Sunday, December 28, 2014

Atari 2600 - Just How Many Games?

The Atari 2600 was the most successful of all the pre-crash consoles, but unfortunately its game library is somewhat inflated.  The 2600, even though it games were sold for it in North America from 1977-1990, , had far fewer games than the NES, with games available from 1985-1995.  However, the number of unique NES games available in North America, licensed and unlicensed, reached 750.  Unique for the NES means no cartridge label variations, re-releases prototypes, contest only-games or multi-cartridges where single carts exist.  Atari 2600 games only approached 400, but often numbers of 600-700 games are quoted in places around the internet.

Atari itself bears much of the blame here.  It marketed its console as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) and later as the Atari 2600.  In Sears' department stores the console was called the Sears Video Arcade, and while the label covering the switches may have been different, underneath they were exactly the same system as the Atari-branded system being sold in non-Sears stores.

Similarly, Atari allowed Sears to sell Atari's cartridges under the Sears Tele-games label.  Thus each game would have two releases, and the names would not be the same but the ROMs would be identical.  Thus the game Atari called Breakout, Sears called Breakaway IV, Circus Atari was shortened to Circus, and Outlaw became Gunslinger.  Sears' actual contribution are three games Atari never released under its own label.

In addition to the Sears license, Atari kept most of its early titles in circulation with corresponding differences in labels.  Space Invaders has a text, picture, silver and red label, but it should always be counted as one game.  Sometimes games would be renamed, as Hunt & Score was renamed to A Game of Concentration and also released by Sears as Memory Match.  Finally, Atari did release games in its Red Label era originally published by rivals in the pre-crash era such as Coleco's Donkey Kong & Donkey Kong Jr.

Pepsi Invaders and Atlantis II are variations on the originals and were provided only to a select few, so I consider them as to prototypes, and they should not be counted in an official list of a system's games.  However, there are several other extremely rare games like CommaVid's Video Life, only available to people who purchased the MagiCard.  Essentially it would have been purchased only by the few of the few. And then there were games like Birthday Mania, sold only in a limited geographic area and so rare that the ROM has not been dumped.  Unlike Pepsi Invaders and Atlantis II, they are not hacks of existing games, so they are included.  While there are several games that are very rare, they were at least available to the general public, usually only via mail order.  However, even if included, the final number would not significantly change.

Two issues with a list of North American Atari games is that games only released in PAL territories must be weeded out.  Prototypes and reproductions should also be filtered out.  The final number is focused on games released during the console's lifespan, so homebrew games are not counted.  What games were released in North America is mostly well-known, but when you go to the many European countries, South America and Taiwan, the titles really start to become difficult to manage.  If pirate cartridges are considered, the PAL territories probably had more games released than the U.S. and Canada, where relatively little piracy occurred.

Finally, games released by pirate labels, which frequently only rename the game, should also be left out unless that has been confirmed as the only a game found a North American release.  Thus most, but not all, releases by Zellers should not be counted.  Cartridges that are not games like diagnostic carts, copy carts, rewritable cartridges.  Nor are the Gameline Master Module or the Starpath Supercharger counted, but the former allowed exclusive access to Save the Whales (included under 20th Century Fox) and the latter came with Phaser Control.  The term "game" is liberally interpreted to include any kind of cartridge or cassette software intended to have some kind of entertainment or edutainment purpose.  Carts like Basic Programming, Music Machine and MagiCard are thus included.  Double-ended cartridges are always counted as one game so long as one-half of the cartridge was not released as a single game.  Virtually all the games so released were also released as single cartridges.  Here is the Tally :

Company   Unique Games
Atari, Inc. / Sears 101
Activision 44
Parker Brothers 21
Atari Corp 19
M Network 17
20th Century Fox 18
Imagic 16
U.S. Games 14
Coleco 13
Spectravision 11
Arcadia / Starpath 11
Apollo 11
Tigervision 10
Telegames 10
Sega 9
CBS Electronics 9
Xonox 8
Panda 8
Data Age 8
CommaVid 7
Telesys 6
Playaround 5
Avalon Hill 5
Zimag 4
Bomb 4
Absolute Entertainment 4
Zellers 3
Mythicon 3
Mystique 3
Konami 3
Epyx 3
Wizard Video 2
Ultravision 2
Puzzy 2
Milton Bradley 2
Exus 2
Answer Software 2
Amiga 2
VentureVision 1
Universal Gamex 1
TNT Games 1
Sunrise 1
Sparrow 1
Simage 1
Selchow & Righter 1
Personal Games Company 1
MenAvision 1
K-Tel Vision 1
Gammation  1
First Star Software 1
DSD/Camelot 1
American Videogame 1

Total Unique Games 436

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Atari Joysticks on the PC : Four Historical Interfaces

The standard PC joystick was an analog design that uses potentiometers to vary the rate of a capacitor's charge.  Most console systems of the time used joysticks with pure digital switches.  Before console emulators became popular with PCs, there were some historical hardware that could implement a digital, Atari-style joystick.  This post will describe the methods used to implement them.

1.  Amstrad PC-1512 & 1640

The Amstrad PC-1512 and PC-1640 supported a digital joystick, with a port built into the keyboard.  The joystick directionals and fire buttons function just like keyboard keys, and send the following untranslated scancodes :

77 Fire 2
78 Fire 1
79 Right
7A Left
7B Down
7C Up

A program can read the raw scancode, but most typically use Int 16H to read a translated scancode.  The Amstrad translates the joystick directions into the XT compatible numberpad cursor scancodes.  Thus the joystick functions identically to the 2, 4, 6 & 8 keys on the numberpad, assuming the program is not trying to distinguish between the number pad cursor keys and the dedicated cursor keys with their raw scancodes.  The buttons are not defined by the BIOS and are ignored until an assignment is given to them by writing to the systems' non-volatile RAM.  As its name implies, this RAM will retain its contents even after the system is powered down.  This provides for maximum configurability, because games commonly use the Spacebar, Enter/Return or even F1 as a fire key.

Amstrad connects pins 1-4 and 6-8.  Pin 7 is normally unconnected on an Atari joystick, but Amstrad uses it as a second button.  Amstrad CPC JY2 and JY3 joysticks function properly with this pin arrangement.

2.  Covox Sound Master

The original Covox Sound Master has two DE-9 ports.  Having viewed closeups of the PCBs of the board, I can give a fair analysis of how the joysticks work.  The joystick lines for each joystick are connected to pullup resistors and then a 74HC365 line buffer, non-inverting.  From the solder side of the board, there are lines connecting pins 1-5 and 8 & 9 to these buffers.  Pin 9 is used on a Sega Master System controller as button 2, but it is unconnected on an Atari one-button controller.  However, pin 6, which is the only button on an Atari controller, is unconnected on the Covox's PCB.  Pin 5, which is unconnected on an Atari controller, is connected.  This leads me to believe that Covox either sold its own joysticks or, more likely, connected pins 5 & 6 on the component side of the board.  We cannot see underneath the plastic.

