Obscurity Below the Radar

I want to tell you something about gaming below the radar. I want to speak about an entire subculture that is so awe-inspiring it causes you to re-evaluate the concept of gaming.

Normal retail methods can make you feel limited by the videogame items displayed. Anyone can buy a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga, Metal Slug AES, Ginga Fukei Densetsu or even the entire Fujitsu Marty collection. Throw enough money at eBay, and a myriad of apparently rare gaming items are yours. But these things are not unusual. It takes intense passion and hard work to get hold of truly obscure goods. There is a secret underground community of high-profile collectors who deal strictly in these most limited of oddities.

Oftentimes, such groups run the risk of the law, yet still dedicate their lives to the acquisition and recording of things. In trying to uncover this secret realm, I was graciously granted access to some of the more high profilemembers, including the head of one such community. A renowned American gentleman who wishes to be known only as ASSEMbler, he tells us a little of himself and also the nature of such undocumented people, “Truth be told, I own large amounts of items, code, and tools that have never been released, are sometimes of legendary status, or are of singular extant. I also own the names and intellectual assets of several defunct studios. I own the masters and even the rights to some unreleased games. However they were not free, they were not easy goals to attain or items to acquire. It’s not easy to track people down and coax them to sell items, to create a company to buy things, to take out loans and risk your financial future to acquire things. I’ve been sued, threatened and watched for what I do. Why do you think no one has ever seen a picture of me? And now, being part of the industry, working for a games company, it makes it even more complex. I judge [a collector’s status] by the amount of non retailitems owned. If you have dev units, prototypes of consoles and games, or unreleased hardware. Those take effort to get, everything else is just throwing money at eBay.”

Unsurprisingly, all of those I spoke to wished to remain anonymous throughout this article.

Why go to such great lengths? Because it’s forbidden fruit. Items that gamers shouldn’t have, they inevitably want. It’s cloak and dagger, certainly far more exciting than stepping into Wal-Mart, and in a way, replicating the role of Indiana Jones discovering that Holy Grail.

The entire videogame community is like a microcosm of society, with those at the top and the bottom, and also those hidden from view who control events. Let’s take a look at the big game these prestigious hunters track.

Hard-line Hardware
Desired hardware takes many guises, with unreleased prototypes, development and debug equipment, weird hack-jobs, and even commercially-released-but-poorly- marketed-failures all being focused on.

At the lowest end of the commercial spectrum, console bootlegs from places as far flung as central China and Brazil will pique people’s interest. Many are Famicom clones, but go further afield and you’ll find all manner of obscurities. How many varieties are there? As many as there are industrialized towns north of the Baltic. Yet people are determined to collect and document them all. For the cream of the commercial crop, your everyday 64DD, Bandai Pippin, and Marty systems will be vying for collectors’ money. Released mainly in Japan with a limited audience and small selection of games, these are prized products for displaying.

For something with a little more flavor, check out Nintendo’s top secret line of development equipment. Ever heard about the dark pink cartridge based Gamecubes that exist, the fabled NPDP systems? Some even come emblazoned with Nintendo Dolphin logos. For tastes a little more vanilla, seek the green boxed NR Reader machines. Great for playing prototype games six months before they hit the streets. You can be sure Nintendo doesn’t want you knowing this. Their court actions prove the point. But like moths to the flame, I can’t help butbe fascinated by what I’m not supposed to see, especially when I know the four figure prices. But not all dev equipment is valuable. Dev Jaguars can be bought for little more than retail models, it’s the 4Mb Alpine II programming cards that push the value over $1,000 a piece.

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A little documented fact is that games journalists are actually a reliable source for underground goods. How do you think they manage to play gold copies of burned proprietary discs? Because the games companies supply them with specialist modified hardware.

The real action, though, is unreleased prototypes. We all know about 3DO, but what about it’s cancelled M2 successor? Never made it public, though the technology was used in Japanese drink machines and Russian ATMs. So enamoured is the underground hardcore collective, there’s jovial banter of trying to smuggle said ATMs across the border, just for the hardware.

As for modern dev kits and prototypes, ASSEMbler tells me: “Usually a developer does not own the console, and has to return all[proprietary] equipment when the lifespan is over. [They’re] usually asked to be destroyed in the field. Unless more companies go bankrupt, you will see them either return the hardware or archive it for spares. You might see some on sale due to employee theft, but considering it took ten years for Saturn items to surface… They technically don’t own it in some cases, just the right to make games on it.”

Meaning Microsoft wants their recently stolen X360 development kits back. Merchandise so hot to handle, not even the underground traders are dealing? I’ll wager the scene’s best modders have these babies, trying to create X360 mod-chips.

And with owning such hardware, you will, of course, need games to play!

