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SYFY WIRE gaming

Super-rare, never-released '80s Atari arcade game mysteriously leaked online

By Benjamin Bullard
Man playing video game at 1980s arcade

One of the rarest and least-known cabinet games from the early arcade era — and certainly from Atari — has mysteriously found its way onto the internet, and the real game may end up being the quest to find out just how it got there.

A ROM copy of Akka Arrh, a never-released, prototype-only space game that Atari initially intended to debut in 1982, recently leaked into the hands of the Dumping Union, an enthusiast-run preservation archive for old-school game ROMs, according to Ars Technica.

But the gaming world doesn’t know how, after 37 years, it finally got out. Regardless, the archive has since made Akka Arrh available for the popular open-source MAME emulator — giving it by far the widest exposure in its quietly hidden history.

Ars reports on a pair of well-informed theories about how Akka Arrh may have finally found its way into ROM gamers’ hands, but the one that appears to have the most support from people closest to the matter sounds like a nerdy, miniaturized Ocean’s Eleven heist, one potentially done by an old-school gaming enthusiast to ensure Akka Arrh will be preserved for (geeky) posterity.

That hypothetical suggests that one of the game’s owners may have been the target of a stealth ROM copy theft, perpetrated by a technician invited into the owner’s home to perform work on the collector’s larger assembly of museum-worthy, aging arcade cabinets. The idea behind such a sneaky software caper, according to the theory, would have been to assure Akka Arrh of a digital future that doesn’t hinge on the survival of just two or three arcade cabinets where its binary guts are stored.

In other words, the theory goes, a vigilante passionate about preserving games from the arcade era pulled off a heist that may have put a major dent in the collectible value of Akka Arrh as a physical artifact but assures that the game itself will be copied and stored in thousands of other places (or more) throughout the world.

Of course, it’s always possible that the owner of the machine felt the same way about ensuring Akka Arrh’s long-term survival, and simply leaked the ROM anonymously: “The ‘theft’ could be a cover story for an Akka Arrh owner (past or present) just deciding to release his own ROM dump voluntarily,” the report notes.

Regardless of whether either theory is true, the leak highlights the ongoing tension in the debate between collectors and IP owners on one side and gaming history buffs on the other over how rare games should be preserved. ROM sites and emulators (like MAME) ensure that obscure games from days gone by won’t disappear from the record books. But, say critics, they’re also a harbor for the theft of both real and intellectual property.

Nintendo argued just that point last year when it won a $12 million trademark infringement lawsuit against two former U.S.-based ROM sites. In that suit, Nintendo hinted it wasn’t taking issue with archiving out-of-publication games, but that some online ROM hosts dishonestly claim to be protecting gaming history as a cover for what amounts to outright theft.

All the intrigue over Akka Arrh (reportedly named as an acronym play on its two creators’ initials) may never be resolved unless those in the know decide to come forward to tell their story. It might just be a tale with enough twists and turns to make a video game seem boring by comparison.

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