Thanks to RockmanCosmo for writing this open letter!
Dear video game preservation organizations,
My screen name is RockmanCosmo, and I’m a video game preservationist. I’m a member of the teams working to preserve Rockman.EXE Phantom of Network, Rockman.EXE Legend of Network, and Rockman DASH: Great Adventure on 5 Islands! All of these games were released in the early to late 2000s for Japanese feature phones (commonly referred to as “dumb phones”).
Prior to the advent of the iPhone, feature phones were incredibly popular in Japan. Major mobile providers like DoCoMo and au created dedicated mobile internet services to connect users to an assortment of utilities. Chief among them, proprietary storefronts to purchase and download video games. Several major video game publishers — Capcom, Square, and Sega, for example — developed wholly original games for these emerging platforms. This era, without question, was the precursor to modern mobile gaming as we know it.
The most prominent feature phone service at the time was DoCoMo’s i-mode service. Launched in 1999, i-mode was the world’s first true multimedia phone service. Major video game franchises from Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts to Mega Man and Sonic had games released specifically for i-mode. Most of these games not only ran through i-mode’s web browser, but couldn’t operate without receiving game data from i-mode servers. Although i-mode’s user base has significantly declined in recent years, hundreds of games are still available to be purchased.
And that, my fellow preservationists, is the crux of an urgent problem in the distance. On November 30, 2021, the i-mode website will be shut down. The service as a whole will be discontinued at a later date in 2026. But since i-mode is a closed network, the only way to download these games is through an i-mode-compatible phone. What’s more, there is no current working method to extract these games. They are left to sit and stagnant on aging hardware. Once the hardware is gone, the software is gone. Many publishers also pulled their games from the i-mode service in recent years, like Capcom in 2018 and Taito in 2021. Furthermore, currently available games that rely on the i-mode game service may be lost forever. This existential threat to our history extends beyond i-mode software to other feature phone platforms.
Currently, there are small, independent preservation projects that are working to design methods to rescue these games. Some of the more extraneous work involves finding ways to decrypt files on SD cards or reverse-engineering phone software. Needless to say, it’s an increasingly daunting task, exonerated by the fact that the fate of an entire ecosystem of niche video games rests on the shoulders of a mere handful of passionate hobbyists. Feature phone hardware is not particularly documented well, and potential extraction methods require specialized knowledge. Again, the feature phone preservation community is small; our present know-how and technical prowess can only go so far. It is imperative, therefore, that the general public become more cognizant of this crisis.
This is where we turn to you, the purveyors of video game preservation and documentation. It is with great sincerity that I express my respect for all your work. From saving lost prototypes to conserving decaying materials from the 1970s, your efforts have inspired people, like me, to work toward a future where we can look back at our past. A past not lost to time. Therefore, I urge you to start raising awareness about i-mode games’ precarious situation before it’s too late. With a little over a month left before the i-mode website’s demise, time is truly of the essence.
Your voice will help propel this message to people who may not be as keen on this issue. Increased awareness will also help feature phone preservation groups find individuals who may provide much-needed expertise. It is unfortunate that DoCoMo weren’t as transparent about i-mode’s expiration years prior. Perhaps then we wouldn’t be working under such constraints. But for now, we must focus on the future and this very small window of opportunity.
I hope you will take my concerns under consideration and help us to avert this impending calamity.