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Canned and Abandoned: The True Value of Unreleased Video Games

The notion of cancelled video games is as captivating as it is frustrating.

Unfinished works, of course, are part of any creative process. Every poet has probably torn up countless half-written verses and cast them into the bin. Music production is perhaps as much defined by creations that crash into an evolutionary dead end as those that are published. The rejected and incomplete aren’t failures; they’re part of the journey to better one’s craft.

All video games have plenty cut from them, of course. The pixelated worlds we explore in all their polished, consumer-ready glory have undergone a thorough process of refinement to get anywhere near to this state. Designing and making games is a necessarily iterative process, where experimentation is used to separate the good and the bad.

Solar Jetman NES

Solar Jetman disks were found in a briefcase stuffed behind an old radiator!

As for the reasons games are canned, they are manifold. There are those with ambitions that overshoot the ability of available hardware – or that commit to consoles that flop before development is complete. Others fall victim to the collapse of studios and publishers. Some flounder under early public testing. Too often, legal and licensing issues put an end to great ideas. And a good number of unreleased video games simply don’t hit the required quality bar.

And yet the idea that there are games out there – from the playable to the far-from-complete – that have never been released feels like something of a tragedy for the medium. In part, it’s because so few cancelled games are truly destroyed. Instead, they sit on disks and hard drives, alive, but imprisoned in obsolete media, or concealed by blankets of dust in attics. We could surely play them – and appreciate the collaborative efforts of artists, coders, musicians, designers and writers – if only we could get at them. And who wouldn’t want to see the experiments of a favourite game designer, or the ideas that were too strange to be commercially viable?

In fact, getting to play an unreleased game is perhaps more alluring an idea than playing one easily available via stores physical and digital. Theirs is a near-mythical presence, occupying the grey area between existing and never being. So many of us remember early screenshots in magazines – or even a cover-mounted demo disk in the case of Putty Squad for the Amiga – promising us games that never came to be.

Putty Squad Amiga
Putty Squad for the Commodore Amiga

However, many lost games have been retrieved, revived, and made playable again. Organisations such as the Video Game History Foundation have done remarkable work pulling data from old cassettes and 5.25” floppy disks, before piecing together source code and assets to return games – including incomplete ones – to a playable state. The recovery of Microprose’s unreleased NES game Days of Thunder offers a particularly fascinating case study.

Cancelled games are also much more than a footnote in the form’s past. They are, rather, a vital part of a history that is only now beginning to be meaningfully captured, preserved and archived. Video games – each and every one of them, from the good to the bad, via the abandoned – are valuable cultural artefacts, just like films, records and books. Games that emerge as bone fide phenomena, influencing and shaping popular culture and the global zeitgeist, make for obvious examples of creations with significant merit – think Fortnite, Pokémon GO and Grand Theft Auto. But countless others shape and influence individual lives. It is the collective contribution of all games to popular culture that makes any individual example important. As such, the effort to preserve all games is more important than the non-gaming layperson might assume.

Yet the need for the preservation and archiving of games has long been ignored, while music, films and music are carefully – and rightly – archived. Fortunately, the tide is turning. It is increasingly recognised that video games are part of our past and present. Some distant day in the future, Fall Guys or PUBG might be of huge significance to a researcher or digital archaeologist. Preserving them now will keep today alive for tomorrow.

Why haven’t they been thoroughly archived til now? The reasons are myriad, but significantly, games exist on the cutting edge of technology. They are so often beholden to the platforms they are released onto – platforms which can get left in the past. The move to digital, meanwhile, means numerous games are effectively present only on distant machines – remote, and at risk of a server shutdown or collapse. We could see the private collections of retro-gaming fans worldwide as something of a shared archive, and their effort should be celebrated.

Samurai Shodown NEOGEOSamurai Shodown NEOGEO Collection by Digital Eclipse

However, there is a real need for organised, meticulous video game archives. Many game companies – particularly in Japan – are undertaking the process themselves, making contemporary commercial successes of games that can then join a growing archive. SNK offers an admirable example, having captured and released numerous games – beyond their most famed properties, such as Metal Slug – and more recently working with Digital Eclipse to create a fully complete special edition of the Samurai Shodown games. M2 and City Connection, meanwhile, release ports of arcade games that exquisitely preserve the originals, sometimes including a wealth of additional materials – the M2 port of CAVE’s magnificent shmup Ketsui being a prime example. And then there is the SEGA Ages effort, which since 1996 has seen the release of dozens of ports, including some very high-quality ones – particularly thanks to M2, in recent months and years.

There are also individuals and organisations devoted to capturing and archiving the unreleased treasures that, as we’ve seen, are highly important to understanding the medium as a broad whole. Video Game Densetsu, The Cutting Room Floor, and Unseen64 each maintain valuable archives of unreleased games and associated materials, with the latter publishing the impressive book Video Games You Will Never Play. The aforementioned and strikingly ambitious effort by the Video Game History Foundation also deserves much credit, having seen Frank Cifaldi and his team uncover, restore and archive numerous games, perhaps most notably unearthing the long lost Sim City NES port. And then there is Frank Gasking.

The Games That Weren’t by Frank GaskingThe Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Having stumbled across the concept of unreleased Commodore 64 games aged 11, Gasking has spent the last 20 or so years compiling his remarkable archive, Games That Weren’t.

Here at Bitmap Books we were so enamoured by The Games That Weren’t, we worked with Gasking to develop much of his archive into a book of the same title. Recently released, it shares the most interesting tales about games that never made it to the masses, while showcasing a wealth of screenshots, concept art and artists’ impressions of titles that have previously never made it beyond the drawing board.

But as much as it is about digital entities spun from lines of code, The Games That Weren’t book is just as much about human stories. After all, games are made – and scrapped – by people. Those human stories – told through in-depth interviews – are where mysteries unfurl and insights into what it is to be a game maker are shared. It is the human toil, sacrifice and disappointment that really makes an unreleased video game such a fascinating entity.

The Games That Weren’t is an archive we are proud to have shared with the world, but it only scratches the surface of unreleased games, and is part of a much broader effort to keep video game history alive and playable. Video game history is important, and preserving it is a vast task. So, here’s to many more brilliant archives that match the depth of what Gasking has achieved.

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