Nintendo was well-known in the videogame industry during the NES era for their restrictive licensing agreements. Third-party developers were obligated to set limits on the number of titles they produced per year (typically five) to avoid flooding the market with similar games, as well as agreeing that their games would be available exclusively on Nintendo systems for a certain period of time (typically two years). Restrictions of this kind allowed Nintendo to maintain a degree of control over both the number of games produced and the content of those games. Nintendo also had a relatively strict policy regarding sexual content, violence, language, and other mature content; and developers were required to hew closely to Nintendo’s standards in order to keep their approval and official license.
Working around the restrictions…
The huge market for new NES games in the late 1980s spurred some developers to begin working outside official channels to produce NES content. Companies that wished to do so were forced to contemplate the legal hazards of violating Nintendo’s licensing policy, as well as finding a way to physically bypass the 10NES lockout chip installed in every NES of the time (the later model, the NES-101 or “top-loader”, does not contain the 10NES chip and is therefore “region-free” and capable of playing unlicensed games).
Circumventing the licensing agreements required only a decision to do so; the physical barrier proved more difficult. Many unlicensed developers used a voltage spike on startup to disable the lockout chip temporarily, which would allow their cartridges to load. However, this technique is dangerous, as the voltage is difficult to control and risks damaging other circuitry in the NES. A creative workaround was devised by Tengen, an Atari subsidiary and one of the most successful third-party developers. Although Tengen was a licensed developer and had released officially licensed games (RBI Baseball, Pac-Man, Gauntlet), they wanted the freedom to produce games outside of the official agreement. In order to do so, Tengen’s legal staff filed an affidavit with the U.S. Patent Office, requesting a copy of the 10NES program “for litigation against Nintendo”, although no such litigation was in progress at that time. Tengen assured the USPO that the information would be used in connection with the (nonexistent) legislation, and not for any other purpose. The USPO obliged, and Tengen was able to create their own chip, “the Rabbit”, capable of circumventing the lockout device. They promptly released several games, and were equally promptly sued by Nintendo (Tengen filed countersuit, cf. Atari Games Corp. v. Nintendo of America Inc., 1992). The two parties eventually settled out of court, but Nintendo was unable to prevent copies of the unlicensed games from reaching the market, and many are widely available. They are easily distinguished from licensed games by the unusual angular shape and (usually) black plastic casing of their cartridges. Tengen existed for a few more years before the name was discontinued, but the court battle with Nintendo effectively finished them as a developer.
Enter Color Dreams
Another company that successfully circumvented the 10NES chip was Color Dreams. By using the voltage-spike technique, their unlicensed software was playable on an NES. Unfortunately, the quality of Color Dreams’ games was notoriously low, and they had difficulty convincing retailers to gamble on their product – Nintendo had threatened to cut off all sales to retailers who also sold unlicensed games. Almost all complied, and companies like Color Dreams struggled to find distribution for their games. In an effort to rebrand themselves and shake their reputation of shoddy products, Color Dreams formed several subsidiary companies, including Bunch Games, but saw little success. One subsidiary, though, Wisdom Tree, found relative success in the then-untapped Christian videogame market. Although many of their games were modified, graphics-swapped versions of previous Color Dreams releases with biblical references thrown in, many sold quite well. Wisdom Tree’s initial offering, Bible Adventures (a bizarre side-scrolling platformer based on the Old Testament) sold 250,000 copies, proving that there was an audience for Christian-themed games. Other Wisdom Tree software included Spiritual Warfare, an overhead-perspective adventure game; Bible Buffet, a quiz game; and Sunday Funday, a reworked version of Color Dreams’ own Menace Beach in which the protagonist is trying to get to Sunday school. Wisdom Tree eventually outlived its parent company and continues to sell Christian-themed software today.
Low quality games on a single cartridge emerge
Outside of North America, unlicensed carts advertising hundreds or thousands of games on a single cartridge are commonplace. In 1991, Active Enterprises released a cartridge containing 52 games, appropriately titled Action 52. Those consumers who weren’t put off by the unknown developer were surely shocked by the cartridge’s high retail price of $199, and those brave few who actually bought it and played it were undoubtedly disappointed at the extremely low quality of the games. Although 52 different games are accessible on the cart from startup, several are almost identical to others on the cart and many have serious glitches, some fatal (one, Alfredo N the Fettucini, crashes on startup). Another issue is the bizarre programming – in many platformers in Action 52, your character can’t jump unless standing still, but can move horizontally in the air. It’s hard to imagine why this was done, but the technical virtuosity displayed by Active in fitting 52 games on a cart surely implies that such terrible mechanics are intentional.
The supposed highlight of Action 52 (and game #52 on the cartridge) is “Cheetahmen”, another side-scrolling platformer starring three, well, Cheetahmen. Perhaps intended to capitalize on the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Samurai Pizza Cats, etc., Action 52 came bundled with a comic book starring the Cheetahmen, and it is clear that Active considered the Cheetahmen to be their mascots, of a sort. The quality of the game itself is significantly better than most of the other 51, but it’s still pretty awful.
It’s easy to see Nintendo as the villain, repressing creative voices in the early days of the console – but after playing enough unlicensed games, that NINTENDO SEAL OF QUALITY really does stand for something. There’s no way that Alfredo N the Fettucini would have made the cut.
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