Scintillating Software
If such underground groups are like virtual societies, then unreleased software and rare data is their specialized currency. Games are often traded like-for-like. I spoke to one of the scene’s most generous dealers, a Mr. L from England, who explained why: “Some people will only trade [rare items] for unreleased games -money you can come by any time and is easily spent on junk, but unreleased games are harder to acquire. You can offer someone a million and they still wouldn’t take it, but if you offered them an unreleased game then they’re more willing to part with their [rare items].”

It’s this refined attitude that elevates proceedings to levels comparable with wine and antique collectors. Considering games such as the PAL version of Kizuna Encounter reach $12,000, the prices are also comparable. Lower down, the Nintendo World Championship cartridge still manages to clock over $6,000 on auction. If you can manage to find someone willing to sell, that is. The willingness to sell is, due to the fact they’re already available digitally, buying them is purely for completeness’ sake. Singular items which have not been duplicated command greater reverence, since there is no other way to experience them.

Of note, here, are the unwritten rules traders live by. When unreleased games are used as trading currency, it’s accepted no one will leak them, unless everyone agrees. Some thingsare never allowed to be made public. A collector of unreleased PS1 titles, who amassed a staggering amount of games and dreams of collecting all such prototypes, offered to trade duplicates to further his goal. His rules were simple: trades only, strictly no community releases. He proved his ownership by showing watermarked images of his treasures, such as the fourth installment of Star Control. All attempts to contact him for further info proved fruitless; contact is obviously limited only to fellow aficionados. The lengths gone to acquiring these are immense. Said individual was later contemplating a trip to India to locate bootleg copies of the rare unreleased Clayfighter Extreme on the PS1.

Again, games journalists are a good source for unreleased games. They’re sent early review copies, and if a game gets cancelled, it’s instant money. Journalists live by a different code, and so once articles get published, there’s no problem selling merchandise. An Australian I know made obscene amounts of profit selling unreleased review copies of DC games, while another from Belgium is holding onto his English Xbox copy ofRent-A-Hero, no matter how much money is rubbed in his face.

But Japan is still Mecca, with Yahoo! Japan closely monitored by the influential seeking precious goods. But not everything is so easy, one Mr. Kyu from Massachusetts reveals, “You think just any Japanese collector knows about this stuff? Rare in Japan means business, there are specific ‘people’ to go through.” Duly proven to me when investigating the upper echelons of the collector fraternities in Japan; virtually impenetrable due to the language barrier and sense of security. You need connections to move in their world, and sometimes it takes upwards of 10 years to convince and gain the trust of such recluses. People like ASSEMbler simultaneously own both a home in the U.S. and an apartment in Japan to further such activities.

Luckily a few generous people, such as Mr. L, enjoy buying prototypes purely in order to release them to the community. One such (unsuccessful) attempt was Ochouchi Gengorou Ikka on the N64, selling online for $500. The idea was to fund its release, rather than it disappearing into a collector’shands. Mr. L was eager to speak on such matters, “It’s a chance to play stuff that most will never see. Smaller items can cost a few hundred, but purchases can often be in the thousands. Usually it takes a lot of time to acquire items – 6 to 12 months easily, some things take years to surface. Companies should provide more information, instead of leaving it to flimsy press releases, leaked documents and speculation – it would help clear up the facts and paint a better picture of gaming history.” So popular is his generosity, there is constant discussion as to which title should be pursued next. Long may he succeed.

But many people abhor public releases, complaining it devalues things, and with CD media, allows people to sell duplications for profit. ASSEMbler is more concerned about the legal implications, “Software allows reverse engineering, and potentially, piracy. Everyone remembers the damage done by the code that became Dreamcast boot CDs. It would be foolish to openly distribute software for dev kits. I don’t know if you have ever been sued [or] threatened with legal action, but it’s expensive and not fun.”

I also spoke to the legendary Lost Levels founder and all around nice guy, Frank Cifaldi, about the reluctance to release publicly. “A lot of people have this elitist need to be the only person able to play a game, some have this weird belief that holding on to a one-of-a-kind game gives it ‘legendary’ status and makes it more ‘historically valuable’ than it would be if [publicly available], and still others just mouth off about how much they paid for the damned things. No one but the game’s copyright holder is entitled to have a game never sold at retail level. The rest of us either rely on the kindness of strangers, or spend a hell of a lot of money dealing on the black market. To me, once I’m over the excitement of being Indiana Jones and discovering something special and new, I specifically want to see how other people react to it. Seeing people actively playing and discussing the game I found is much more gratifying to me than being able to brag about having something.”

There have been two very big events in recent months. The first is that a short playable Saturn demo of Sonic Xtreme surfaced, the seller being an employee of Sega. It was done viaproxy with the final bid coming at a cheap $2,500, though only after a rather unpleasant fiasco involving betrayal and vindictive revenge. The community was shaken to its core. Thankfully, when the dust cleared, ASSEMbler assured us it was in the safe hands of a trusted collector. A piece of history was saved, though people wept because it wouldn’t be publicly released.

