tapes. A time when VHS players were rare because they were new, not because they had faded into the obscure corners of Goodwill and eBay auctions.

This was a photo with such character that he couldn't help but show it off to all the ladies. Because seriously, there's never been a cooler baby pic ever found. (Though, I'm up for a challenge in this regard. I'm all about seeing other peoples rad childhoods.) However cool this photograph was though, it wasn't the photo itself that changed his future, but the radiating energy it housed. You see, this photograph spurred a recurring question from everyone that saw it, as if the question were being asked by the developed film itself, with the mouths uttering the question as if they were simple pawns in the photograph's greater overarching scheme. It was a question that Wombat could not answer. Not yet anyway.

"What are you playing?" came the oft repeated question.

"I honestly don't know." came Wombat's disappointing conclusion to this increasingly familiar chant.

You see, Wombat couldn't recognize what was on the ancient monitor even one bit. He spied the iconic joystick which he remembered was attached to their trusty Commodore 64, but he couldn't seem to place any memories onto what had obviously flickered across the monitors diodes before his enormously intimidating aviators.

Was it Aliens? Clearly not... the UI was completely different. How about Bionic Commando, the first game Wombat remembers having dreamt about? Or maybe it was Bruce Lee... or even Potty Pigeon! Alas, this was not so easy as that. His early childhood memories of games was apparently more limited than was helpful in this case. He needed external help. Help from his older brother Jerick, three years Wombats senior, seemed like a fantastic place to start. But help was not to be found there. Nor was it to be found from his non-gamer father or his slow to respond eldest sibling who had been a teenager during the C64s reign in their household.

So, where was help actually to be found? Who could alleviate him from this continuous nagging disappointment? Wombat had an idea, but it would take him deep into the depths of the Information Age. Into the bowels of the collective wild west of the interwebz. Into the untamed hive mind of sensationalist NSFW mlae dominant teenagers and college students. The fastest and most up to date resource for anything thing video game related. The world that is reddit! Someone had to recognize what was on the screen there. Someone had to, or all would be lost.

He posted his big Q to the reddit...

With the image now open to the subjective mercies of The Knights of New, Wombat waited with bated breath. Would it ignored? Or would the not-so-subtly sensationalist title attract enough attention that a response could be garnered? Such fear was unwarranted though! Merely tens-of-minutes after posting the image of his fierce C64-pwning mug to the series of tubes, a response was, in fact, garnered! And what was this response? "Super Zaxxon" came the unanimous reply!

Super Zaxxon! Yes, Super Zaxxon! Haha! What a momentous occasion! Wombat searched his deeper memories for all fondness associated with Super Zaxxon and found.... nothing. He didn't remember Super Zaxxon in the slightest. How could he not remember that name, when he was so clearly dominating it as a blue-swaddled babe of inextricably aviated awesomeness?

Fear not, dear reader, for Wombat was versed in the dark magics of YouTube. A deft series of keystrokes and some clickity-clicks of the mouse brought him to an archival video of a Super Zaxxon longplay. Now nostalgia ensued. Giddiness abounded. Trumpets from the parted clouds of Heaven trumped. An airship expertly dodged missiles, enemy ships, and horribly interlaced electric fences. Tunnel In! More enemy ships! P1 bullets ripped through them all, leaving nothing but 8 colors of pixelated carnage in its immediate wake. And then the Dragon. The terrifying dragon of Wombats nostalgic deep space memory lumbered forth on its maroon "3D-like" isometric hex backdrop. Yes... this was worth the effort. This was worth the days of nagging questions.

But like with all knowledge worth knowing, answers only bring more questions. What else was known about Super Zaxxon? And if this was the "Super" version, was there a not-quite-so-super Zaxxon? Who composed that wicked music? What other games had been made by this studio? What was the name of that Dragon of many palettes? What was a Zaxxon anyway? Too many questions for all their answers to be contained within the limited 128kb of a single digital-to-analog-audio datasette.

To Google, jumps our fearless hero! And after repeating the now familiar title into the "not evil" search box, a series of blue web links materialize from the proverbial white fog of the net. And highest above the links stands the king of video game websites. IGN! The website that has it all! The news, the screenshots, the machinimas, the game database, the readers whos numbers stretch into the stratos! IGN will tell me everything I want to know! In not even two shakes of a bunnys tail, that IGN link had the heck clicked out of it!

Bow to IGN the mighty...?

You've failed us Torgo...