From the line buffers, the joystick inputs appear to be connected to the I/O pins of the AY8930.  The AY8930 contains a pair of 8-bit I/O ports that can be set to input or output.  The original SimCity has explicit support for Covox Sound Master Joysticks.  It sets the I/O ports to input and reads the values of the pins.  More information will have to wait until the project to clone the board has been completed.

3.  The FTL Sound Adapter

This device was a parallel port dongle that output sound in the manner of a Covox Speech Thing and had a DE-9 port on the end of it.  It was included in some releases of Dungeon Master for the IBM PC.  PCB and schematic for the device can be found here :

As you can see, each joystick input is connected to one of the five status port lines.  Four of those five inputs are also connected to a separate control port line.  Here are the connections :

1 Up     15  1 (Strobe - Error)
2 Down   13 14 (Select - Line Feed)
3 Left   12 17 (Paper Out - Select Printer)
4 Right  10    (Acknowledge)
5 NC
6 Fire   11 16 (Busy - Reset)
7 NC
8 Ground 18
9 NC

When a directional or button is pressed, a bit in the status port will flip to indicate that the direction has been pressed.  As you can see, you cannot use more than a one button joystick by this method.

The control port lines, which are not intended to function as input lines, are connected to allow Dungeon Master to detect the presence of the FTL Sound Adapter.  First, the game writes 0C to the control port and checks to see if bit 5 is a 0 on the status port.  Then it writes 04 to the control port and checks to see if bit 5 is a 1 on the status port.  If either check fails, the game will not allow the user to select the FTL Sound Adapter.  Now recall how the DB-25 parallel port connector is wired :

           Bit 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Data Port    Pin 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Status Port Pin 11 10 12 13 15 NC NC NC
Control Port Pin NC NC NC NC 17 16 14 1

underlined = inverted input or output from value written

0C = 0000 0011
04 = 0000 0100

Now, bit 5 of the status port is connected to bit 1 of the control port, which inverts.  If a 1 is written to bit 1 of the control port, then a 0 will appear at bit 5 of the status port.  Conversely, if a 0 is written to bit 1 of the control port, then a 1 will appear at bit 5 of the status port.

Dungeon Master will attempt this check for every parallel port address reported by the BIOS.  Once it has passed, then it will allow the user to select the FTL Sound Adapter and should allow the user to use the joystick plugged into the Sound Adapter.  The adapter cannot actually verify if a joystick is connected, however, unless it asks the user to move the joystick around and press the button.

The PC version of Dungeon Master that came with the FTL Sound Adapter shows an Atari joystick plugged into the back of the Adapter.  It says that the joystick port is the next best thing and the user can plug in any switch style joystick for easy game play.  (The computer in the photo looks like a Tandy 1000 TL, SL or SL/2).  However, the quick start guide only talks about analog joysticks and identifies the DE-9 port on the Sound Adapter as "Future expansion port".  The sound functionality is adequately described in the quick start guide, but because the joystick isn't specifically mentioned, I wonder whether the game actually supports a digital joystick.

If it does, then it would read the joystick in parallel, with a 0 value on each bit of the status port, except for bit 7, which would be a 1, indicating that a directional or button was pressed.

4.  The Dyna Blaster Adapter

The Dyna Blaster Adapter, on the other hand, is a truly working Atari parallel port joystick adapter.  Dyna Blaster, a.k.a. Bomberman in the U.S. and Japan, was released for DOS only in Europe.  Apparently it was a somewhat obscure release; it is not easy to find.

This adapter has two DE-9 ports and supports two Atari joysticks.  Uniquely for a PC game, the dongle functions as the copy protection.  The system requirements label on the box states that an Atari joystick is required, and without the joystick and the dongle you cannot make any selections on the main menu screen. Fortunately the dongle's function has been more or less reverse engineered.  (There is also a crack available for the game to use the keyboard at the menu).

When the game starts up, it calls a subroutine that writes FF to the data port and then checks to see if bit 6 of the status port is 0.  Then it writes 7F to the data port and then checks to see if bit 6 of the status port is 1.  This sequence then loops 20 times for each parallel port the BIOS reports.  In terms of bits, the patterns are

FF = 1111 1111
7F = 0111 1111

Therefore, data port bit 7 is connected to status port bit 6 because that is the only bit that is changing.

The second subroutine is called at the menu and when playing the game.  It writes the following values to the data port twice :

3E = 0011 1110
3D = 0011 1101
3B = 0011 1011
37 = 0011 0111
2F = 0010 1111

The first time this data is written, bit 5 of the status port is checked after each write, and if 0, then a directional bit is set in the program's memory.  The second time this data is written, bit 7 of the status port is checked after each write, and if 1, then a directional bit is set in the program's memory.  Obviously, this corresponds to the first and second joysticks.

The bit pattern for the five values above gives us the key as to how each joystick is wired.  The joystick is being read in a serial fashion.  Instead of the status lines being connected to each switch, instead the common line of each joystick is connected to a single status bit.  The low five bits of the data port are connected to the five switch lines of both joysticks.  The data lines send logical 1s to everything but the joystick switch being queried.  If the first joystick switch is pressed, a logical 0 will appear on status bit 5.  If a second joystick switch is pressed, a logical 1 will appear on status bit 7 (which is inverted at the parallel port adapter)..

One last necessary observation is that data bit 6 is always a logical 1.  I believe that this is to allow a pull-up resistor on status bit lines 5 & 7.  According to this page, 4.7K resistors should be sufficient as a pull up resistor :  Otherwise, the program would have no way to determine whether a joystick switch has stopped being pressed.  As a consequence of the pull-up resistor, when the joystick switch is no longer pressed, then the line will settle back to a logical one 1.  Thus the FTL problem is solved.

While Bomberman does not use diagonals, what happens if a user pushes the stick in a way that closes two switches or pushes the button as he holds the joystick down?  As the adapter can only test one joystick switch at a time, there will be a 0 and 1 (or two 1s if the diagnonal is pressed) coming down the status line.  Fortunately, it is almost impossible to press two directionals and or the fire button exactly at the same time. The game, however, only cares about 0s on the first joystick port.  Each time it reads the port, it is only reading for one direction.  Presumably it will read the stick several times to make sure it finds the 0, if there is one.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Wringer - Breaking PC DOS Game Copy Protection

Copy Protection is the bane of the PC Gamer's existence.  It ranges from "You must insert your ORIGINAL disk into drive a:" whenever you play the game to "Find the fifth word in the third paragraph on page eight in your manual" and "Type in the name of this planet at coordinayes x 645 and y 743".  However, if you want to enjoy games from their original media, it is necessary to deal with it.  It stinks when you buy a PC game from a thift store or on ebay and it is missing the code wheel or the map or the manual.  If you do not want to deal with it, there are several programs you can use to break the protection.  In this blog post, I will identify these programs, point out some special cases and generally help people play their games without the original documentation.  Let me start with a group of cracking programs I call, collectively, "The Wringer".

