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These are the classic video games you can no longer play (Spoiler: It's most of them)

Visitors watch a demonstration of The Sims 2 at E3 on May 19, 2005. The Sims 2 is no longer commercially available on most platforms.
David McNew
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Getty Images
Visitors watch a demonstration of The Sims 2 at E3 on May 19, 2005. The Sims 2 is no longer commercially available on most platforms.

Updated July 27, 2023 at 3:40 PM ET

When The Sims came out back in the year 2000, it changed the gaming landscape. Here was a game made for everybody, a game that looked and played like real life, if only real life was a lot more fun.

It was such a big deal that even mainstream news outlets like us were talking about it. Dan Morris, former executive editor of PC Gamer Magazine, told NPR that part of its appeal was its familiarity and relatability. "It's sort of the part of us that always liked, you know, playing with dollhouses," he said. In a medium where players were usually confronted with science fiction and fantasy, it was the mundanity of The Sims' world that proved refreshing.

But while The Sims spawned many sequels, you can't officially buy the original, and even if you have it, it's not designed to run on modern systems. That fate, sadly, isn't an anomaly — most classic video games can't be played on today's hardware. A new studyfrom The Video Game History Foundation finds that only 13% of titles produced before 2010 are available on modern platforms.

Games made before 1985 fare even worse, with only 3% still being sold. Salvador calls that period the "silent film" era of video games, when designers established the medium's basic grammar. "There's a very real danger," says study author Phil Salvador, "that in a few decades these games will be unavailable and unplayable to a wide audience." That concern took on new urgency this year, when Nintendo shuttered its 3DS and Wii eShops, taking whole generations of games off the market.

But why does it matter that we can't, for example, play the original Sims when its commercially successful sequels are easily purchasable? "That's like saying, well, you know, why do we need the original Psycho if we can get Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho?" argues Salvador. "Video games are cultural history in the same way that film is cultural history or books or movies."

That history can tell you a lot about a video game, and the time and place it was born into.

In the early 1990's, Sega was a video game giant. But when they released their Sega Saturn video game console in America in 1995, it flopped. Many of the games on that system are now out of print. But fans are keeping its memory alive.

David Lee writes about the system and its games on the blog SegaSaturnShiro, which he co-founded. "I just really love the mystique of it," he explains. "I love how it kind of has this troubled and complex story." Games like Clockwork Knight, he says, have a colorful and chaotic visual style that felt uniquely 90's Sega. "It's just got a look to it, a visual charm to it, that's just very much of the time," he explains.

Fan communities have played a major role preserving video games, but official institutions are lagging behind. Phil Salvador argues that libraries also need the power to make these games and their histories more accessible to researchers. "I worry about the long-term future of video games [is] going to be if we have to sort of rely entirely on the fan community for this kind of documentation."

Kendra Albert at the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic says that current copyright law makes that difficult, and video game companies want to keep it that way. "The rationale that the lobbying groups often come forward with is that this will harm the market for existing games," Albert says.

But Albert feels that this perspective is out of step with both the reality of consumer demand and the goals of preservationists. Preservationists want libraries to have more flexibility when it comes to making games available to researchers. For example, current copyright law makes it legally questionable to share video games remotely through software emulation. Games historians want access to the original titles, because companies change old games when they re-enter the market as remasters and remakes.

Professor Adrienne Shaw of Temple University, who founded the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, points to the game Baldur's Gate as an example. The 2012 remaster of the original game added same-sex relationship options for some of its characters. While the game became accessible to more players, it became a fundamentally different object to a researcher studying queer relationships in video games.

Albert and other advocacy organizations will ask the U.S. Copyright Office to exempt video games from some of these copyright laws when the appeals process begins this fall. Similar appeals have been denied in the past, leaving official preservation of the young medium in doubt.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vincent Acovino