I played a lot of Ninja Gaiden in waiting rooms as a kid. I didn’t play Ninja Gaiden Shadow on the Game Boy, but rather the shitty LCD powered handheld Ninja Gaiden released by the Tiger toy company. It was a simple game where I navigated my marionette ninja back and forth across the simple screen and mashed buttons while the small speakers bleeped and blooped. It was cheap and terrible and I loved it.
Thanks to the mad scientists at MAME—a group dedicated to emulating old hardware and software—and the Internet Archive, I can relive those childhood memories. The Archive is dedicated to preserving our digital history and has provided some basic in-browser video game emulation for four years. Now, they’re emulating the cheap home handheld versions of popular video games and arcade machines.
From the 1970s through the 90s, game and toy companies released electronic handheld versions of popular games such as Pac-Man, Q-Bert, and Contra. They were strange games usually played on LCD screens with hand drawn backgrounds. Using vacuum fluorescent displays, LCD, or LED screens, “the pre-formed art is lit up based on circuits that try to act like the arcade game as much as possible, without using an actual video screen or a even the same programming,” the Internet Archive explained in a blog post.
The Tiger handhelds would light up every possible movement and animation on the screen when they turned on. I loved that moment. If I held the screen just the right under the sun, I could also get a glimpse of all the possible movements of my character and I’d imagine how to trigger the animations I hadn’t seen yet.
The Internet Archive has partnered with MAME Team and others to bring these old toys to life on the internet. Sadly, to save these games is to destroy them. “To get the information off an LCD game, it has to be pulled apart and all its components scanned, vectorized, and traced to then make them into a software version of themselves,” the Archive explained.
It’s sad to see these toys destroyed, but they won’t last forever and the Archive argued that digital preservation may soon be the only way to play them at all. “Not only must the LCD panel be disassembled, but the circuit board beneath as well, to determine the programming involved. These are scanned and then studied to work out the cross-connections that tell the game when to light up what...unfortunately, the machine does not survive, but the argument is made, quite rightly, that otherwise these toys will fade into oblivion,” the Archive said. “Now, they can be played by thousands or millions and do so for a significant amount of time to come.”
The other thing these archives can’t replicate is the feel of the game in your hand. The bizarre plastic buttons and epic artwork surrounding the tiny LCD screen was as much a part of the experience as the game itself. Sadly, some things just can’t be replicated and the joy of wasting time with Ninja Gaiden while I waited for mom to get out of the doctor’s office will have to remain a pleasant memory.