The Wringer

The Wringer consists of eight DOS programs.  All these programs have a text-based GUI that allows you to select your game from a list.  There is undoubtedly considerable overlap among these programs, but I have not the time or the patience to create a spreadsheet identifying which program has a crack for which game.  It is an unusual game that cannot be cracked by one of these programs.  Unfortunately, this means that you may not find a crack for your game until the fifth or sixth program you try.  DOSBox is excellent for going those these programs and applying their patches quickly.

NoGuard R6.0 by Central Point Software

This program is the oldest, dated 10/11/1990.  It says it can break the SuperLok, ProLok and EverLock disk-based protections and Sierra Online's protections.  It then has a list of individual games and programs. It can also detect some protection schemes.

Central Point Software was the publisher of CopyIIPC, and versions of CopyIIPC would include NoGuard for people to make hassle free backups and fully hard drive functional installations. It also included the NoKey program for certain disks for which CopyIIPC could not make a working backup.

The executable is NOGUARD.EXE.

The Patcher v6.5 by Michael Caldwell

This program has a file date of 05/09/1995.  It supports 171 distinct games.  The executable is PATCHER.EXE

CrackAid v3.39 by Rawhide

This program supports 323 entries, but some games have more than one entry.  This is because they have multiple versions.  The file date is 11/05/1993 and the executable is CRACKAID.EXE.  It should be kept in its own subdirectory.

Crock v2.32 by Firebug & Eryx

This program is good when you want to crack CGA or Tandy versions of some games.  It has 624 cracks and some cheats as well. It also comes with UNP, (see below).

The files date from 01/16/1995 and the executable is CROCK2.EXE.  It should be kept in its own subdirectory.

Locksmith v1.31 by REM Software

This program is by far the most annoying of the bunch.  If you move the subdirectory, you must reinstall the program again.  You need to mount the install files to a floppy drive and you need a serial number.  If you download it where indicated, the serial will be included.  The executable is LOCK.EXE.  The program is dated 07-17-1994 and consists of 792 entries.  It does include a Hex Editor and will tell you what each crack does.

NeverLock by Copyware Inc.

This version is from Spring, 1996, dated 03/30/1996 and has a nag screen or two.  It can search for some commercial copy protections.  It has 424 protections divided into a Modern and a Classic Collection.  The executable is NEV_UNIV.EXE.  The executable NEV_BUSI.EXE is for commercial programs.

Dprotector v3.1 by Tim Trahan

This program was compiled on 12/10/1993.  It has libraries for Classic and Modern games, a TSR loader library (see below).  One really nice feature is that the program will tell you exactly what it does for each game.  Annoyingly, there is a nag screen when the program starts.  The executable is DPRO3DOS.EXE and it requires its own subdirectory.

Rawcopy PC v1.0 from "MSI"

Program date is 1992-1993.  This supports 476 entries.  The executable is RAWCOPY.EXE.

Where to Find

You can find all the programs I have identified here :


The cracks contained in these programs tend to be of varying quality.  They may not work on every version of a game, may only work on a narrow range of systems, or may work to get into the game but do not defeat protection checks later on.

Special Cases

Cracked by the Publisher

When companies started to release their floppy disk titles on CDs, they would have to break the copy protection to get them to run.  Sierra did this for their AGI games on their Anniversary and Collection CDs. However they included the necessary information for the SCI games in the manual for the collection, so those games had intact copy protection.    LucasArts cracked their games, even for floppy compilations, but they did not release every version in a Collection, so there are versions that need to be cracked manually.  Origin and Sir-Tech cracked the games that relied on disk based protection like Sierra, but included full documentation for all their games because the later games used a manual-lookup protection.  SSI included code wheels for compilations that included their early Gold Box games, even with compilations released in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The "SUP" Sierra Unprotection Program v2.01 by Anders M. Olsson

This is a special but important case, it only deals with Sierra floppy games that use the SuperLok v3.2 disk-based protection system.  This includes all v2 AGI DOS games and a few others.  It does not work with any other AGI Sierra games such as the booter versions of King's Quest and King's Quest II, the Black Cauldron or Donald Duck's Playground.   It is not needed with v3 AGI DOS games.  The list of games which it supports are as follows :

3-D Helicopter Simulator
Black Cauldron, The (comes in v2 and v3 AGI versions, v3 is unprotected)
King's Quest I, II and III
Leisure Suit Larry
Space Quest I & II
Police Quest (most versions are not protected)

The program can be found here :

The program requires the original disk 1 from the game, it reads the encryption string from the disk, inserts it into the Sierra .COM loader and patches the floppy disk error checks so that the loader will decrypt the AGI file, which is the real executable file.

CD-ROM Protection

CD versions of games rarely had copy protection.  In the early and mid-90s, the cost of duplicating a CD was well out of reach and CD-Rs were not really available.  In the late 1990s, burners and writable CDs had become affordable and publishers again looked to disc-based methods to protect their games, but this was typically after the DOS era.  However, there are DOS games like Orion Burger and Championship Manager 2 series, which rely on an early version of the LaserLok CD protection system.  This is not an issue if you are trying to run these games on real hardware or have a CD image and a burner that can support this protection.  However, with DOSBox, you will need patches, found here :

Some CD-ROM versions of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans will ask for a word from the manual in order to install and use the game.  I believe this is a holdover from the floppy disk version, which has the same protection.  Once the game has passed the SETUP.EXE, which selects the sound devices, it can be played freely without needing to look up a word in the manual.  If you have the combo MS-DOS and Macintosh CD (with CD-Audio tracks used only by the Mac executable), then you won't encounter this problem.

If your CD has files in the root directory with 05/02/1995 dates, you will encounter the protection.   If your CD has 11/03/1994 or 09/06/1996 root directory files (the latter is the CD-Audio version), then you won't have to deal with the protection.

Compressed Executables

To save space, and to prevent instant debugging, several programs compressed their executables with a program like LZEXE  In order to crack them, these executables have to be uncompressed with a program like UNP v3.31, then have the crack applied.


There are some games that simply could not be easily cracked.  This is because they encrypt or otherwise obfuscates that portion of the program that controls the protection.  In this case, a .COM loader may be provided that will intercept the protection and allow you to get past it.  The .COM may be loaded as a TSR or simply run in place of the game's actual executable.

Documents Required (No Crack Known)

Finally, some games had protection that could not be broken easily.  You will not find a ready crack for King's Quest V, for example.  KQ5's protection does not occur on startup.  In fact, it often does not popup until you have progressed through a substantial portion of the game.  The protection requires you to enter four symbols found on a particular page of the manual. Because the protection is buried within the SCI engine files, it was not something that could be broken with a few bytes.  In this case, its usually easier just to get a scan of the manual, but back in the day, people used ASCII art and paint program printouts to display the symbols.  Fortunately, scans for the most popular games can be found.  Here are some good places to look for them :

In addition, there are versions of games or obscure games for which no crack may be available.  The cracks contained in The Wringer for King's Quest IV, for example, only work with the early versions.

