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.

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