Saturday, December 20, 2014

Unlicensed NES Part 2 - The Unworthy Publishers

In my last post, I discussed the two brightest stars of the unlicensed NES companies, Tengen and Codemasters.  They could have stood tall with many a licensed developer, maybe not at the Konami or Capcom level, but definitely in the middle.

In this post, I am going to discuss the rest of the unlicensed companies, who never reached the more lofty heights of the above.  These companies may be able to compete with the worst of the NES licensees like LJN and Acclaim.  Their games provide a lot of fodder for the AVGN and other people who want to bash crap games, and most of the time the criticism is justified.  A common theme is the interconnected nature between these companies, with games being release by one company, then another.

Color Dreams/Bunch Games/Wisdom Tree

Color Dreams was created in the wake of Tengen's break from Nintendo in 1989 and some of its employees came from Tengen/Atari Games.  It released its own titles and quite a few titles from Taiwan.  Color Dreams used a label called Bunch Games to distribute some of their lesser titles to avoid the lack of quality reflecting on their main brand.  Color Dreams was ambitious and made a prototype Hellraiser game with extra hardware in the cartridge to significantly improve the graphics capable on the NES, but the product was too costly and was abandoned.

Color Dreams games were fairly abysmal.  The company liked to reuse game engines, thus Challenge of the Dragon, Operation Secret Storm and Secret Scout all use the same engine.  Baby Boomer's engine seems very close to AGCI's Chiller, which would make sense because they are the only two unlicensed games that use the Zapper.

Eventually, Color Dreams found it difficult to get their games marketed in stores.  Nintendo threatened to pull the supplies of games to any stores that sold unlicensed games.  However, Christian book stores did not carry NES games, and Color Dreams decided to break into that market and changed their main label to that of Wisdom Tree and their focus to Christian games.  Their views tended to conservative, mainline Protestant denominations and used the NIV Bible in its games.  After porting some of its NES titles to the Genesis and the Game Boy, Wisdom Tree left the console market after creating Super Noah's Ark 3D for the SNES.

During the Wisdom Tree phase of the company, the creative well, never overflowing, had seriously run dry.  Exodus and Joshua are very similar games and both are derived directly from Crystal Mines, a Boulderdash clone.  King of Kings and Bible Adventure also share a common engine.   Sunday Funday, which has the distinction of being the last NES game to see a general release, in 1995, was a reworking of Menace Beach.  Spiritual Warfare is actually a very passable Zelda clone, and is probably the highlight of this company's somewhat meager legacy.  All these games would ask bible questions at certain points.

Games from Color Dreams, Bunch Games and Wisdom Tree cartridges can be found in baby blue or black cartridge shells, but the company tended toward blue in the early carts and black in the later carts.  In their later games, they would advise the player to wait up to nine blinks from the NES while its lockout chip defeater tried to do its work.

Here are the origins of these games :

NES Title Releasing Label Original Developer Notes
The Adventures of Captain Comic Color Dreams Color Dreams
Baby Boomer Color Dreams Color Dreams Very similar to Chiller
Bible Adventures Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
Bible Buffet Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
Challenge of the Dragon Color Dreams Color Dreams
Crystal Mines Color Dreams Color Dreams
Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
Joshua & the Battle of Jericho Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
King Neptune's Adventure Color Dreams Color Dreams
King of Kings: The Early Years Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
Master Chu And The Drunkard Hu Color Dreams Sachen/Joy Van
Menace Beach Color Dreams Color Dreams
Metal Fighter Color Dreams Sachen/Joy Van
Operation Secret Storm Color Dreams Color Dreams
P'radikus Conflict Color Dreams Color Dreams
Pesterminator: The Western Exterminator Color Dreams Color Dreams
Raid 2020 Color Dreams Color Dreams
Robodemons Color Dreams Color Dreams
Secret Scout in the Temple of Demise Color Dreams Color Dreams
Silent Assault Color Dreams Sachen/Joy Van
Spiritual Warfare Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
Sunday Funday: The Ride Wisdom Tree Wisdom Tree
Castle of Deceit Bunch Games Color Dreams
Galactic Crusader Bunch Games Sachen/Joy Van
Mission Cobra Bunch Games Sachen/Joy Van
Moon Ranger Bunch Games Odyssey Software
Tagin' Dragon Bunch Games Sachen/Joy Van

Games sharing a color share the game engine.

American Video Entertainment, Inc. (AVE)

AVE was an ambitious 1990 spinoff company of the chip manufacturer Macronix, who wanted Nintendo's business, but Nintendo did not want them (at that time).  AVE was a publisher, it did not develop its own games.  Much of its catalog came from Taiwan companies Sachen / Joy Van (labels used by Thin Chen Enterprise) and Computer Entertainment, Inc (C & E).  C & E 's best claim to fame is the original version of Beggar Prince for the Sega Genesis.

