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Duke’s Legacy: Video Game Source Disc Preservation at the Library of Congress

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The following is a guest post from David Gibson, a moving image technician in the Library of Congress. He was previously interviewed about the Library of Congress video games collection

The discovery of that which has been lost or previously unattainable is one of the driving forces behind the archival profession and one of the passions the profession shares with the gaming community. Video game enthusiasts have long been fascinated by unreleased games and “lost levels,” gameplay levels which are partially developed but left out of the final release of the game. Discovery is, of course, a key component to gameplay. Players revel in the thrill of unlocking the secret door or uncovering Easter eggs hidden in the game by developers. In many ways, the fascination with obtaining access to unreleased games or levels brings this thrill of discovery into the real world. In a recent article written for The Atlantic, Heidi Kemps discusses the joy in obtaining online access to playable lost levels from the 1992 Sega Genesis game, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, reveling in the fact that access to these levels gave her a glimpse into how this beloved game was made.

Original source disc as it was received by the Library of Congress.
Original source disc as it was received by the Library of Congress.

Since 2006, the Moving Image section of the Library of Congress has served as the custodial unit for video games. In this capacity, we receive roughly 400 video games per year through the Copyright registration process, about 99% of which are physically published console games. In addition to the games themselves we sometimes receive ancillary materials, such as printed descriptions of the game, DVDs or VHS cassettes featuring excerpts of gameplay, or the occasional printed source code excerpt. These materials are useful, primarily for their contextual value, in helping to tell the story of video game development in this country and are retained along with the games in the collection.

Several months ago, while performing an inventory of recently acquired video games, I happened upon a DVD-R labeled Duke Nukem: Critical Mass (PSP). My first assumption was that the disc, like so many others we have received, was a DVD-R of gameplay. However, a line of text on the Copyright database record for the item intrigued me. It reads: Authorship: Entire video game; computer code; artwork; and music. I placed the disc into my computer’s DVD drive to discover that the DVD-R did not contain video, but instead a file directory, including every asset used to make up the game in a wide variety of proprietary formats. Upon further research, I discovered that the Playstation Portable version of Duke Nukem: Critical Mass was never actually released commercially and was in fact a very different beast than the Nintendo DS version of the game which did see release. I realized then that in my computer was the source disc used to author the UMD for an unreleased PlayStation Portable game. I could feel the lump in my throat. I felt as though I had solved the wizard’s riddle and unlocked the secret door.

Excerpt of code from boot.bin including game text.
Excerpt of code from boot.bin including game text.

The first challenge involved finding a way to access the proprietary Sony file formats contained within the disc, including, but not limited to, graphics files in .gim format and audio files in .AT3 format. I enlisted the aid of Packard Campus Software Developer Matt Derby and we were able to pull the files off of the disc and get a clearer sense of the file structure contained within. Through some research on various PSP homebrew sites we discovered Noesis, a program that would allow us to access the .gim and .gmo files which contain the 3D models and textures used to create the game’s characters and 3D environments. With this program we were able to view a complete 3D view of Duke Nukem himself, soaring through the air on his jetpack and a pre-composite 3D model of one of the game’s nemeses, the Pig Cops. Additionally, we employed Mediacoder and VLC in order to convert the Sony .AT3 (ATRAC3) audio files to MP3 in order to have access to the game’s many music cues.

3D model for Duke Nukem equipped with jetpack. View an animated gif of the model here.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery came when we used a hex editor to access the ASCII text held in the boot.bin folder in the disc’s system directory. Here we located the full text and credit information for the game along with a large chunk of un-obfuscated software code. However, much of what is contained in this folder was presented as compiled binaries. It is my hope that access to both the compiled binaries and ASCII code will allow us to explore future preservation options for video games. Such information becomes even more vital in the case of games such as this Duke Nukem title which were never released for public consumption. In many ways, this source disc can serve as an exemplary case as we work to define preferred format requirements for software received by the Library of Congress. Ultimately, I feel that access to the game assets and source code will prove to be invaluable both to researchers who are interested in game design and mechanics and to any preservation efforts the Library may undertake.

Providing access to the disc’s content to researchers will, unfortunately, remain a challenge. As mentioned above, it was difficult enough for Library of Congress staff to view the proprietary formats found on the disc before seeking help from the homebrew community. The legal and logistical hurdles related to providing access to licensed software will continue to present themselves as we move forward but I hope that increased focus on the tremendous research value of such digital assets will allow for these items to be more accessible in the future. For now the assets and code will be stored in our digital archive at the Packard Campus in Culpeper and the physical disc will be stored in temperature-controlled vaults.

The source disc for the PSP version of Duke Nukem: Critical Mass stands out in the video game collection of the Library of Congress as a true digital rarity. In Doug Reside’s recent article “File Not Found: Rarity in the Age of Digital Plenty” (pdf), he explores the notion of source code as manuscript and the concept of digital palimpsests that are created through the various layers that make up a Photoshop document or which are present in the various saved “layers” of a Microsoft Word document. The ability to view the pre-compiled assets for this unreleased game provides a similar opportunity to view the game as a work-in-progress, or at the very least to see the inner workings and multiple layers of a work of software beyond what is presented to us in the final, published version. In my mind, receiving the source disc for an unreleased game directly from the developer is analogous to receiving the original camera negative for an unreleased film, along with all of the separate production elements used to make the film. The disc is a valuable evidentiary artifact and I hope we will see more of its kind as we continue to define and develop our software preservation efforts.