Other Resources

The Textfiles site contains many files with unprotection instructions for DOS games.  You can find them here :  You can also search the site for cracking information located elsewhere.

Other sites with cracking information include :

Scene Releases

If there is no other choice, and you must play a game and you can't find a crack for it, then you may want to look for scene releases by warez groups.  Typically scene releases game with softdocs, which is the manual information in plain text.  Otherwise they would come with a crack or pre-cracked.  The game Dyna Blaster for DOS comes with a unique copy protection method, it requires you to use an Atari-style joystick with a parallel port adapter, which came with the game, to make menu selections.  The Wringer does not contain a crack for that obscure, Europe-only game, so you will have to play the cracked version if you do not have the dongle.

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.  These simple games are 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 releases 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 re-released and later 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 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 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.


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.


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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Unlicensed NES Part 1 : The Worthy Publishers

There were several developers who made unlicensed cartridges for the NES.  In this series, I will describe these companies and their games.


The story unlicensed NES cartridges begins with Atari.  Back in 1984, Warner Communications had sold off the home console and computer divisions of Atari Corp. to Jack Tramiel, who formed Atari, Inc.  This company would reintroduce the 2600 and 7800 consoles in 1986 to compete with the NES.  The remnant of Atari Corp would be known as Atari Games and comprised Atari's Arcade video game business.  Warner sold it to Namco, which had sold it to a group of Atari Games employees by the time the NES started to become phenomenally successful.  Atari Games approached Nintendo and requested a license to develop 3rd party games for the NES.  Nintendo allowed them to become one of their first true overseas licensees.  Atari Games would publish their home video games under the Tengen publishing label because the original deal between Warner and Tramiel forbid Warner from using the Atari label in the home consumer market.

Tengen published three games for the NES as a licensed 3rd party publisher, Gauntlet, R.B.I. Baseball and Pac-Man.  However, Nintendo had overstretched its ability to manufacture ROM chips for its cartridges in 1988, no doubt due to the fact that it was making cartridges for Asia, America, Europe and Japan and the Famicom Disk System was not going to replace ROM cartridges as Nintendo had hoped.  Its competitors, including Sega, Atari, and NEC, also had orders at the same chip factories Nintendo had to use.  Third parties' orders of games for the 1988 Christmas season were slashed, and Tengen hated it so much that they started looking for ways to sell NES games without having to pay Nintendo's licensing and manufacturing fees.

Nintendo had a lockout chip in every console intending to prevent unlicensed third parties from making NES games.  If this chip could not communicate with an identical chip inside the cartridge, then the console would continuously reset.  Tengen almost had the technical abilities to clone the lockout chip, but it was not successful until it was able to secure the necessary information from the U.S. Patent Office by falsely claiming it was in litigation against Nintendo.  It was able to clone Nintendo's lockout chip, and Nintendo retaliated with a lawsuit.  Tengen's clone lockout chip, found in all the cartridges made, will work in any NES front loader.  By contrast, all other unlicensed companies defeated the lockout chip by sending negative voltage spikes to the lockout chip.  Nintendo eventually obtained a judgment against Atari for patent infringement for using the code of its lockout chip in 1992, but by that time, the NES was clearly on the decline.

Tengen re-released the games it had produced as a licensed NES developer and ultimately published 20 games.  8 other of their/Atari Games games were published by licensed third parties.  Some of Tengen's unlicensed games reached Japan but none reached Europe.  Virtually every one of their games were either a port of an arcade game (not just from Atari) or closely related to one.  Rolling Thunder and Fantasy Zone are probably the best ports, although Alien Syndrome, After Burner, Pac-Mania and Shinobi are serviceable ports of their arcade machines.  Rampart is a lot of fun and Tetris has a two player mode.  Gauntlet is okay as an adventure game with an end, but is best played a little at a time.

Here are the origins of the games Tengen published :

NES Cart Original Developer Nintendo Developer/Porter Original Nintendo Release Origin Notes
After Burner Sega Sunsoft Famicom Arcade Appears to be a Port of the Licensed Sunsoft Famicom Version of After Burner II
Alien Syndrome Sega Sunsoft/Sanritsu Famicom Arcade
Fantasy Zone Sega Sunsoft NES Arcade Appears to be Significantly Reworked or Heavily Inspired from the Licensed Sunsoft Famicom Version
Gauntlet Tengen Tengen NES NES Licensed Version published by Tengen, Based off Arcade Game
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Mindscape
Klax Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Hudson Soft for Famicom
Ms. Pac-Man Namco Namco Famicom Arcade
Pac-Man Namco Namco Famicom Arcade Licensed Version published by Tengen and later Namco
Pac-Mania Namco Namco NES Arcade
R.B.I. Baseball Namco Namco Famicom (Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium ) Famicom Licensed Version published by Tengen
R.B.I. Baseball 2 Tengen Tengen NES NES
R.B.I. Baseball 3 Tengen Tengen NES NES
Road Runner Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade
Rolling Thunder Namco Namco Famicom Arcade
Shinobi Sega Sega NES Arcade
Skull & Crossbones Tengen Tengen NES NES Based off Atari Games Arcade Game
Super Sprint Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Altron for Famicom
Tetris Elektronorgtechnica Tengen NES Electronika 60 / IBM PC Based on the Atari Games Arcade Port
Toobin' Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade
Vindicators Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade

These are the origins of Tengen games published by other companies :

720° Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Mindscape
Cyberball Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Jaleco
Gauntlet II Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Mindscape
Marble Madness Atari Games Tengen/Rare NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Milton Bradley
Paperboy Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Mindscape, Licensed Famicom Version published by Altron
Paperboy 2 Tengen Tengen NES NES or SNES Licensed Version published by Mindscape
Rampart Atari Games Tengen NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Jaleco, Not Related to Licensed Famicom Version published by Konami
RoadBlasters Atari Games Tengen/Beam Software NES Arcade Licensed Version published by Mindscape


Codemasters was a U.K. company that found success in publishing budget cassette tape games for the popular 8-bit computers in that country, namely the Amstrad ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. However, they had higher ambitions and sought to develop games for the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles.  They believed they could break into the lucrative U.S. market by publishing games for the NES, which was not very popular in the U.K.  For the NES, they released 14 games through the Canadian company Camerica.  Camerica had marketed some licensed IR wireless controllers for the NES prior to their entry into the unlicensed game market.

Codemasters also had two very notable peripherals to contribute to the NES.  Codemasters first innovation was the Game Genie.  This device's release was held up by a Nintendo lawsuit until April, 1991.  The Game Genie sat between the cartridge and the NES.  It intercepted and modified values in ROM, thereby modifying the connected game in various ways.  A booklet that came with the device gave cheat codes that could be used to gain an advantage or modify the gameplay in some way.  Updates could be obtained via subscription.  Codemasters' device only supported three codes.  Before the cartridge started up, the Game Genie screen would appear and allow you to enter codes if you wished.  The Game Genie only modifies a cartridge's ROM, a device like a Pro Action Replay is required to modify the contents of the NES's RAM.

