Archive: Why dates in retrogaming are problematic

This was the Vintrospektiv swan song on Medium, a reflection on my article series about the months in retrogaming. When I decided to end the multi-media aspects of Vintrospektiv and turn to more serious activities, I found it would be a good idea to add this analysis as the twelfth and final instalment of that series.

Why dates in retrogaming are problematic

Fans of retrogames, especially series of games, often celebrate specific dates relating to a game or franchise. But where do these dates come from, and how reliable are they really?

When I launched my multi-channel project Vintrospektiv in December 2020, I needed material to generate an initial interest. While the main focus was put on videos, I decided to start with a few short articles in order to provide additional information not to be found in the videos, and at the same time fulfil my central cause of showing disparate data in some kind of context.

My main area of interest was the computer-gaming scene of the 80s, before the advent of the internet, and also before games were regarded as a cultural asset to be preserved and examined, but then rather as a consumer product that lost its value when superseded in terms of technology or design. Finding reliable information was not a trivial task, especially when it came to specific dates when games were published, as that was what I was looking for to use in my series of articles about the months in the history of retrogaming.

For basic-level research like that, Wikipedia is often a good source to start out: it offers concise facts, mostly supported by references to further information. I discovered lots of dates pertaining to games, people and companies, and when I quickly cross-referenced a few of them with other sources I found them to mostly match. I began using those dates in my articles. However, there were some cases when a given date didn’t match other databases like MobyGames — or even a different page on Wikipedia. For a while, it was a matter of choosing the one that seemed the least dubious, but at some point around April, I decided to delve deeper into those differences and try to find out where they came from. What I found was concerning, to say the least.

While many dates were accompanied by a source, at least the same number were given without any background at all, sometimes different unsourced dates on the overview page for a game franchise than on the pages of the individual games. In those cases where a source was provided, it would need to be followed to find out how accurate the information presented was. There were reviews in magazines with an estimated shipping date („Will be released on October 30th“) and even quotes from informal interviews where the interviewed person reminisced about a date in passing („We shipped the game on Dec. 31“). Pointers to respectable sources like the U.S. Copyright Office were the exception rather than the rule, and every documented mention of a date seemed to be regarded as sufficient proof for its validity.

Of course, while Wikipedia is a useful starting point for more serious research, it remains a questionable source of information without further checking, due to its very nature as an open project with sometimes heavy editing. Thankfully, there were more reputable sources as well, but looking a bit deeper into those, many of them turned out to be equally untrustworthy. This only became apparent after I had collected several hundreds of dates, and inevitably, different ways to validate them: apart from the mentioned U.S. Copyright Office (which can be hard to navigate and may contain contradictory dates with no immediately apparent means to differentiate them), there are magazine archives and, obviously, the internet presences of the companies themselves.

A main problem with online sources, even highly-regarded ones, seemed to be the propagation of demonstrably incorrect data by different independent channels. For instance, someone might have taken a doubtful date from a source not readily available on the internet, and other people used that date, citing the place at which they found it, or not giving any reference at all. After a while, since every new research might pick out any one of those previous citations, it would look like there were several different references, while they would all really track back to the same original source. That source might have been wrong, or been misquoted to begin with, but for a casual researcher — or even a moderately dilligent one, such as I was — it would look like the date had been confirmed independently many times.

To give you one example, at the time of writing, the game Salamander is listed on Wikipedia as having been released on 4 July 1986. If you look for other sources for that date, you will find the Gradius Wiki, DBpedia, Academic and a number of other websites, all of which seem to confirm that date at a quick glance. But a slightly closer look will reveal that none of the sites give any kind of source for that date, and DBpedia and Academic have clearly taken their information directly from Wikipedia. It might very well be the correct date, but after an hour of searching, I was unable to confirm it with any authority.

In fact, there are different ways in which a given date might turn out to be wrong. One of the more famous examples is Super Mario Bros., which shows very well how problematic this kind of research can be. To sum up the linked article, in 2012 the author, Frank Cifaldi, tried to find out the precise date Super Mario Bros. was published in the U.S., surprised that it was still disputed, and even adding, “talk to enough people and you’ll come to find out that we can’t even agree on the year the game came out”. After thoroughly researching the history of both that game and the system it ran on, the Nintendo Entertainment System, he tracked down a number of sources and encountered a mix of all the problems I listed above: incorrect reputable sources, misleading personal memories, an ambiguous date given by the company itself. He consulted several sources, including books, people and internal documents, but was ultimately unable to find any clear and unchallenged date (though he did eventually find a date that he was satisfied to use). He concludes, “If this is the state of video game preservation in 2012, 50 years after Spacewar!, we’re in trouble.” I wholeheartedly recommend reading the article to see how many obstables there were in researching what initially appeared to be a straight-forward fact.

Armed with this new-found knowledge, I decided to continue my article series at Vintrospektiv using the dates I uncovered — but I also formed the plan to add this article as a final instalment in order to explain how I was most certainly wrong many times. In the end, it seems like the time for concepts like “This day in retrogaming“ has not quite yet arrived, since it might be necessary to research a given date, especially concerning games from the 80s and earlier, for weeks to approach any kind of certainty of its correctness.

(The calendar image was created by Eric Rothermel.)