Video game preservationists and engineers with the Video Game History Foundation have reconstructed a decades-lost Nintendo Entertainment System game, Days of Thunder, based on the 1990 Tom Cruise movie of the same name.
Days of Thunder, an unreleased and never-before-seen NES game, was created by Chris Oberth, who also developed Anteater for the NES and Winter Games for the Commodore 64. Oberth’s Days of Thunder is not to be confused with the game of the same name that was released by the same publisher, Mindscape, in 1990 by an Australian developer. Oberth’s Days of Thunder, now uncovered, was canceled for “unknown reasons,” according to the Video Game History Foundation.
Oberth died in 2012. In 2020, The Video Game History Foundation acquired a bunch of materials, on floppy disks and old computers, from his family. One of the floppy disks was labeled “Nintendo Hot Rad Taxi Final,” said Frank Cifaldi at the Video Game History Foundation, and that set out the preservationists on a search for Days of Thunder.
As it turns out, Days of Thunder was within those materials, somewhere in a series of 40 floppy disks “spanning several years,” Cifaldi said. Rich Whitehouse, an engineer and preservationist, was tasked with recovering the “split and encrypted” data.
Whitehouse told Polygon it took two weeks to digitize the data, plus a few more nights to assemble the game once they had the data. The Video Game History Foundation will publish the original source code on GitHub (with permission from Oberth’s family), which will give video game enthusiasts the rare look behind the scenes.
“There are the technical decisions and trade-offs that were made, setbacks and struggles, things the developers tried that didn’t work or were perhaps sidelined due to some kind of technical problem or budgetary constraint,” Whitehouse said. “Source code usually tells a pretty elaborate story, albeit occasionally hidden a bit between the lines. Once we’ve published the source code (we’re planning to have it up on GitHub in a week or so), I’m looking forward to seeing what people can find and take away from it.”
Some retro game enthusiasts, unaffiliated with the Video Game History Foundation, are also publishing a small print run of Days of Thunder on playable NES cartridges. Proceeds will go to Oberth’s wife. “Unfortunately, as the article says, Chris died young,” Cifaldi said, “and Mrs. Oberth is still working full-time (in a hospital, no less) at 65.”
Though it is exceptionally cool to see a game like this reconstructed, it’s important, too. Publishers often look at preservation in regard to how they could monetize it in the future, Whitehouse said, and that means that smaller or undiscovered games are treated as less important. But Whitehouse said that a game’s commercial success “may end up having very little bearing on the game’s historical relevance.” Original materials from development are an unprecedented look at a development period — more accurate than simply having access to shipped data. Having this level of access is also expected to become increasingly rare as streaming becomes more prevalent — “where game data only exists on a company’s private servers,” Whitehouse said.
“Some video games speak directly to or about the culture of the time, but I think every video game has a story to tell that runs deeper than the playable experience,” Whitehouse said. “Source code, along with design documents, worklogs, data sources, and other materials that we often find in a developer’s archives, helps to tell the complete story of the game. It often does so even more accurately than a postmortem or a single developer’s perspective, laying bare many truths behind the game’s development without any potential for bias.”
He continued: “A big thing that I want people to understand about a discovery like this is how valuable it is to have source code available, how much more we can learn from it, and how important it is that we work to preserve it.”
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.