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Game engineers revive long-lost NES game

The 1990 racing film Days of Thunder received mixed reviews but was a big hit for leading man Tom Cruise, who did all of his own driving. While a video game adaptation of the film was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, there was an earlier version of the game that nobody ever saw... Until now.

Thanks to the the efforts of the Video Game History Foundation, a prototype for Days of Thunder for the NES has been discovered and reassembled for fans to see. 

According to VGHF founder Frank Cifaldi, a family member of the late video game programmer Chris Oberth approached VGHF with some assets that Oberth had left behind. The hope was that VGHF could sort through all the files and various bits of data and maybe find some things to preserve from all of it. When Oberth and co. came across a floppy disc with the words "Hot Rod Taxi" on them, the team believed it had stumbled onto assets for a very rare and valuable NES game: Oberth's never-released version of Days of Thunder.

Cifaldi noted that what VGHF had to work with was "a giant pile of mostly-labeled hard drive backups, spanning several years, across nearly 40 floppy disks. These weren't merely disks on files, they were done with (multiple) hard drive backup tools, meaning files were split and encrypted."

In other words, the game had to basically be assembled from all of these parts, bit by bit. 

Cifaldi explained, "The only way we were going to recover anything on these was to digitize the entire stack and then re-assemble them afterward."

The Video Game History Foundation has also uploaded video of the Days of Thunder NES game in action, and it's a fun watch. Outside of interstitial scenes placed between the actual action, there isn't much music in the game. It does have a pretty bouncy title screen track, but it's clear that this was still early in development as well. There's also a nice bit of depth here for an NES game, particularly a licensed title like this. Normally licensed games suffer from a lack of innovation or care, but it appears that the team behind this was looking to make this a bit more interesting than typical tie-in fare.

There's a car selection screen and a fun animation when your chosen vehicle rolls out of the garage. There's even a cool looking first-person sequence as players race through a qualifying round to determine their spot in the big race ahead. For the main races, the game switches to a side view reminiscent of something like the original Excitebike.

There are even interactive pit stops in the middle of the race. As the timer ticks on, players have to rotate their tire iron (presumably with the D-pad) to tighten or rotate their tires. There also appears to be some kind of button-mashing involved to refuel the vehicle before continuing on with the race. These races are pretty low on sound effects, but the gameplay looks rather fun and a little more complex than some other early racing games. Meters on the screen track the damage taken to your vehicle, the amount of gasoline left in the tank, and the health and safety of the car's tires.

At the end of the race comes a rather unintentionally hilarious moment. Every single person at the victory scene shown to players appears to be a clone. The three winners all resemble one another, while the crowd members milling around all appear to have the exact same face and hair. It's an eerie moment that also reminds us that this was a work in progress. It can be presumed that the final version of the game wouldn't have been populated by pod people.

It's really neat to VGHF recover yet another missing piece of gaming history. Just last year, VGHF uploaded a play-through of UWC, a licensed wrestling game starring Ric Flair and Sting that never saw the light of day. Seeing a long-lost video game finally resurface like this is always a fascinating prospect.

VGHF's Rich Whitehouse told Polygon that he hoped that people could see what they had reassembled as a sort of historical record. "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. Source code usually tells a pretty elaborate story, albeit occasionally hidden a bit between the lines."

According to Whitehouse, VGHF plans to upload the game's source code to the internet in the near future so that people can assemble and check out Days of Thunder for themselves.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what people can find and take away from it," said Whitehouse.