The design of the Game Genie meant that the pins in the front loader's slot would be pushed back by the thick PCB.  This was necessary because the slot typically made contact with the cartridge by pushing the cartridge down.  This increased strain on the cartridge connector and was very hard to fit in a NES top loader. Camerica marketed and sold the the Game Genie in Canada while Galoob did the same in the U.S.  They sold an adapter with a thinner contact PCB to allow the Game Genie to fit in a Top Loader.  With the cartridge, game genie and adapter, things were very precarious.  Someone walking by the console could upset the delicate balance and cause the game to crash.

The second major peripheral from Codemasters was the Aladdin Deck Enhancer.  The base device, the Deck Enhancer provided the CHR-RAM, the mapper chip and the lockout defeating circuitry.  Each game would plug into the top of the Deck Enhancer and only contained the ROM chip needed to play the game.  The Deck Enhancer provided identical hardware functionality to the standalone cartridges released by Camerica (except for Firehawk).  Unfortunately, the Deck Enhancer was not released until 1993 when the NES market was nearly dead and Camerica was virtually bankrupt, so it did not sell well.

Despite being a U.K. company, not all Codemasters games were released in the U.K.  The Deck Enhancer was not released in the U.K.  Because Nintendo kept revising the lockout circuitry to defeat the simple bypass protection schemes, Codemasters eventually resorted to plug-thru cartridges in Europe that required a licensed cartridge (for its lockout chip) to work.  These connect and function like a Game Genie.

One important contribution of the Codemasters-Camerica distribution deal was that it introduced the Dizzy series to North America.  The Dizzy series, created by the Oliver twins, was a very popular non-scrolling U.K. adventure game series which originated on the ZX Spectrum.  Ports of the Dizzy games to other home computer systems were confined to Europe and PAL speeds until Camerica released The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy (Fantastic Dizzy).  They also released Dizzy the Adventurer (an enhanced version of Dizzy Prince of the Yolkfolk) and Treasure Island Dizzy (in the Quatro Adventure cart).  Go, Dizzy, Go! is a spinoff game found on the Quatro Arcade cart.

Codemasters was like the rogue version of Rare.  Rare partnered with Nintendo very early in the NES's lifecycle, its first game developed for the NES was Slalom.  Rare would continue to work closely with Nintendo until bought by Microsoft in 2002.  Rare's games varied quite a bit in quality, but they did release some classics like the R.C. Pro-Am, Battletoads and the Wizards and Warriors series.  Similarly, Codemasters games were also hit or miss, but Micro Machines is proof that they could have stood tall with the licensed companies.  Codemasters eventually decided to become a licensed developer for the 16-bit consoles.  Here are the origins of their games :

NES Cart Original Developer Nintendo Developer/Porter Origin Notes
Bee 52 Codemasters Codemasters NES
Big Nose Freaks Out Codemasters Codemasters NES Also Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer
Big Nose the Caveman Codemasters Codemasters NES
Dizzy the Adventurer Big Red Software Company Codemasters ZX Spectrum (Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk) Exclusively Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer
Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy Big Red Software Company Codemasters NES Also Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer w/Changes
FireHawk Codemasters Codemasters NES
Linus Spacehead's Cosmic Crusade Codemasters Codemasters NES Also Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer
Micro Machines Codemasters Codemasters NES Also Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer
Mig 29 Soviet Fighter Codemasters Codemasters ZX Spectrum
Quattro Adventure Codemasters/Big Red Software Company Codemasters NES/ZX Spectrum (Treasure Island Dizzy Only) Also Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer; released in U.K. as Super Adventure Quests
Quattro Arcade Codemasters Codemasters NES/Commodore 64 (C.J.'s Elephant Antics Only)
Quattro Sports Codemasters Codemasters NES/Commodore 64 BMX and Pro Tennis Simulators Only); released in U.K. as Super Sports Challenge Also Released for Aladdin Deck Enhancer
Stunt Kids Codemasters Codemasters NES
The Ultimate Stuntman Codemasters Codemasters NES

Titles in yellow saw release in the U.K., and most could be found in Brazil as well.

Games found on both a U.S. standalone cartridge and released for the Aladdin Deck Enhancer are identical except for the Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy and Micro Machines.  Aladdin Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy has 250 stars vs. the 100 starts of the cartridge version and Dizzy walks much faster in the Aladdin version. The Aladdin version of Micro Machines works in PAL consoles, the cartridge version won't get past the title screen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NES Female Protagonists

This blog entry will identify and discuss the various heroines of the NES.  The NES was the first console released in the West known to allow players to play female human or humanoid characters in a non-offensive way.  While some NES games included a female character (Super Mario Bros. 2, Shadow of the Ninja, Dragon Warrior II-IV, The Adventures of Lolo 3) very few used a female character as the main protagonist.  This blog post will not include the considerably larger number of games only released in Japan that featured female main characters.  Spoilers abound here, so if you want your NES game experience pristine, read no further!

Vs. Mach Rider

Including this game is a stretch, in more ways than one.  The cartridge version of Mach Rider did not give any indication of the gender of the Rider.  Neither the box, the manual or the in-game text use any personal pronouns.  They only say "You are Mach Rider!"

However, Mach Rider, like many other early NES titles, was released in the arcades as part of Nintendo's Vs. System.  The Vs. System was an arcade cabinet with NES hardware inside.  Typically two games could fit on the motherboard, and each game was released as a package of ROM chips.  Some of these games have been hacked to work with NES emulators or even the NES via reproduction or flash carts.  If the individual ROMs are dumped and complete, you can make almost certainly make it work in a quality NES emulator.

There are two sets of Vs. Mach Rider ROMs in existence.  One set is the "Endurance Course" portion of the Mach Rider NES cart.  The second set is the "Fighting Course" portion.  Both are considerably more challenging than the cartridge versions.  Unlike the cartridge version, you can continue where you left off after you lose all your lives at the cost of a credit.  With either ROM set, you will see a picture of Mach Rider standing in front of the bike with the words "Insert Coin" and "Push Button 1 to Start".

As you can see, the Rider is in full-body armor and wearing a helmet, making his or her gender uncertain. The Rider's build suggests that a man is inside that suit.  However, as after you finish the first level, the screen shows the bike without the rider.  A few tiles are then displayed that show a different image, like so :

As you complete the next nine stages, more and more titles are revealed until you see this image after you beat course 10 :

Unfortunately, there is no additional text in the game which may explain exactly who this character is supposed to be.  Is this Mach Rider without the suit or a female survivor that Mach Rider has rescued?  The best evidence to suggest that it is Mach Rider is that the suited image of Mach Rider does not appear in the frame and that arguably Mach Rider's identity has been slowly revealed during the course of the game.  The text does not indicate any survivors have been found until very late in the game.  Perhaps the slow reveal demonstrates the extent to which you have saved the survivors.  If the character is Mach Rider, why would she hold a knife instead of the machine gun?  In Super Smash Bros. Melee, there is a trophy of Mach Rider that can be earned, and the explanatory text uses the male pronoun throughout.