But what farce was this? There were no reviews, nothing in the wiki, no screenshots, no Let's Plays, no credits, no trailers, no commercials, no game manuals. There wasn't even any box art! Only two solitary clues to lead him further down the rabbit hole. The name of the studio that created this beautifully nostalgic gem (HesWare, for short), and the name of the publisher (US Gold) that made sure that it somehow ended up in the living room of our hero while he was still soiling his diapers. Where was the information that Wombat so dearly wanted? "We live in the golden age of information, don't we", he thought bitterly to himself. "So where do you look when the shining pinnacle of video game-dom lets you down"?

It seems obvious now that Google was to become a trusty sidekick to Wombat. Wombat and Google on a quest to peel back the fog of war which shrouded the uncertainty that was Super Zaxxon. Away they galloped into the unknown, searching for anything. To MobyGames, to obscure clone sites, to the Wikipedia, The GameBase Collection! "What was even a thing," they eagerly wished to know! MobyGames taught them that there were actually four releases! Super Zaxxon had graced the screens of Atari 8-bit, Apple II, C64, and PC Booster. And it was made by two people Larry Holland and Mike Cranford. HesWare must not have been very big. Which one was it that wrote the music? After some reading of biographies on MobyGames and Wikipedia, Wombat determined that NEITHER of them wrote the music actually... and while it was amazing that Holland worked on the X-Wing and TIE-Fighter, and Cranford made The Bard's Tale... that music!

Sir. Cranford before he left us for higher education.

Sir. Cranford before he left us for higher education

In an attempt to coax the name of the composer out of the music itself, Wombat went back to YouTube to play the intro of the longplay once again. And while basking in the glory of the tune emanating from the emulated chip, he noticed that the credits for the game were quite plainly shown during the title screen! There were the two familiar names, Larry and Michael. And there was the third! The hidden and crafty composer that dodged the inclusion of literally every single database website that Wombat visited! The glorious Ray Rideout! How could that not even be listed in a database site even once?

To Google again! Who was this Ray Rideout music person with his talent so cleverly hidden from the world? But sadly Google wasn't very knowledged when asked about Ray. Unappreciated, for sure! After several variations of phraseology which included, but was not limited to "ray rideout zaxxon" "ray rideout c64 music", etc, Wombat finally stumbled upon (but didn't actually StumbleUpon) one of those sketchy websites that shovels out music and ringtones.

Huzzah! He had found the music... but not the musician. Sadly, to this day, Wombat has not discovered who this master of 8-bit aural nirvana was. Where was he? Was Sir. Rideout (a tremendous name, by the way) even a real person? Or was the music birthed from the loins of a mommy and daddy (Ray and Rideout, respectively) chiptune? If the internet has all of the information in the world (and we are told that it does)... then why couldn't Wombat find what he was looking for? Maybe a "nevermind" was in order for the details of Sir. Rideout's personal life... though it was somewhat disappointing.

"Well okay then," thought Wombat to himself deflatedly but not defeatedly, "what's the name of that fierce dragon?" Digging deep into the nethers of the webz, he managed to unearth a game manual for the arcade version of Super Zaxxon. And while most of the instructions included were the arcane magicks of how to connect and assemble the arcade box, there was one single page that shed some of that precious cathode glow onto the situation.

Ladies and gentlemen! Our beloved cast!

We and the pair of Wombat & Google learn something valuable here. The dragon's name is, in fact, Dragon! And not only that, but Wombat learned that Zaxxon was a better game than Super Zaxxon was!

All in all it had been an enlightening day of in depth scouring. But the question that would not stop nagging the Wombat was why it was so difficult to find this information in the first place? Films, books, music, comics, poetry, plays. They are all kept, studied, and archived. Why not games? Why does it take an entire day to uncover a few facts about a totally cross-platform game that is only about 30 years old? Why does it take scouring multiple sites with conflicting information to tease out what is clearly a simple fact based on reading the credits that appear during the first 10 seconds of gameplay?

And even more importantly, why is it that this medium that is so young, the video game, is decaying at such a rate that this game of a mere 30 years old is not worth keeping studying? It obviously impacted my early years as that photo attests, and serves as a good example of the advances from 2 dimensions into the world of 3-D. It is a study of how depth is difficult to gauge in an isometric representation. It's a look at how the UI can make such things somewhat manageable, but not best. It's a glimpse into the culture of the day, especially when compared to the other pop media of it's time. Right up against Star Wars or Thundercats. It is an expressive media, a game made by real people, ported to multiple systems by real people, played in homes, arcades, and bars. It's a demo of the capabilities of the hardware of it's day. A hard look at the tradeoffs made from system to system.

All in all, it matters. Old obscure games matter. They matter in the same way that indie games of today matter. They matter in the same way that AAA games matter. They matter because they are part of our world. Who's keeping track of what dies? Who gives a funeral to the games that fade into digital rot?

Why don't we care?

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