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Video Game Streaming Is Still Struggling to Keep the Classics Alive

Unlike TV shows or movies, stepping even half a decade into games’ past often requires antique hardware, illicit software, and tremendous patience. Cloud streaming is a promising, but imperfect, solution.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing Reddit and saw a helpful graphic listing the platform availability of several games in the long-running franchise Shin Megami Tensei, which includes the popular spinoff series Persona. The franchise’s developer, Atlus, had recently announced the release of several Persona games for new consoles, and the user who shared the graphic was celebrating this news. The image contains four rows, each representing a current-gen video game platform with certain titles available to play next year. You can play Shin Megami Tensei V only on the Nintendo Switch. You can play the upcoming Soul Hackers 2 on everything but the Switch. You can play Nocturne on everything but the Xbox. This accounts for only the franchise titles available on at least one current-gen platform. Some of the games can be played only on a Nintendo DS or 3DS, both no longer in production, or by using a console emulator, software that operates in a legal gray area.

The lawful route for the Shin Megami Tensei enthusiast, then, is to keep three different PlayStations and three different Nintendos in working order if they want to play these games at will. This concept extends to any popular game franchise, really. The average gamer, the sensible consumer, will play the games available on the latest console generations and accept that the earlier titles, including titles released as recently as five years ago, are simply lost to time.

Video games are shockingly disposable. This is true even though they’re minor miracles of a hundred software developers banging on keyboards and somehow transforming a million lines of code into living simulacra. It’s demoralizing to see the fruits of their labor suffering the same shelf life as a packet of instant ramen, but this is the commercial reality. Every lineage of consoles and every series of games is a mess of platform exclusivity, backward compatibility, publisher shenanigans, discontinued services, and expired rights. Games die young.

Video game culture copes with death in strange ways. Capcom remakes more Resident Evil games than it makes new ones. It remade the first game in the series just six years—that’s one console generation—after its release. Naughty Dog released a sequel to The Last of Us a couple of years ago, and now the developer is releasing a remake of the original game despite already remastering it for the PS4. That’s a lot of resources spent rejuvenating a game we’ve already played just so we can have this conversation all over again in eight years with the launch of a PlayStation 6.

It’s easier to understand the cases when a developer is fighting obsolescence: Dragami Games remaking Lollipop Chainsaw due to licensing issues with the original game and its soundtrack; Artur Laczkowski remaking P.T. because Konami unpublished the game during the company’s breakup with its director, Hideo Kojima. Sometimes a remake is just a second bite at the apple. But sometimes a remake is the only prospect for keeping a game (or at least its legacy) alive on modern hardware.

Cloud streaming is a somewhat promising solution to these problems of compatibility and longevity. Recently, Sony relaunched its video games subscription service, PlayStation Plus, offering a variety of digital perks, such as game discounts and giveaways, access to online multiplayer, and cloud storage. The service competes with Microsoft’s market-leading subscription service, GamePass, providing similar features for players on the Xbox and PC. I wouldn’t be the first gamer to say the tiers and subservices included in a PS Plus subscription are a bit complicated to parse at first glance, but I’d also argue that these services are only as complicated as the variety of problems they’re trying to solve. With cloud streaming, PlayStation Plus and GamePass both permit players to run games from a remote server without downloading them to a console. This is a janky but clever solution to a couple of different issues, including the perseverance of worthwhile games across console generations.

For a while, PS Now (the cloud streaming service integrated into PlayStation Plus) streamed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a title otherwise stuck on the PlayStation 3, to the PlayStation 4. This was a laggy, subpar experience, but it was something. It was a step toward solving some of the riddles of platform exclusivity and backward compatibility. This was until the game disappeared from PS Now without explanation. This isn’t some obscure game. It’s one of the bestselling titles of its console generation. And now, unless you still own a PS3 16 years after its launch, it’s just gone. What if Iron Man 3 were the biggest movie in the world and then a decade later you couldn’t legally watch it anywhere? That’s how video games work. Happens all the time.

The video game preservationists, working with copies and not rights, can only do so much. A couple of months ago, Vice published a story about the preservationist Frank Cifaldi and his recent dealings with Wata Games, a small company amassing a vast private collection of rare retro game prototypes, some worth millions of dollars. Notably, and controversially, Wata Games isn’t disseminating the software to consumers. It’s just preserving the physical copies as antiques. The disc is valuable. The data is disposable as ever.

Even at the height of video games’ success, as the medium continues to meld into popular culture while giving rise to a billion-dollar esports industry, there’s this rapid degradation of games. Video games are just so prohibitively different, in form and function, from other entertainment. Movies and music are standardized media with less acute and pervasive issues of sustainability. Television is a mess of channels and subscriptions, yes, but it’s all consolidated in the television itself; you don’t need to own five different kinds of TVs and subscribe to three different subscription services to watch The Sopranos. But video game culture is largely defined by the fragmentation of its essential parts. This is a field of entertainment in which stepping even half a decade into the past often requires antique hardware, illicit software, and tremendous patience.

This isn’t just a problem for our law-abiding hobbyist who wants to play the hits and cult classics without clinging to old hardware forever. This is the definitive, if impossible, problem of video game culture. Video games are complex code. There’s nothing to be done, really, about the inherent compatibility issues with such code. Sometimes I look at my workstation and see the tower of Babel. I see a medium afflicted with obsolescence. I learned to emulate in high school, and I don’t mind keeping a few emulators in my task bar now that they’re retired from my desk. But I’m still holding out hope for longer lifespans, wider availability, and a brighter future for video games. I’m playing through Shin Megami Tensei one way or another.