There is another issue with Vs. Mach Rider's inclusion in addition to its arcade-only release.  The best evidence I have seen is that only the Endurance Course ROM set was offered for sale overseas.  The Fighting Course ROM set appears to be available in Japan only.  If this is the case, then the case of Mach Rider's inclusion in this list is even more strained.


While Metroid was released before Athena in Japan, in the US it was not released until August, 1987 (not 1986 as some sites and even the official NES game list state).  However, Athena was released in the US in June of 1987, which makes it the first official NES game with a female protagonist.

Athena is a terrible game, mainly due to its awful hit detection and poor controls.  Athena herself is portrayed (outside of the US cover) as child-like seeker of adventure.  For more on Athena, read on here :


By far the most famous game on this list, the gender of the character was a surprise reveal at the end of the game.  The manual is deliberately misleading in this instance :

"The space hunter chosen for this mission is Samus Aran.  He is the greatest of all the space hunters and has successfully completed numerous missions that everybody thought were absolutely impossible.  He is a cyborg: his entire body has been strengthened with robotics, giving him superpowers.  Even the space pirates fear his space suit, which can absorb any enemy's power.  But his true form is shrouded in mystery."

The manual uses the male pronoun throughout, but at the end it does hint at a surprise at the end of the game and the "final outcome" depends on how it took the player to beat the game.  When you beat the game, you will see this screen :  What happens next depends on how long you took to beat the game.  If you took more than five hours, you will only see Samus in a suit, either with back turned (10 or more hours) or first raised in the air (3-5 hours) :

But if you take between 5-3 hours, 3-1 hour or less than 1 hour, Samus' true form is progressively revealed :

Samus does look more than a bit like the woman shown in Mach Rider screenshots above.  There is no official support that the character may be one in the same.  Metroid takes place around the year 20X5 and Mach Rider is set in the year 2112, so it may not be totally impossible that the two could be the same, but it is highly unlikely.

The password system is one advantage over the Japanese Famicom Disk System original, it is extremely versatile.  Others I could think of include the faster arm cannon shooting, extended escape music and a lack of load times.  Metroid for the FDS has some of the longest load times of any game for the FDS.  However, the most unique thing about the cartridge Metroid is the ability to play as suitless Samus.

If you beat the game with the 3-5 or 1-3 hour ending, you will get to play as Suitless Samus and with whatever powerups (but not energy or missile tanks) you had acquired in the next game.  There is no way to get Suitless Samus in the FDS version.  You will not get Suitless Samus if you beat the game with Armored Samus in less than 1 hour, probably because the designers did not anticipate that players would ever be able to do that.

However, Metroid's password system allowed for some very easy to remember passwords.  One in particular was well-known back in the NES era, JUSTIN BAILEY ------ ------  That would allow you to play as suitless Samus without having to officially discover the secret by beating the game with a good time.  I remember a friend of mine that did not believe that Samus was a woman.  We both knew of the Justin Bailey code, but he insisted that Samus and "the woman" were not one and the same.  I knew from reading video game magazines that they were, but I was unable to convince him until we beat the game together and he could see Samus transform.  After that there was no further talk of Samus and "the woman".

This progressive revelation of Samus during the game's ending according to the time taken to complete the game survived into every other 2D Metroid game.  The 3D Metroid games also feature this, but instead of time they use the percentage of the game completed.

Metroid is an undisputed classic.  Unlike later non-linear games, Metroid doesn't try to hold your hand and point to the way.  Metroid : Zero Mission does engage in rather blatant finger pointing, but it has so many ways to break the intended sequence of events that you can easily go in an unintended direction.

The Guardian Legend

This game's US version is almost as coy as Metroid regarding the identity of the protagonist.  The game's manual refers to your character as a "highly sophisticated aerobot transformer."  The manual uses the impersonal pronoun "it" throughout to refer to The Guardian.  The only way you would know that your character is female is to play the game and beat the opening level.  Only in the exploration stages does you character show graphics that would indicate she is a female.

In Europe, the box art in some countries shows a female face clad in body armor, and in Japan the artwork clearly shows a female cyborg.  The Japanese version's box art and text is more explicit than the English version.  The introductory text in the Japanese version, played if no button is pressed on the Title Screen within 30 seconds, is as follows :

"A huge unidentified object is approaching the Earth.  It was made in the far past by another life than the human race, and occupied and inhabited by a vicious creature in the long period.  In order to save the Earth, the strongest women warriors go into action."

The English version's opening scroll text goes like this :

"Long ago, an alien race sent a huge world hurtling toward the Earth, loaded with a cargo of mysterious lifeforms.  You must battle your way deep within the alien world to destroy its vicious inhabitants.  You are the guardian of the Earth and your saga will become The Guardian Legend."

In addition, most US NES versions of Japanese games copy the manual artwork found in the Japanese manual.  The US manual copies all the artwork from the Japanese manual except two images showing that the Guardian is female.  If there is any doubt that Broderbund was trying to avoid the issue of the title character's gender, this should silence that doubt.  Their marketing strategy was to avoid the issue at all costs, undoubtedly to avoid turning off male gamers by prominently featuring a female character in the game. I'm surprised that Broderbund did not change The Guardian's sprite graphics, but then they would have to change something else.  Just in case anyone had any doubt about The Guardian's gender, at the end of the game, this screen appears :

The developer of this game, Compile, made quite a reputation for itself with its vertical-scrolling shooters, which include the Aleste/Power Strike and Zanac series.  Compile would feature female protagonists in some of its later games, including Aleste 2 (MSX2), MUSHA Aleste (Mega Drive/Genesis) and GG Aleste (Game Gear).

As far as the game goes, this is definitely one of the best fusions of two different gameplay styles for the NES.  The team behind The Guardian Legend gave itself reasonable goals.  They implemented a vertical scrolling shooter mode based on Zanac and an overview exploration mode inspired by The Legend of Zelda. The graphics and music are especially impressive, with many enemies filling the screen without much slowdown.  The bosses are impressive because they are so large.  The developers did this all within 128KB cartridge, which is even more impressive.

Of the two gameplay modes, the shooting stages (the corridors) are the stronger of the two.  This is unsurprising considering Compile's pedigree in vertical shooters.  By contrast, nothing consequential seems to happen in the exploration stages (the labryinth).  The difficulty spikes in odd places, with the fight against the second Optomon like hitting a brick wall.  In addition, the weapon choices are not equal or nearly so.  The lengthy passwords can cause frustration.