Most of the games this company released had little to distinguish themselves.  Two decent games (one really) are Dudes with Attitude and Trolls on Treasure Island.  This simple game is actually pretty fun.  Krazy Kreatures is a fun, simple match three game that can get pretty intense as game really starts throwing the creatures at you.  AVE's more ambitious games like Deathbots and Wally Bear and the NO! Gang are LJN-quality crap.

Like all the unlicensed companies, except for Tengen, AVE relied on discrete circuitry and and a charge pump to zap the lockout chip in the NES with a negative voltage spike, which would disable it.  Nintendo reacted to lockout defeating methods like these, and in the NES Rev-11 board, introduced in November, 1990, installed a resistor to prevent these methods from working.  Some companies like Codemasters and HES resorted to plug-through cartridges that used a licensed game to communicate with the lockout chip. AVE sent the player instructions to install a jumper wire over R18, and offered to modify the player's console for the price of shipping and handling.

One of the most ambitious cartridges released was the Maxi-15.  This was the largest cartridge released for the NES until Action 52.  This 1 Megabyte multi-cart contained fifteen games, and fourteen of those games were released as standalone cartridges.  There are games originally published by AVE, Color Dreams and AGCI on the cartridge.  The games on it are : F-15 City War, Puzzle, Pyramid, Tiles of Fate, Krazy Kreatures, Double Strike, Dudes with Attitude, Venice Beach Volleyball, Stakk'M, Deathbots, Rad Racket: Deluxe Tennis II, Chiller, Solitaire, Menace Beach and Shockwave.  Stakk'M was almost but never released as a standalone NES cart, so this multi-cart has unique value.  Stakk'M was a port of the Idea-Tek game Poke Block.  When released in Australia by HES, Pyrmaid and Double Strike were replaced by BlackJack and Death Race.

NES Title Original Developer Notes
Blackjack Odyssey Software
Deathbots Odyssey Software
Double Strike Sachen / Joy Van Originally released in Taiwan as Shuangying and later Twin Eagle
Dudes with Attitude Michael & Cam Crick
F-15 City War Idea-Tek
Impossible Mission II SEI/Epyx Originally released as an unlicensed cart by SEI
Krazy Kreatures Bitmasters
Maxi 15 Various
Mermaids of Atlantis: The Riddle of the Magic Bubble C & E Non-porno version of Bubble Bath Babes
Puzzle Idea-Tek
Pyramid Sachen / Joy Van
Rad Racket: Deluxe Tennis II Idea-Tek
Solitaire Odyssey Software
Tiles of Fate C & E
Trolls on Treasure Island Michael & Cam Crick Uses the Dudes with Attitude game engine
Ultimate League Soccer C & E
Venice Beach Volleyball Idea-Tek
Wally Bear and the NO! Gang AGCI

American Game Carts, Inc. (AGCI)

AGCI released Chiller, Death Race and Shockwave under their own label.  Chiller uses a Color Dreams board, and Shockwave uses the same mapper as Color Dreams games, but both it and Death Race use AGCI PCBs.  Chiller and Death Race originally were arcade games created by Exidy.  AGCI also developed Wally Bear and the NO! Gang, which was also released by AVE.

SEI

SEI released a port of Impossible Mission II for NES, originally created by Epyx and Novotrade.  The game was later re-released by AVE.  While both versions use different cartridge shells, they use the same AVE PCB.

Active Enterprises, Inc.

Active Enterprises had exactly one cartridge to their name that saw a true release during the NES's lifetime, Action 52.  The Action 52 cartridge holds the record for the largest NES (non-Famicom) cartridge produced during the console's lifetime at two megabytes in size.  By contrast, the largest licensed NES game, Kirby's Adventure, is only 768 kilobytes in size and the largest licensed Famicom game, Metal Slader Glory, 1 megabyte.  Action 52 cost $199.00 and seems to have been available mostly via mail order.  It also released an unlicensed Action 52 cartridge for the Genesis at the same cost.  The 52 including games were very basic, pretty terrible, glitchy and in some cases really did not work.  Active Enterprises hired some college students to program their games.

Among the 52 games was The Cheetamen, which was the most sophisticated game on the cartridge and inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Also, Battletoads (also inspired by TMNT) seems to have been an inspiration for the game.  Active put a sequel into development, Cheetamen II, but never released it.  However, 1,500 copies of Cheetamen II, using the same boards as Action 52 (but only with 384KB of ROM), were found in a warehouse and auctioned off in the late 1990s.  Unfortunately in addition to being a buggy and terrible game, only four of the six levels are playable on the released cartridge unless a rare glitch is exploited involving continuously powering on and resetting the console until you start on level 5 or 6.

However, while Active failed to achieve success in the marketplace, it has achieved legendary status in the collector community, due to the rarity of its cartridges, and in the retro-gaming community due to the legendary awfulness of its games.

