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Alshoff, Architect of Toonami: Lost Data

Posted 27 March 2010 / By Nick Gibson / Interview

Today we have a special chance to get an inside look at the mind of Alshoff, the fan behind the archival repository of all Toonami flash game goodness known as Toonami: The Lost Data. If you haven’t been to the site yet, be sure to check it out. And if you have, then sit back and enjoy some insight into the how and why of the project that preserved a huge chunk of our Toonami memories.

Nick: Tell us about when and how you started watching Toonami.  What were your favorite shows and moments?  What was your general impression of the block? 

Alshoff: I began watching Toonami on Day One.  I distinctly remember viewing the very first episode of ThunderCats.  I can’t say I saw every show in those early days (or even the later days) due to various reasons.  For instance, I missed the entire weekday run of Robotech because I preferred Babylon 5 at the time and didn’t even know Toonami placed it on their schedule.  By the time Dragon Ball Z appeared, though, I proved a daily viewer.

Favorite show:  Hard to determine, it’s a toss-up among Outlaw StarThe Big O08th MS Team, and Mobile Suit Gundam.  If we include Toonami’s online offerings, I’d add Patlabor and Record of Lodoss War to that list. Overall, The Big O because a.) Roger Smith is essentially Batman, b.) he has a giant robot, c.) fights some awesome battles, and d.) it contains excellent music.  But practically anything from the years 1998-2003 could be considered a potential favorite.

The moments I remember most are the moments I somehow managed to miss.  I did see the Intruder, but somehow missed the episode with Tom’s “death”.  I also accidentally skipped the final episode of Lockdown and/or the last level of the game.  And I did forget to view Tom’s farewell message on the final broadcast of Toonami, despite having tuned to Toonami earlier in the evening.  Toonami Digital Arsenal was always there to bail me out, but it was rather annoying.

The best way to understand Toonami’s appeal is to compare it against the Kids’ WB Toonami.  The original Toonami had the hosts (Tom, Moltar, or Sara) as characters with their own personalities and adventures.  Toonami was simply their day job.  Kids’ WB used those same hosts merely as announcers.  The bumps and wraparounds possessed an entirely different feel as well.  Original Toonami moved at a leisurely pace with bumps such as the “flowing blood” or the 2001 Summer opening.   For one egregious bump, Kids’ WB Toonami had the Absolution rapidly rotate around and blast an asteroid.  Toonami was cool, relaxed, and hip.  It seemed like the future, not just for its space-themed setting, but for the contents of its programs.  Animated shows would now have deeper plots and action aplenty.  Kids’ WB just didn’t understand it.

Some people argue that the shows matter more than the wraparound antics of Tom and Sara.  Partly, they are correct.  But Tom and Sara provided a lot of entertainment on their own with music videos, game reviews, and banter.  They took the edge off months-long repeats until new shows or episodes arrived.

Later lineups were never quite as bold in content or story.  Toonami suffered for it, but the real deathblow was the reduction to one night per week.  It made it much more difficult to build an audience for long-running series.  It  also lead to a reduction of Tom and Sara’s interaction with viewers and eventually caused Sara to disappear entirely.  I have a feeling the creators at Toonami would have preferred a different direction, but orders from above prevented it.

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N: How did you get the idea to back up all those great old web games?

A: The immediate reason was the cancellation of Toonami. I decided to grab whatever was available just to save it.

I actually did have the idea to back up Toonami’s most important games (the Total Immersion Event games) back in 2004.  I enjoy games and I liked Toonami, so it seemed like a logical thing to do.  Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get around to actually performing it.  Part of this was lack of appropriate software, and the other reason being general busyness.

N: Walk us through the process.  What software do you use and what steps do you take? 

A: The primary source for older games is the Internet Archive (a.k.a. the Wayback Machine).  The Internet Archive works by spidering the internet picking up the HTML, images, and attached/embedded files of any fairly important/popular website.  It is pretty good at its job, but has some flaws:  it cannot follow JavaScript links, nor can it collect a complex Flash/Shockwave game (a game that loads multiple files).  For most of Toonami’s early games, the Internet Archive picked them up just fine.  Later games, such as the T.I.E. games, simply cannot be “seen” by the Wayback Machine.

(I should bring up that websites can block the Wayback Machine by adjusting their ROBOTS.TXT file.  Certain CN websites do this, but not all of them.)

To obtain any newer, modern game, I used the Java Packet Capture Library (JPCAP) to create a simple program that spits out all HTTP requests.  I sort through the results and download all the necessary files.  For downloading Flash games, I use a combination of Firefox and Flashblock.  The Flashblock plug-in prevents the games from loading until I’m ready.

(There is another way to obtain such files: a browser caches all downloaded files, so it is sometimes possible to recover a game from a browser’s cache.  This was my original thought process in 2004, but I don’t think it ever worked out.)