Life Force

Like VS Mach Rider, this one is a questionable inclusion at best.  Although the Guardian Legend seemed embarassed by its protagonist, at least they kept the cute girl image at the end in the game.  When Konami localized Salamander as Life Force, they took out the credits and the multiple endings.  The best ending in Salamander, seen if you use no continues, included graphics of the pilot of the Vic Viper taking off her helmet to reveal herself to be a woman during the credits :

After the planet Zelos explodes in Life Force, only KONAMI is shown with the credits music playing, and pressing start sends you back to level one with whatever lives and powers you had at the end.  Life Force and Salamander share the same ROM size, so leaving the pilot out completely was probably not a size decision.  I could postulate that the credits were removed to obscure the fact that Japanese programmers made this game, but Konami (and Ultra) was generally not a company to hide its origins when releasing games outside Japan.  Of games from this period, only Top Gun omits credits in the U.S. version.

It is important to note that Life Force supports the Konami code for 30 fighters per continue, Salamander does not.  As the Konami code made it much, much easier to defeat the game without continuing, perhaps Konami believed the continue-based endings had no meaning.

Of course, for such a bad-ass game like Life Force, perhaps Konami decided to cut out the woman because it would turn off boys from their products.

Faria - A World of Danger and Mystery!

This is an overhead adventure game with similarities to The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior.  The game's packaging and manual is intentionally very ambiguous about your character's gender.  The manual either uses "you" or "the warrior" to refer to the main character.  However, some of the artwork betrays a feminine appearance.  Look at the armor, particularly the legs, on the box art.  Also, some of the armor as shown in the manual has an area which would suit the female breast well.  Finally, the in-game character sprite looks just a little more like a boy than a girl :

The game apparently does not have any closeups of the main character.  The Japanese box art makes it quite clear that the title character is a girl.  However, during the game there is a twist, sort of the reverse of Metroid.  It turns out that there was a curse on the title character that turned him into a girl.  His proper sex is a boy, and when he changes back toward the end of the game his sprite becomes much more masculine in appearance.  This allows him, when he rescues the princess (the object of the game), to marry her and live happily ever after.

The game itself is passable as a Zelda clone, but the Dragon Warrior inpsired random enemy battles were ill-advised.  The fact that your character controls like a brick, has a narrow range of attack and there is virtually no hit recovery time makes this game more difficult than it should be.  The graphics are rather strange with many NPCs looking impossibly goofy.  The browns and reds in the NES palette are all over the place in this game.  The soldiers in the game are female.

Arkista's Ring

This game is relatively simple and reminds me of the Hydlide and King's Knight.  Fortunately it is better than either of those two horrible games.  It was released in April 1990, and is a relatively simplistic game for one released so late in the NES's lifecycle.  The main character is a female Elf named Christine who goes off to fight a Shogun and his Ninjas to save her kingdom.  It is odd but I can find no Japanese release for this game. The principal frustration is the control scheme where you simply cannot turn, each button press either moves or turns and moves you character, leading to cheap deaths.  If you press the select button between the stages, you get a status screen like this :

At least for once, the cover/label artwork has not been localized for this game.  This is probably due to a lack of funds.  With this cover/label artwork, we get something of a sense of the gorgeous artwork of Japanese Famicom games.  They almost always put the stuff we got to shame.

The Krion Conquest

This game borrows many gameplay elements from the Mega Man series, but I would not go so far as to deem it a Mega Man clone.  The main character, Francesca, is a witch who can use six types of magic, selected on a menu screen. Her wand can shoot a normal shot that can be charged (think Mega Buster), a ball shot that can bounce around walls (similar to Gemini Man's power), a fire power which can damage all enemies on the screen at the cost of 1/3 of your life (similar to Toad Man's power), an ice shot that can freeze enemies when powered up (just like Ice Man's power).  She can also summon her broom which can be used to transport you over gaps or spikes (one of the Rush types)  Francesca's in-game sprite looks like Mega Man, she controls like Mega Man, makes similar sounds and dies like him too. Unlike Mega Man, she starts with all these powers at the beginning of the game, and can shoot upwards and shoot while ducking.  Her powers are needed to be used far more frequently to defeat enemies than Mega Man's special powers.  Her powers do not have any weapons energy, with the exception of the Fire power.  Also, there is no stage select.  There are five rounds with three levels and a boss at the end of each road.  Unfortunately, you don't get the boss's power when you beat him.  The graphics are good, but the music isn't going to give any of the Mega Man games a run for their money.

In Japan the game is known as Magical Doropie, which is a transliteration of Dorothy, which happens to be the witch's name.  In both versions of the game, there is an introductory scene, but there are cutscenes in Magical Doropie.  These cutscenes were removed for The Krion Conquest.  Also, the title screen for Magical Doropie has an image of Doropie whereas the The Krion Conquest only has the title in uncharacteristic archaic lettering.  There is a screen with an image of Doropie announcing the beginning of each round, and at the end of each stage a hexagram is drawn on the screen.  Nothing so interesting with The Krion Conquest.  The sole image with Francesca has been redrawn somewhat from the original to make her look more like a girl than a young woman.  The ending is particularly affected by the cuts.  Also, there are no continues in The Krion Conquest, which makes a hard game much, much harder.

Unlike The Guardian Legend's localization, where efforts were taken to minimize the gender of the character, The Krion Conquest has minimizing of another kind going on here.  Vic Tokai kept the localization as cheap as possible.  It would have cost some money to translate all the dialogue and fit it into the ROM.  While the hexagram drawing had to be removed because of Nintendo's censorship, any other graphics that would have to be redone, such as the Title Screen or the Round Intro Screen, to show a more youthful main character, were apparently out of Vic Tokai's budget.  The box for The Krion Conquest shows a female witch and the manual does not try to obscure the fact that your character is a female witch named Francesca.  Fortunately, some good soul wrote a translation patch so we can now enjoy Magical Doropie as the programmers originally intended.

WURM : Journey to the Center of the Earth

While The Guardian Legend was a successful synthesis of two different gameplay styles, WURM was way too ambitious and ended up failing on multiple levels.  It is not an awful game, just one whose ambition outstripped the resources (I believe all of three people contributed to the game) devoted to it.  WURM includes cutscenes (Ninja Gaiden) horizontal shooting stages (Gradius) vertical shooting stages (Life Force), sidescrolling action/fighting exploration (Golgo 13) and boss battles conducted in a first-person view (Golgo 13 first person enemy shooting mode).  Because some of the same people who worked on Golgo 13 : Top Secret Episode worked on this game, it is something of a spiritual successor to Golgo 13.

WURM is the first NES game to portray a female character as something more than just an in-game sprite and a closeup photo.  The main character of this game is Moby, cut straight from the anime world with green hair and a suit that covers about 60% of her body.  Thanks to the cut scenes and interactive segments, Moby will interact with various members of her crew and enemies.  She is given a love interest and a crucial plot point revolves around that interest.  Unlike The Guardian Legend, the box art and manual do not obscure the fact that the main character is a female.

Unfortunately, WURM was released during the "Red Stripe" era of NES games.  This is the box-label styling Nintendo adopted after the release of the SNES.  Because attention was being quickly focused away from NES games, this game is more obscure than it deserves to be.