Caltron/Myriad

Caltron released one cartridge, the six-in-one, and unlike the cart from AVE, the six games on this cartridge were unique, they did not have standalone cartridge releases.  Apparently, Caltron was the alter-ego of the Taiwan pirate outfit NTDEC.  NTDEC, and its California offshoot or partner Mega Soft developed all the games on the six-in-one.  When Caltron went out of business or was no longer used by NTDEC, the remaining inventory of six-in-one cartridges were bought by a Texas company named Myriad, which simply stuck their label over Caltron's.  The cartridges were unaltered and even the Myriad label leaves a sliver of the Caltron label showing.

Panesian

This company was notable for releasing the only known pornographic NES cartridges, Bubble Bath Babes, Hot Slots, and Peek-A-Boo Poker.   Panesian was a Taiwanese outfit that somehow was able to distribute these products in North America. Bubble Bath Babes looks nearly identical and plays similarly to AVE's Mermaids of Atlantis.  Both games have their genesis in a C&E game called Magic Bubble.  Bubble Bath Babes is an early version of Magic Bubble which shows nipples but loses some options  Magic Bubble has the same gameplay modes as Mermaids of Atlantis, but the breasts of the mermaid are fully uncovered except for some suds that hide the nipples.  Bubble Bath Babes was also released by Hacker International in Japan as Soap Panic.  Peek-a-boo Poker was originally developed by Idea-Tek and released it as Poker Jingling.  Hacker International released it in Japan as AV Poker and Hot Slots as AV Pachislot.

Panesian is connected to AVE, which released other Hacker International games, because the Panesian games use AVE PCBs.  The AVE, AGCI and Panesian cartridge shells are very similar to one another.  Panesian releases are holy grails due to their rarity because few stores would sell pornographic video games during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

RacerMate

This company made only one "game" for the NES, the RacerMate Challenge II.  It is not really a game, it is an exercise tool.  This device came in a kit with several pieces of hardware as well as a game.  You could use your regular bicycle as an exercise bike with it.  It will measure the speed and has other devices to measure heart rate.  The device communicates with the NES via the cartridge ports, and you could see graphics showing your bike moving on a track, the speed, revolutions per second, etc.  There are some early versions of the software that use Tengen cartridge shells and lockout chips, but later versions use a unique shell and no lockout chip.  However, the PCB with the Tengen lockout chip looks nothing like real Tengen boards, so they may have acquired a limited license from Tengen or just found a cache of cheap Tengen carts.  The instructions informed the purchaser that they had to use a top loader or have their front loader modified by RacerMate.  RacerMate is still around today and sells kits for bicycles.

Home Entertainment Suppliers Pty. Ltd. (HES)

HES was the Australian version of AVE.  They functioned as a publisher, not a developer.  Their cartridges often used a plug-through system, requiring an official NES cart to bypass the lockout chip.  They also tend to use EPROMs on their carts, making them more likely to lose data to bit rot.  Sometimes their carts contained Taiwanese 60-pin Famicom PCBs, so they included the HES Dongle to allow them to be used in a 72-pin NES.  They also sold standalone adapters that could convert Famicom games to the NES and vice versa.  Some of the Taiwan games never saw a US release, making them unique to HES.

NES Title Original Developer Notes
4 in 1 Funblaster Pack Various Pipemania, Twin Eagle, Metal Fighter, Little Red Hood
4 in 1 Mindblower Pack  Various Math Quiz, Jackpot, Artic Adventure, Galactic Crusader
4 in 1 Total Funpak Various Pac-Man, Sidewinder, Duck Maze, Othello
6 in 1 Real Player's Pak NTDEC Released in US as Caltron/Myriad 6-in-1
Arctic Adventure, Penguin & Seal Thin Chen Enterprises
Chiller AGCI/Exidy Released by AGCI in US
Death Race AGCI/Exidy Released by AGCI in US
Duck Maze Bit Corporation
F-15 City War Idea-Tek Released by AVE in US
Impossible Mission 2 SEI/Epyx Released by SEI and AVE in US
International Ultimate League Soccer ("Magexa Soccer") C & E
Jackpot Bit Corporation
Little Red Hood Sachen/Joy Van
Maxi 15 Various Contains 13 of the games from AVE's Release
Othello Bit Corporation Not the same as the licensed Famicom Disk and Famicom cartridge
Pac-Man Namco Released by Tengen and Namco in the US
Pipemania Sachen / Joy Van Unauthorized clone of Pipe Dream, not the same as the licensed NES cartridge
Pyramid Sachen / Joy Van Released by AVE in US
R.B.I. Baseball Namco Released by Tengen in US
Raid 2020 Color Dreams Released by Color Dreams in US
Side Winder Sachen / Joy Van
Silent Assault Sachen / Joy Van Released by Color Dreams in US
Super Sprint Tengen/Atari Games Released by Tengen in US
Toobin' Tengen/Atari Games Released by Tengen in US
Twin Eagle Sachen / Joy Van Not the same as the licensed NES cartridge
Vindicators Tengen/Atari Games Released by Tengen in US

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