Munkiki's Castle is a Glass House
A review of the very first mobile game featuring 3D graphics and some thoughts on media preservation.
If you’re into retro games, there’s a good chance that you’ve spent some time thinking about the fraught state of media preservation. Maybe you’ve looked up a game you remember from your childhood on the secondhand market and lamented how prohibitively expensive your hobby has become. Maybe one of your favorite games is finally available again after the company holding the rights benevolently decided it was worthy of a remaster, and you wondered why it hasn’t been there all along. You’ve likely at least entertained the idea of downloading a few pirated ROMs. All things considered, the state of video game preservation is currently pretty good.
Organizations like the Video Game History Foundation and Gaming Alexandria work tirelessly to ensure games and supplemental materials are accessible in (mostly) legal ways that are amicable to publishers. By less law-abiding means, passionate amateur preservationists have ensured that the complete libraries of almost every mainstream gaming platform are available, with good tools for emulating them. But for every Nintendo Entertainment System with immaculate documentation, there’s another obscure platform without that community momentum behind it.
Munkiki’s Castles has been a slow work in progress, with preservation efforts beginning in 2017 at the latest. The 2002 Sokoban-style block puzzler with a simian protagonist (the titular Munkiki) was developed by IOMO exclusively for the Nokia 3410 mobile phone—a device not exactly known for its games. The 1.0 version of Munkiki was included with brand new 3410s, but wasn’t part of its stock firmware; Nokia sideloaded the software before shipping the phones out. This is important to note, because resetting the phone wiped the game from memory. Over time, this would reduce the amount of phones holding a copy that could be extracted. To make matters more difficult, the game was dependent on the Club Nokia digital distribution portal for updates. The service was a rudimentary precursor to modern app stores, operating on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)—a standard for accessing web pages over mobile networks, which was depreciated rather quickly in favor of modern HTML. The 3410 also only had 180 kilobytes of storage, meaning that if you needed to download much else from the Club Nokia servers, you eventually had to make room. Munkiki’s Castles was likely one of the first things to go.
Finding a phone with a copy of Munkiki wouldn’t turn out to be too much of a challenge, fortunately, but a problem immediately presented itself: there was no way to run it when the executable file was recovered. The game’s 3D graphics, which were the first of its kind in a mobile game, were only able to be rendered due to a custom API embedded in the 3410, which supplemented the extremely limited early version of Java ME the program ran in. No progress would be made until the following year, when an update to the FreeJ2ME emulator allowed the game to boot. The emulator’s detailed error reporting pointed to the missing files the game attempted to refer to, allowing the proprietary software to be reverse engineered. Once the game was running properly in emulation, another issue became apparent: version 1.0 was bugged and the game couldn’t be beaten. It wasn’t until mid 2023, when the 1.03 and 1.06 revisions were extracted, that Munkiki’s Castles could be played to completion on anything other than the aging Nokia handset.
For all the effort it took to rescue the game, there’s a difficult truth that must be acknowledged: if more people actually cared about it, the work would have been done much faster. A handful of people obsessed over it in the time they could spare from their busy lives, but Munkiki’s Castles is the sort of title destined only to draw the attention of enthusiasts. It’s the first mobile game with 3D graphics, one of the first games ever released for the Java ME platform, and both of those things are true because of the impressive ingenuity of early mobile software developers—but is the game actually good?
Well. It’s pretty neat, but its relatively simple concept of block pushing with light platforming probably wasn’t impressing anyone in 2002. To put things into perspective: its contemporaries were The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Most people that played it likely thought it was fun for what it was, but put it out of their memory before throwing their old phone into the garbage. It might live on as a vague recollection to a former 3410 owner; they may not even be sure it actually existed.
The double-edged sword with media preservation is that we’re constantly walking a tightrope. Anything you recall can be forgotten just as swiftly. How many times have you found something you misplaced, only to lose it again? The moment something moves out of our collective eyesight, it might as well not be there anymore. Media preservation only works as a community effort because more sets of eyes are trained on the treasures we seek to protect. Seeing how easy it was to collectively forget Munkiki’s Castles, you should feel even more motivated to remember. Throw the emulator into your documents folder and tuck it away safely, the same way you might hang your keys up by the door. ✿
Thank you for reading this fifth installment of once bitten, twice shy. It’s been around four months since I last published something here, and I thought it was about time I got back to it. I’ve been trying to write short reviews of video games here and there to get myself back into the swing of things, but I always end up having more to say than I thought. I suppose that’s not a bad problem to have. These pieces have been helpful catalysts for developing broader thoughts and opining on ideas I’ve been nursing for a while, so I’d like to share them with you, dear reader. I think I’ll post one a week to make up for make up for having you wait so long. Sound good?
See you later.
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Munkiki’s Castles on Lost Media Wiki, which has a fairly detailed account of the preservation timeline.
Reddit post recounting recompileorg’s process of reverse engineering the proprietary API.
Tweet by Vanessa Summers announcing the preservation of versions 1.03 and 1.06 of the game. Has some interesting stuff in the replies.
Write-up by Glenn Broadway detailing his time working in the games industry, including a little bit about IOMO. He mentions a lot more of these Nokia games that have yet to be preserved.
A lengthy playthrough of the game running in an emulator. Additionally, here it is running on a Nokia 3410. You can hear the difference between the raw audio and what it sounds like through the phone speaker by comparing these. Very interesting!