None of WURM's five gameplay styles is particularly great.  The SHUMP style sections are just not very memorable.  The great SHUMPs of the NES : Life Force, Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Gradius and Gun Nac, are not threatened by this game.  There is a sameness to the levels and the enemies are fairly generic. While the ship (VZR) has many different abilities and modes, only a few get to see any real use.

The cut scenes suffer from repetition, both in the sense that graphics are being constantly reused and the cut scenes generally proceed in the same fashion.  An example, Dan in the ship announces that they have hit something.  The scene pans to Moby, who speculates on the situation.  Then Moby is shown walking out of the ship and discovering something.  The English is somewhat awkward in these scenes and dialog is also being reused.  They are nothing like the dynamic and inventive cut scenes of any of the Ninja Gaiden games.  The ending is just a screen of text, leaving the player extremely disappointed after watching all the cutscenes that appeared prior thereto.  You would expect some really spectacular ending animations, but you get zilch.

The sidescrolling stages appear to be, developmentally, somewhere in between the two Golgo 13 games.  Moby has two weapons, her kick and her gun (with limited ammo).  Duke Togo had the same two weapons, although Moby's kick is closer to the second game.  These stages disappoint because of the very limited variety of enemies you encounter and the relative featurelessness of the background graphics.  Fights with the Nonmaltas become very repetitive, very quickly.  The stages also show where the game had some rushed areas, namely the boss fights against Zolda and Icamod.  These guys, supposedly the #3 and #2 to the main villain, run away after a few shots from Moby's gun every time.  Apparently the developers did not have the time to give them an AI more appropriate to their status.

Finally, the boss fights are very strange.  The game puts you in a 360 mode where you can shoot at the monster.  No matter how many times you shoot at his weak point, you cannot defeat him until you raise the Probability Factor to 100%.  How you do this is not well-explained.  You can raise the score by talking to your teammates in the right order, but some can say something stupid and lower your score.  You can also sometimes regain or lose some health by talking to them.  Talking to the team only gets you part of the way, to raise the score all the way you need to shoot the monster as he is attacking you.  Further, you need to select the right weapon.  Of course, it is hard to tell when you actually hit the monster's attack. This typically takes several minutes as you go back and forth between talking and shooting, making it increasingly tedious.

This is another game where the US got hideous box/label art and Japan received beautiful box art.  The Japanese box shows Moby prominently in a very attractive profile (with uncharacteristic blond/light green hair).  The US got something fugly by comparison, which implied that there were a male and female playable character.

Ghost Lion

Ghost Lion is a Role Playing Game with a girl named Maria as its central character. It plays like Dragon Warrior, with a menu box allowing you character to interact with the world, view status and use items.  It uses odd terms like "Hope" for Level, "Courage" for HP and "Dreams" for MP.  The main character can attack on her own and she can summon spirits to help her for a battle, not too dissimilar to Pokemon.  Summoning a spirit costs a turn and Spirit Points.  The spirits have their own HP and can attack on their own and some can cast spells.  If one gets put out of action you can summon him or her again.

The plot falls into a standard trope of a girl trying to find her lost parents.  Her parents were lost researching the Legend of the Ghost Lion, which incidentally is the name of the game on the Title Screen.  You go to search for them, fall off a bridge and spend the rest of the game in a dream world.  The game is more colorful than your average medieval fantasy RPG.  You will be seeing Maria's face a lot, she reacts to damage and winks at you when you beat a monster.

Ghost Lion was released in October, 1992 for the NES.  The gameplay is very primitive by 1992 standards.  The Japanese version was released in July, 1989, where it would have been more impressive, especially from an RPG from a publisher  (Kemco) who did not make RPGs their stock-in-trade.  The game is not as difficult as other NES RPGs, it was clear that with the main character and the plot that Kemco was trying to target younger players.

There are no experience points or any equivalent in the game.  You increase your level by finding "fragments of hope" in treasure chests.  There is no healing magic, you have to buy "Bread" to heal damage.  While Maria can equip more powerful weapons, there does not seem to be any typical armor in this game.  Instead, there are defensive items you can use, defensive spells some of your spirits can cast, and your spirits can defend you by taking hits meant for you.

You also acquire new spirits by finding items, and as your level increases, so do their abilities.  You do earn money (rubies) from battles, but you will fight enough random battles that there is little need to grind for gold.  You can heal yourself for free at the fairy area where you also save your game (like to the King in Dragon Warrior, but he doesn't heal you).  Death only means you lose half your money and start back at your last save, exactly like Dragon Warrior.  This is still a NES RPG, so you can expect tedious random battles and items that do very little at the higher levels.

Ghost Lion is another game where the US box art does not compare to the Japanese box art.  This is a common issue with Famicom games, they have better box art, more colorful manuals, and even more colorful and varied cartridge shells!


I have not discussed licensed games with female protagonists like The Little Mermaid or Barbie, their stories are well-known.  Most of the games described here are somewhat obscure, although I believe there are two classics (Metroid, The Guardian Legend) here.  All of these games, except for Athena, are quite playable and enjoyable.

As far as the portrayal of girls and women go, you should not expect much here.  Video games were marketed heavily toward pre-teen and teenage boys.  More maturer gamers would have a more satisfying selection in many instances from PC games.  Video game marketing toward girls has always been a tricky subject, and marketing games to girls during the NES era was particularly non-existent.  The thinking was that boys identify with strong, male characters and prefer to rescue damsels in distress than play as a heroic girl/female character.

Ghost Lion appears to be the only game that may have used a female protagonist broaden the appeal of the game to girls.  I suspect that a lack of funds to redraw the player sprites prevented The Krion Conquest and The Guardian Legend from removing the female character completely.

I have discussed four games here that use some form of surprise gender reversal.  Amusingly, TV Tropes actually identifies this as "Samus is a Girl".  It is fairly popular in anime, so it is not surprising that it is one of the tools of surprise Japanese programmers used in their games.  The surprise is based on the fact that we expect that a humanoid that kicks ass is a dude.  When the dude turns out to be a dudette, the less mature among us gasped in awe, disbelief or puzzlement.  It also gives the programmers an excuse to insert eye-candy into their games, and Nintendo was the first with VS Mach Rider.  At least the NES, in the hands of a great graphic artist, can do justice to the female form.

Female characters are rarely well-developed in video games, but in the NES era, there was little attention to narrative or story, and what little attention there was left little in the way of development.  Just about everything is an archetype or stereotype.  Moby from WURM may be the best-developed female character in this list, but she is defined in very, very broad strokes in the anime mold.

None of these female protagonists, with one or two possible exceptions, were really played up as "sex symbols".  Although no doubt unintentional, Nintendo's censorship policies limited the overtly sexist depictions of female lead characters.  Supporting female characters, from Donkey Kong's Pauline and Super Mario Bros. 1 & 3's Princess Toadstool onward, would continue often to be depicted as helpless damsels in distress needing only to be saved, but this was not unique to Nintendo.  The NES did suprisingly well in limiting sexism in the games using female protagonists, and the games are more enjoyable because of it.