Introducing the Video Game VHS Preservation Project

Over the past 30+ years as a gamer, I’ve gathered a load of gaming memorabilia. A lot of this has been sold or traded over the years but some of it has stayed with me all this time.

One thing that has remained is a large part of my video game VHS collection.

During the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, gamers like myself would regularly get VHS tapes related to gaming.

Some of these were promotional tapes put together by hardware or software manufacturers, in the hope that seeing their games or consoles in action would inspire you to buy them more than mere words and screenshots in a magazine could.

Others were game-related videos made by magazine publishers or other companies: tips videos, player guides or even (always failed) attempts at a regular video magazine.

For 20th century gamers, these VHS tapes were the YouTube of their time. But there’s a problem: video tapes don’t last forever, and the picture quality degrades with every view.

Many of these tapes are already becoming scarce: there’s only really a niche market for them, and so most are just thrown out as people get rid of their VHS collections and move exclusively to DVD or Blu-ray.

Others are being sold for crazy money on eBay as traders realise their increasing value and try to make a daft profit off them.

There will eventually be a time when none of these tapes exist any more, either due to them being thrown away or simply deteriorating over time.

I want to preserve as many of them as possible before that happens, to ensure they remain available online as a way of documenting how games coverage and promotion has evolved over time.

That’s the short story. If you want more details, allow me to adopt the ever-popular ‘fake Q&A’ technique so it’s easier to explain.

How many videos do you currently plan to upload?

At the time of writing I have 18 videos. I used to have many more than this but they were thrown out or sold at car boot sales over the years (which I massively regret now).

I’ve already seen some of these videos on YouTube.

I have too, but practically none of them are ideal quality Many were uploaded in YouTube’s earlier days and so are only available at 240p resolution, while most others are only available in 30 frames per second. My aim isn’t just to preserve the videos in any condition: I want to ensure they’re preserved in the best possible quality.

Future Publishing has kindly agreed to let me upload its VHS tapes, so look forward to the N64 Magazine tape featuring the Nintendo Shoshinkai ’96 promo. It’s got footage of the unreleased N64 version of Kirby Air Ride

I’m fairly young. Certainly younger than you, you old whippersnapper. I don’t understand what a lot of these videos are.

I’ve got you covered. Along with each video, I’m also going to be uploading an optional MP3 commentary track in which I talk over the video, explaining its context in gaming at the time and pointing out various bits and pieces where necessary.

These won’t be over-the-top, YouTube-style commentaries with bad jokes shoehorned in every two seconds: they’ll be more laid-back commentaries, as if I was sitting next to you in your living room and just talking to you about the video you’re watching.

Are you making money from this?

Nope. I have to upload the videos to YouTube so they can be streamed quickly, but I won’t be enabling ads on any of them. If you click a video and it has ads, it’ll be because the copyright holder has decided to add them: this is outwith my control.

Since YouTube compresses videos when you upload them, I’ll also be uploading copies of each video’s original file to archive.org – this is a non-profit website dedicated to the preservation of books, music, movies, software and more.

Here you’ll be able to download the high-bitrate version of the video: this won’t be suitable for streaming because it’ll be too big, but is designed to be downloaded and watched on media software.

How are you ensuring the best quality?

It’s a quirk of video capture that most modern capture devices only grab SD footage at 30 frames per second (fps). I don’t know the exact reason for this but I believe it’s something to do with deinterlacing (maybe someone could explain in the comments).

To get the best possible picture quality, I’m running my top-notch VHS player into a standalone HDMI upscaler, which will output the picture at 1080p. I’ll then use my HD video grabber to capture the 1080p image and retain the full frame rate.

Why do you care about the frame rate so much?

VHS may not have many advantages over DVD or VHS, but one advantage it does have is that it runs at a smoother frame rate. While DVDs run at roughly 25 or 30fps (depending on whether it’s a PAL/UK or NTSC/US picture), VHS tapes run at double this: 50fps for PAL/UK tapes and 60fps for NTSC/US tapes.

This isn’t always noticeable. Most Hollywood movies, for example, are shot at 24fps, so on a VHS tape they don’t look any smoother than that.

But since video games regularly ran at 50fps or 60fps, it’s a lot more noticeable in video game VHS tapes. When it’s captured at a reduced frame rate, it just doesn’t look as smooth. Essentially, half the frames are missing so I’d only be preserving half the tape, and the whole point here is preservation.

Want to see beta footage of Virtua Fighter 2 on the Saturn? You will eventually

Why upscale to 1080p? Isn’t that overkill?

The upscaling is for three reasons. Firstly, it’s the easiest way for me to maintain the frame rate: if I capture the video through HDMI instead of composite the full 50/60fps is maintained.

Secondly, most people will be watching these uploaded videos on a TV or monitor with at least a 1080p display. If I’d captured them at 480i they may look poorer if they’re stretched to full size.

Finally, should anyone decide to watch the video at a more ‘authentic’ 480p resolution, the fact it was upscaled to 1080p should mean scaling it down will make for much better picture quality. It’s similar to the PS Pro rendering games at 4K then ‘super sampling’ to 1080p for those with non-4K displays.

What are you going to do after you’ve uploaded all 18 videos you own?

Well, that’s going to depend on how popular this project gets and how much the word spreads. At some point I’m going to have to put out a request for more VHS tapes, so if you or anyone you know owns a gaming VHS tape that isn’t in my collection, get in touch and let me know.

I’m only focusing on UK videos for now: this lets me offer to pay for shipping to my home (and back to the sender, if they want their video back after I digitise it). In time if the project continues to grow in popularity I may run a little crowdfunding campaign to build enough funds that I can expand to North American and European videos and pay for shipping to and from there.

Of course, if you’re feeling extremely generous and just want to donate me your tapes without worrying about me covering the shipping cost, please do send me an email or a DM on Twitter and let me know what you have.

British ads for the Game Boy? Yup, got those too

Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?

I will happily upload anything and everything that’s gaming VHS related, but I’m definitely looking for certain videos in particular: especially ones from my childhood which I no longer own. I’m desperately searching for:

• Issue two of Click: The Video Magazine. This lasted only two issues, I have the first. I used to own the second, but not any more.

• Any and all ‘issues’ of Action Screenplay. This was a VHS magazine looking at Amiga, Commodore and Spectrum games. I owned a couple of them but there are at least nine I know of. I recently spoke to the guy who made them but he doesn’t have any copies.

• The Mean Machines Sega: 101 Turbo Tips video.

• Any home video recordings you may have of UK gaming TV shows that aren’t Gamesmaster or Bad Influence. I’m particularly keen to get hold of episodes of Cybernet: this lasted for years and tragically most episodes have disappeared over time.

Sounds good. When will you be starting?

Right now. Here’s the first video, the Super Mario All Stars video from 1993, starring Red Dwarf’s Craig Charles.

10 thoughts on “Introducing the Video Game VHS Preservation Project

  1. Really interesting project. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into the right way to digitize VHS. The quality so far seems great! Have some I’d like to digitize myself – are you able to describe the specific devices you are using for this and how they connect to each other from the player to the standalone upscaler to the capture device? sorry of you’ve already described this and I’ve missed it!

    Like

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