N: You’ve clearly put a lot of work into this.  Any stories about especially tough rips or debacles? Which game is your favorite to play?

A: Finding the IGPX T.I.E. was an incredible stroke of luck.  There are a lot of websites that hotlink to Cartoon Network Flash games and luckily one just so linked to a Spanish-language version of it.  It turned out that one of CN’s Latin American sites still had a page up for the game.  The Latin American sites also posted the game in English, so I obtained both versions.

The Lockdown game was found mostly intact in the Internet Archive, but searching across CN’s many domains yielded most the HTML and graphics used in the original version.  This basically enabled the reconstruction of the “classic” version of Lockdown as it pretty much appeared in 2001.  Cartoon Network has a lot of domain names and searching among all of them will generally yield some interesting results.

The Toonami Reactor Mindburn quiz game took a while to rebuild.  The main game and most of the questions were in the Archive, but almost all the image files were missing.  On top of that, the images weren’t stored as normal JPEG or PNG files, but as SWF Flash object files.  Fortunately, there is a toolset called SWFTools that can convert images to SWF.  Using that, I added some fifty-five images to the game.

Overall, my favorite game is the Lockdown T.I.E. game.  That one is probably the best out of the Total Immersion Event games.  It might also be the longest, but I can’t remember how long “Trapped in Hyperspace” was.  It’s also one of the few I can actually beat.

N: There’s a bit of a saga behind the “Trapped in Hyperspace” game.  Can you fill us in? 

A: First, I should say that when I started Lost Data, I was happy enough to retrieve the Lockdown game.  Then I stumbled across the IGPX game and considered that good fortune.  Now I just think it would be nice to round out the T.I.E. game collection.

Going back to a previous answer:  the Internet Archive couldn’t store a copy of the game.  Despite my searches, I couldn’t find a copy of the game on any of the foreign CN websites.  I know the UK version of Toonami/CN once had the game, but I have no idea if the Latin American sites hosted it (those sites blocked the Wayback Machine).  It doesn’t matter now, though, since Cartoon Network revamped their websites worldwide, wiping out all those old pages.

The good news is that I know which company made the game, Pepworks (Pepworks.de and Pepworks.com) and they still appear to exist.  The bad news is that they’ll only give a copy to the client (Cartoon Network).  Without intervention from a higher power, there is no way to obtain the game.

There are some potential technical problems even if I somehow received the game, but there are ways around them.  I’ve already got one Pepworks’ game (Powerpuff Girls Showdown in the Sky) and can get it working by using a custom proxy.  “Trapped in Hyperspace” and “Showdown in the Sky” are basically the same game using the 3D libraries and whatnot.

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N: What work is there still to be done?

A: Well, I’ll be posting the “Showdown in the Sky” game at some point.  It’s a little difficult to get working because my plan requires a custom Java applet.  I’m confident it will work… eventually.

I  actually am going to collect all the DC Comics games (Batman: TAS, Superman, etc.).  Originally, I said I wouldn’t, but that was mostly to prioritize on finding at-risk games first.

The IGPX game is still missing a few victory/loss images.  (I think that’s all it is missing, I can barely win one mission let alone the entire game.)  I ran across the blog of a programmer for the game; I’ll ask (read: beg) him for the JPEG files.  If that fails, I’ll see about making a few of my own, though I’m no graphic designer.

The only really big project I’m working on is a recreation of the Toonami Reactor.  I pulled most of the Reactor website files out of the Internet Archive.  Reactor 2.5 should mostly appear and behave like the original Reactor, but powered by YouTube.  It actually enables some interesting possibilities such as playing an interstitial, music video, or bumper between videos.

There is legal anime on YouTube, but much of it can’t be externally embedded, so I’m not sure how to work through that problem.  Reactor 2.5 will probably allow the viewer to select a playlist and run through all the videos.  That way, I won’t have to constantly update the website, yet viewers can choose their preferred series to be “part” of Toonami.  I can’t say how well it will work out, but it will be there for fans.

N: Any last words for the fans? 

A: They could check out other projects such as NeoToonami and try to boost the ratings of Adult Swim Action so that isn’t taken off the air. Other than that: Bang.

N: Thanks for your time, Alshoff.

Be sure to check out the Lost Data website and spend a minute (or thirty) enjoying the fruits of Alshoff’s labor. You can play all the games we talked about here as well as a ton more, ranging from the Total Immersion games to show-specific games and even random advertising and promo games. It’s a treasure trove of nostalgia and – well, honestly, some butt-kicking challenge. Check it out and report back to the forums and tell us what you think!

While you’re at it, also spec Alshoff’s blog where you can read more about preservation process as well as get some additional behind-the-scenes info on some of the games.

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