The second event is, four blue 64DD development disks have appeared, and they may contain Mother 3. Speculation is intense, but there are problems getting the disks to load. It requires specialist equipment, which is in short supply. But many are pledging assistance. Collectors are also reported to have offered undisclosed five figure sums to own these disks, assuming they’re genuine.

Some unreleased games are legally so hot, corporations feverishly pursue those who have copies in order to stop their mere mentioning. Mr. F from Florida elaborates, “There are a few wealthy collectors who have been generous and shared with the community, but companies dislike such people, and have threatened and/or taken legal action againstthem. Because of this, people who want to contribute to the community, and help build the archives, need to do so discreetly. Until the day that companies realise that people are interested in these games and would love to see them, archiving such information and media will remain a relatively underground task.” And so, I assure everyone I won’t mention that people are playing Shenmue on the Saturn, Robotech on the N64, or running the halls of Biohazard 1.5.

Community Camaraderie
And there I was, thinking I’d hit the big time when getting hold of Propeller Arena. Like so many previously exalted commodities, it’s now common amongst the ranks, becoming part of the great online data stores used for archiving. A treasure trove of illegal and oh-so-highly prized ones and zeros. I was granted only brief access to just one such secret and bountiful oasis of data, strictly for research purposes and validating people’s claims. These watering holes are reserved specifically for loyal community participants, and is indicative of the camaraderie present. If you want to take, you have to give as well.

“Some people have gushed over how amazing and wonderful it is for someone to amass these things and be willing to share them. I archived [such media] until a time when I had the means to share it with others who cared to see what the corporations [were hiding]. Much of the software collected has been submitted either by contacts I know, or anonymous individuals who for various reasons I have decided to trust. At one point, I was open to letting [everyone] have access, but it became a problem as everyone would come in, get what they wanted, and never contribute anything. After changing it so that I had to approve each person’s access, I saw a dramatic improvement in how people treat the service that I provide.” – Mr. F from Florida again, one of many illustrious data keepers.

And playing by the rules is certainly worth it, since within their bosom is kept things such as unreleased copies of Sega CD, Turbo Duo, PS1, Dreamcast and Saturn games. There are also NDA protected documents for all the latest hardware, not to mention an abundance of exclusive video footage and images. Plus other data that would make a man’s blood run cold with awe.

How do communities acquire such hardware, software and data? Simple. Employee theft, company bankruptcy and liquidation, sheer luck, and anonymous contacts. Several set up dummy companies for the sole purpose of purchasing assets when others go into liquidation. It doesn’t cost much to set up a registered company, allowing you to transcend the black market. ASSEMbler explains, “I have started my own company devoted to such efforts. It allows me to legally buy items, to have an ability to preserve whole failed companies or at least some of their assets as complete.”

The close-knit community spirit is strong, while the group is also apprehensive of outsiders. These communities have no promotion, those who seek the rare find their own way. Readers seeking them out should avoid the social faux-pas of demanding free access to items, as ASSEMbler points out, “I would release all I have, but the result is that I can be held legally accountable. Information wants to be free, and eventually it will be, but not with my name directly attached. I shouldn’t be expected to give away the fruits of hard labor.”

Even if you relentlessly pursue this underworld, some doors forever remain locked. There are secret, strictly guarded, members-only IRC channels and message boards. Like a maze within a labyrinth, in them resides a small group of maybe 20 of the most wealthy and powerful. If a floundering company has items they want, they simply buy said company and all its assets. In a smoke-filled room with low lighting, one regales me about the time he privately shipped a Harley Motorcycle to Japan in exchange for a one-of-a-kind piece of hardware stolen by Indonesian sea pirates. While another muses aboutthe time he had to call Korea and explain that a mysterious MSX labelled package did not in fact contain MSX missile parts.

When conversing among them, one notices familiar people. I’ve recognized several who frequent various other online communities, often holding moderator positions, or are prominent speakers. Look at the forums where The Escapist is discussed. Within these you will find elite international collectors and dealers, moving like shadows amongst the loquacious debates. It would be too much to jest that theyinfiltrate these gaming communities to keep tabs on developments, rather comparisons should be made to groups such as the Freemasons. An underground secret society for the digital age, dealing in knowledge and acquisitions not meant for the masses. Like a secret hive that archives information that would otherwise be lost, virtual book keepers so to speak, who are everywhere.

There is so little known about these things and so much to learn. I’m just through the looking glass. Just how far does the rabbit hole go?

John Szczepaniak is a South African freelance videogame writer with a preference for retro games. He is also a staff member on the Retro Survival project, which contains articles on retro gaming and is well worth investigating.

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