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Setting the past free – The open source column

Just because old games have been freely available for years doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate it when someone does it properly...

The announcement at the turn of the year that a bunch of seventies and early eighties videogames were being released to play for free in a web browser was met with something of a sneer in some quarters. If you missed it, this is the latest work from the Internet Archive, which kicked off its latest project, The Console Living Room, with games for five different machines. Two of them were Ataris, while titles from the ColecoVision, the Magnavox Odyssey and The Astrocade were also featured. All you now have to do if you want to play one of the available games is to head to Console Living Room, click on your machine of choice, and pick a game – but don’t blame me if you overrun your lunch hour.

The plan is that the Internet Archive will expand the collection over the months to come, adding more formats and more games. The launch of the project garnered a fair amount of coverage across the world.

Inevitably though, the snark wasn’t far behind. ‘Just use MAME’, said one of the many negative comments I found. ‘So what?’ added another. ‘Cheap Viagra!’ screamed another – although between you and me I suspect that may have been spam. Still, the inference of both comments isn’t hard to place: it’s hardly secret that such vintage titles, and more modern ones, have been freely playable in web browsers for some time. The thing is that a sizeable number of publishers have elected to look the other way rather than get on the phone to their lawyers about it.

Yet in recent times, more than one publisher has got just a little more protective of their wares. In an era when an old game can be bashed out in an iOS/Android iteration and earn a few extra quid, publishers that once were willing to let old titles go are now wondering how quickly they can spruce them out and flog them en masse for 69p/99¢ apiece on the App Store.

Furthermore, I’d imagine that the kind of person who seeks out the Internet Archive and then tunnels down to find the Console Living Room project is also the sort of individual who already knows full well about the emulation scene, whether they’ve delved into it or not.

As such, there’s an argument here that what the Internet Archive has done is the proverbial trick of shutting the stable door over the equally proverbial horse, which has long since trotted off. But I think that’s being unfair. It’s precisely because so many big companies are now looking to their asset registers, and their extensive back catalogues of titles, that we should actually be grateful for what the Internet Archive is doing. Ten years ago, computer fairs in the UK had tables bogged down by CDs of emulation software and assorted games. The legality of that was always shady, but now it’s clear: that is breaking the law. What the Internet Archive is doing is attempting to save as many old games as it possibly can from the curse of the App Store and microtransactions.

I wish the project much success and hope that if it does pan out, the Internet Archive might be persuaded to turn its attention to some of the excellent software that was being used around the same time. I don’t know about you, but I always had a soft spot for Locoscript…