Video game preservationists and engineers at the Video Game History Foundation recently reconstructed an unreleased video game based on Tom Cruise's 1990 film, Days of Thunder. Programmer and designer Chris Oberth began creating the video game tie-in for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but the projected ended for "unknown reasons" while another Days of Thunder debuted on store shelves. Decades later, the engineers compiled the source code and posted gameplay on YouTube.
According to the VGHF, Oberth died in 2012. His family approached the foundation and asked for assistance "making sense" of what the designer left behind. These materials included floppy disks and old computers, which they hoped included Days of Thunder. The preservationists found the game split between 40 floppy disks that spanned several years. One of the engineers set about recovering the "split and encrypted" data and said that digitizing the data took two weeks alone. Assembling the game took another few nights.
"There are the technical decisions and trade-offs that were made, setbacks and struggles, things the developers tried that didn't work or were perhaps sidelined due to some kind of technical problem or budgetary constraint," said Rich Whitehouse, engineer and preservationist, during an interview with Polygon. "Source code usually tells a pretty elaborate story, albeit occasionally hidden a bit between the lines. Once we've published the source code [we're planning to have it up on GitHub in a week or so], I'm looking forward to seeing what people can find and take away from it."
As Whitehouse continued to explain, there are certain video games that speak directly about the "culture of the time." He also said that these games have a story to tell that runs much deeper than the playable experience. Whitehouse directly cited the source code, design documents and work logs as unbiased storytellers about the game development process.
Whitehouse wants people to understand that it's extremely valuable to have a video game's source code available. This code can provide unprecedented amounts of information about the time, culture and process. This is why Whitehouse said it is important to preserve the sourc code.
With the game reconstructed, there are questions about what to do next. One group of retro game enthusiasts will be publishing a small run of Days of Thunder NES cartridges. They aren't trying to get rich; they will be donating all proceeds to Oberth's wife. VGHF founder Frank Cifaldi explained that Oberth "died young" and that his wife is still working full-time at a hospital at the age of 65.