Ever wondered why some of your Nintendo game cartridges have a different shape, or are made out of non-grey plastic? Well, believe it or not the answer is that they were likely illegally produced. The 80s were the heyday for rogue developers, cutthroat counterfeiters, and any one else looking to making a quick buck off of the NES' meteoric success. The legal battles that Nintendo of America waged against these groups are now the stuff of courtroom legend. However, I bet you don't even know half the story behind how these tiny companies fought the titan of their industry.
The NES was Made to be Uncrackable!
Back when Nintendo first ported the NES to America, they fitted it with a special chip that was supposed to lock out any games that did not hold the "Nintendo Seal of Quality." You see, NES games weren't actually all that difficult to program, much less mass produce. The 10NES chip was supposed to prevent any one company from forming a monopoly, as only Nintendo possessed the code that legally bypassed the chip's security measures. This is why all official Nintendo cartridges have the same shape, and why Nintendo got a big cut of every developer's profits.
But, the restrictions didn't end there. Any and all games had to go through Nintendo's strict licensing policies, which usually limited any company to producing no more than 5 games a year, and gave Nintendo exclusive rights to the title for at least 2 years. This really chapped a lot of game devs, and soon there was a clandestine gold rush to see who could first crack the 10NES chip.
That Didn't Stop Rogue Developers!
A lot of developers like Color Dreams (Later renamed Bunch Games, Wisdom Tree, and a handful of other aliases) had early success with a brute-force technique. Most famous for their Christian-themed games,their cartridges were designed to emit a voltage spike when the NES booted up. This would temporarily overload most of the NES' secondary functions, including the 10NES chip. Unlicensed games only needed a tiny window of opportunity to work; the chip was only supposed to keep games from booting. Once they were up and running, the 10NES could do nothing to shut them down. This was an effective, albeit crude means of bypassing the 10NES chip. As you can imagine short-circuiting the Nintendo posed more than a few risks to the system, if the illegally produced games weren't made with the utmost of quality in mind. And that wasn't very often...
Tengen Cracks the Code!
A more elegant, not to mention famous, incident of a company bypassing Nintendo's security was the development team at Tengen, a subsidiary of Atari. They sent legal documents to the U.S patent office, demanding the schematics for the 10NES chip's programming, as part of a bogus investigation into "litigation against Nintendo." The USPO honored the seemingly reasonable request, and armed with the blueprints to Nintendo's security system, Tengen was able to effortlessly create a ton of games sporting "The Rabbit" chip. Named after the character that led Alice to Wonderland, The Rabbit was able to mimic the hardware of licensed NES cartridges without actually copying their trademarked design. This placed Tengen in a legal gray area, where they were able to greatly profit for a short time, while Nintendo's legal team scrambled to shut them down. The subsequent legal proceedings are fascinating, but to make a long story short: there's a reason why you haven't heard from Tengen in a long time.
The Genie was Out of the Bottle!
All in all, unlicensed NES games were a very mixed bag. For every masterpiece Tengen produced (and there were quite a few. Their port of Tetris is still considered one of the best ever made.) there were just as many lackluster entries to the Nintendo library. The generally poor quality of illegally produced games, as well as Nintendo's threats to blacklist any store that carried them, led to unlicensed games becoming rarer and rarer as the Nintendo's life cycle went on. However, in a weird twist of fate, the last few production runs of the NES did not include the 10NES chip. Whether this was because Nintendo no longer feared unlicensed games or just didn't care anymore is impossible to say, but their tacit support of the illegal games is a testament to their customer service. The fact that they didn't want uninformed consumers to suffer for their purchases is a model that few other companies would have dared replicate.
If You Owned a Black Cartridge, It was Unlicensed!
Buy Tengen Tetris - For the NES*
So, how many of you owned Tengen games? Or did you own something even more exotic, like the famed Action 52? I'd love to hear your experiences with unlicensed NES games in the comments below.