Game Preservation Society races to save the i-mode library of mobile games

The Game Preservation Society is a non-profit organisation based in Tokyo. They have made it their mission to save as many “old and fragile Japanese games” as possible — which includes both classic games for Japanese computers and consoles as well as their biggest challenge to date: the library of early 2000s Japanese mobile games available for the i-mode service.

While i-mode never really took off over here, it was a big deal in Japan. Introduced in 1999 by Japanese service provider NTT DoCoMo, it was an online service accessible through flip phones that provided email, news sports and, most significantly for the Game Preservation Society’s interests, downloadable video games.

Game Preservation Society: i-mode flip phone

The early i-mode games were not particularly complex affairs — a necessity considering the limited screen resolution and processing power of early mobile phones. But they were nonetheless popular with game makers and the public alike; big names like Namco, Konami, Sega and Taito all made i-mode games, and their low cost (typically 100-300 yen or about 65p-£1.95 at today’s exchange rate) made them very appealing to phone users with time to kill. This was an age before doomscrolling on Twitter, remember.

Game Preservation Society i-mode: Party Land

i-mode gaming really came into its own with the advent of 3G in the early 2000s, however, because the fact 3G could handle much greater amounts of data at considerably higher speed meant that there was a significant demand for more technologically advanced phones. That meant faster processors, better screens, more storage and better sound output — and, of course, that meant better games.

Interestingly, this marked something of a renaissance for the Japanese games industry; while the advent of consoles like the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast had made polygonal 3D graphics the new hotness in mainstream gaming, these new phones still weren’t quite up to the job of throwing around what marketing people like to refer to as “console-quality” games these days. That meant the companies making i-mode games ended up scrambling to re-hire the pixel art specialists who had been made to feel that their skills were obsolete!

It was an exciting time for mobile gaming — but it all changed when the iPhone was introduced to Japan in 2008. Given how obviously superior Apple’s new device was — not to mention the fact it was standardised in terms of technology — a lot of developers and publishers immediately jumped ship from i-mode to the App Store, and have never looked back since.

Not only that, but many of the games became unavailable to download from the i-mode service — and you can bet your bottom dollar that the companies who made them have forgotten to archive them in any meaningful way. Which means it’s up to initiatives like the Game Preservation Society to preserve these games as much as possible.

They have a number of hurdles standing in their way, though. Firstly and most significantly is that the ability to purchase games through i-mode is coming to an end imminently — November 30, 2021, to be exact. The i-mode service itself is set to remain active until 2026, but it’s unclear as to whether or not those who made purchases on the service will be able to re-download those purchases — and as such the Game Preservation Society is racing against time to download and preserve as many i-mode games as possible before November 30.

Game Preservation Society: i-mode Sonic Reversi

For the games that are no longer available on the service for one reason or another, the Game Preservation Society has also been seeking out old mobile phones that still have the games installed. Unfortunately, prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Japanese government started a programme to collect old electronics — including phones — and use the precious metals they were made from in order to produce the gold, silver and bronze medals for the Olympics.

That means a lot of phones which could have been used for the Game Preservation Society’s efforts are no longer in circulation, making their job significantly more challenging!

To that end, the bulk of the Game Preservation Society’s efforts so far have been through downloading as much surviving content as they can from the i-mode service as it exists today, then worrying about decrypting the downloaded data once it is safely on a storage device under their control.

This has been a surprisingly expensive process, though, since not only does it cost money to purchase the games on the i-mode service, i-mode also charges fees based on how much data you use. The Game Preservation Society estimates that the total costs to download everything they can will be between 50,000 and 100,000 yen (about $500 to $1000 USD) — with those data rates accounting for the majority of the costs. As such, they have been soliciting help from the community to help cover the expenses.

So far, the initiative has had some mixed results. They believe that the encrypted data downloaded from the service will be enough to restore the game to a fully working offline version, and thus are recruiting hackers to help break the encryption. They have also been filming and screenshotting the i-mode store as it still exists today to help preserve the overall experience as well as the downloadable content.

The more unfortunate news is that, as previously noted, many developers and publishers simply don’t offer their games for download on the i-mode service any more — notable examples include Namco, Taito and Capcom, though both Sega and Gainax still have available downloads. In these cases, the Game Preservation Society will be exclusively reliant on donations of phones that still have those games installed.

It’s a noble effort, for sure — and you can help be a part of it, too. There are several ways to do so, with the best being to join the Game Preservation Society as a supporting member and explicitly indicate that you would like your membership fee to be put towards the i-mode preservation project. You can do that right now for a minimum annual membership fee of 3,000 yen (about $30) — head on over to this page to join up and support.

Alternatively, if you can’t stretch to that, you can also donate via Game Preservation Society member SUDDENです’s Ko-Fi page — again, be sure to explicitly indicate your donation is intended to help out with the i-mode preservation project.

And if you don’t have cash to spare, I’m sure the Game Preservation Society would at the very least appreciate a retweet or two of their efforts — this tweet explaining the current position of the backup efforts and this tweet explaining the overall situation are a good place to start. Be sure to follow them on Twitter for regular updates as to what they’re up to, also.

It’s a noble goal they’re taking aim for, and here’s hoping that their efforts bear fruit. Mobile gaming is one of the most “at-risk” sectors of video game preservation — and this current situation only emphasises that. So if you can help out in any way, be sure to do so!

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Pete Davison
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