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One of my very first pets was a Tamagotchi, a tiny, digital creature that lived in a plastic keychain. It’s been nearly two decades since I held it in my hand, but recently, I found an opportunity to hatch another critter and feed it pixelated snacks. Tamagotchi is one of dozens of retro handheld games that the Internet Archive recently uploaded to its free digital library, in emulated versions that allow for authentic player experiences on modern computers.
Although dubbed “Handheld History,” the collection of over 70 games includes emulations of both handheld game consoles and tabletop machines. They date from the ’70s through the ’90s, offering a nostalgic trip through some of the greatest hits of gaming history, including Coleco’s Frogger and Donkey Kong, Tiger Electronic’s Mortal Kombat and Sonic the Hedgehog, and even Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell. (This last game, as the name implies, aimed to teach children how to pronounce and spell words.) Each is played by pressing buttons on your keyboard that correspond to the original controls.
While many of these games still exist in their original, clunky form, the consoles themselves are disappearing. Documenting and researching them now is a vital act of cultural preservation, as archivist Jason Scott writes. For that reason, the Internet Archive’s collection presents the emulations with photographs of their original systems and, when possible, digitized versions of their instruction manuals.
Handheld History will continue to grow, and is the result of laborious work by developers for the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which has for years been recreating the hardware of arcade games for more modern platforms. Scott describes the emulation process for the Internet Archive’s blog, explaining how the chips from a circuit board can typically be read without destroying the system, and data can be pulled and copied to produce emulations.
But sometimes, the process to extract information from LCD game machines is destructive. One developer, Sean Riddle, has dedicated himself to, in his words, “decapping or deglobbing the chips and taking pictures of them and the displays. I’m the guy with the blowtorch and sulfuric acid!” he told Hyperallergic. Many LCD games, he explained, run on a simple four-bit microcontroller from the ’80s, which is mounted directly onto a circuit board. He has to clean the circuits using destructive measures before documenting the components carefully; a composite picture is then sent to someone at MAME who works to engineer an emulation. Although that particular game is lost, its information can be made available to countless people in a nearly identical form.
Of course, some of the original gaming experience is also lost when you play their emulations. Developers can’t replicate the feel of plastic, sticky buttons, and the controls on a computer are slightly more streamlined. The Tamagotchi, for instance, had a reset switch you had to poke with a sharp tool; now, you can simply refresh your browser page. Still, I’m happy for the chance to appreciate its limited interface after all these years, and to hear my pet’s high-pitched shrill when it’s time to wipe its digital dung.