The staff of the Moving Image section would love the opportunity to work with more source materials for games and I hope that game developers who are interested in preserving their legacy will be willing to submit these kinds of materials to us in the future. Though source discs are not currently a requirement for copyright, they are absolutely invaluable in contributing to our efforts towards stewardship and long term access to the documentation of these creative works.

Special thanks to Matt Derby for his assistance with this project and input for this post.

NOTE: As this post demonstrates, the Library of Congress is committed to preserving video games, together with the other materials entrusted to us. The game is protected by U.S. copyright law and accordingly the Library will not, as suggested by the comments below, release it.

Comments (19)

  1. An exceedingly cool find!

  2. Pretty amazing stuff. Bravo to Trevor and Matthew for creative solutions. Small query: how is the LOC planning on preserving digital images? M-discs? Or my personal favorite, cave drawings? Anyway, thanks for a fun read.

  3. Great work! I personally love uncovering beta content and seeing the occasional screenshot of a canceled game (Kirby Air Ride for N64!!) but finding a whole unfinished game? That’s just incredible. Thank you also for the link to the Reside article. It’s such interesting stuff. I would love to help archive digital content someday.

  4. You can use PPSSPP in order to emulate a PSP device on your computer.

    Also, maintains an historic multimedia database, with full editions of different data (ISO images, DJVU magazines, games and such).

    Sorry for my English.

  5. We have PSP dev kits that have DVD drives as well as UMD; these SDKs allow DVDs to be used instead of UMDs for game play, and it is likely that this is what you have encountered. Probably, all you need to run this game is access to such a dev kit. If Sony America cannot help you, surely there would be a PSP developer somewhere that could? If not, then contact us 🙂

  6. Interesting read, it would be great to have a depository for the source code of computer programs, it would make the preservation so much easier and would help to keep programs accessible for future generations.

  7. It’s an absolute shame this software will never make it into the hands of someone with enough knowledge to mount and load the image on a PSP.

  8. I’m confused about the availability to researchers.
    Can these files be downloaded?

    Whether or not the files are useable in their *current* state seems irrelevant: if a copy of the disc’s contents is publicly available, the modding community will likely expose its secrets very quickly.

  9. Thank you all for the comments, questions and general interest in the post! We currently do not have the infrastructure in place to make the contents of the disc available to the general public, though that is an issue I believe we need to address on an institutional level in the very near future.

    I personally think that the modding community has done tremendous work in regards to software preservation and I truly believe that public institutions will only benefit from emplying some of the practices undertaken by the modding and emulation community as we develop preservation and access strategies for video games, specifically, and software, generally.

  10. Great work, Dave!

  11. I was involved in the making of this game, it was completely different than the DS version, and we’re heart broken it didn’t get released as it was at the final bug fix stage, and really pushed the limits of the hardware… It was pretty darn cool!

    How, or where did you get it?

  12. Amazing work! Man, this is crazy. Fun read, though it’d be nice to hear that someone would start loading this onto PSP or something similar for public use. Maybe in the future, eh? Let us hope.

    Ridley Wright

  13. Hey David, what you guys do is impressive. The upload and release of that data to the public would be immensely beneficial for homebrew developers. Hell, they’ve done a lot as far as archival for the PSP goes already, since they were probably the first group able to rip full images of the data in proprietary discs using off-the-shelf hardware.

    Seeing as there’s no profit to be made from it, I’m sure communities would love to jump in and show their support to get the legal hurdle out of the way. If there’s anything we can do, do tell us or write about it.

  14. Just to address the last few comments: we received the game through the usual copyright deposit channels. Typically, we receive the final published game, or printed descriptive material in lieu of the actual game, which is what made this example stand out. To my knowledge we have not received any other unpublished games as part of the copyright deposit process.

    It would be great if we could make this data accessible, particularly in an emulated form on a PSP, but we currently lack a mechanism or the infrastructure to make that happen. It is an issue we hope to address soon, particularly as the collection continues to grow and research interest in game design and game mechanics grows with it. All I can say for now is watch this space… Thanks for your comments and interest in this post!

  15. I think I speak for all Duke’s fans when I say:….


    Thank you Dave for the fascinating story. It reads like a Sherlock Holmes tale for gamers everywhere!

  16. From what I can see, it’s already a fully compiled game.
    There’s 2 easy options on how to play it.

    1. Make an ISO file of the DVD, then download PPSSPP and play it.
    There’s a chance this won’t work, since PPSSPP is far from perfect.

    2. – Make an ISO file of the DVD.
    – Get yourself a PSP.
    – Put a CFW on it (PRO or LME will do).
    – Put the ISO file in E:\ISO\ (where E: is your PSP’s memory stick).
    – Press the select button while in the XMB
    – Change UMD ISO MODE to “Sony NP9660”.
    – Launch Duke.

    PS: the 2 root files of the ISO should be the “PSP_GAME” folder and the “UMD_DATA.BIN” file.

  17. Please, release this game. Give it to community.

  18. Preserve the game, which means leave it in the vault until it rots. Yep, that is how it works. Dvd-r do not last and what a shame it was to have given it to a place that locks up stuff like the smithsonian. My advice, if you have something like a rare video game unreleased, do not give it to any company or the library of congress. Release it in the wild (internet) for free. If there is a problem with copyright,then take it down.

  19. So will it remain locked in the library for a 100 years (unless Disney lobbies to change copyright again) until you discover the disk is corrupted or what?

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