When the Game Genie made it easy to beat Nintendo games
Among Nintendo’s weak points, it was even worse than the Power Glove.
In the years following the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in North America in 1985, Nintendo developed several outlets to help gamers navigate through difficult titles. A telephone line gave them advice; walkthroughs in books and numbers Nintendo power explained the tricky paths in games like The Legend of Zelda Where Super Mario Bros. The player still had to complete the tasks, but at least he had some clues.
In 1990, Nintendo executives were amazed to see that a third-party developer had cut to the chase with an unapproved peripheral that promised unlimited lives, endless ammo, and other player benefits. All they had to do was pop a game into the device and plug it into their NES. From there, cheat codes could unlock even the most difficult games and make them within reach. Mario, Link and others could be made invincible.
It was called the Game Genie, and Nintendo’s first, second, and third most fervent wish was that it disappear from store shelves forever.
Crack the code
The Game Genie was conjured up by Codemasters, a UK-based video game developer looking to capitalize on the explosive success of the NES. But Nintendo was fiercely protective of its brand, requiring approval of third-party games and peripherals and limiting their quantity. Unlicensed Nintendo games were difficult to manufacture due to the “lock” chip inside the NES which made produce unauthorized securities a risky proposition. Unless the lock chip was defeated, the game would not work.
Nintendo’s byzantine, overbearing attitude was seen as a challenge by Codemasters, who had also been looking for a game with a highly customizable format where players could adjust the difficulty beyond the standard easy, medium, or hard settings.
“We tried to come up with a game concept that everyone would enjoy,” Codemasters co-founder David Darling told Super Play (via Nintendo’s life) in 1993. “We felt that to achieve this, you had to give the game lots of options, so people could make it as hard or as easy as they wanted. This, in turn, made us think how great it would be if we could modify every game like this, but we thought that was not possible with Nintendo cartridge games.
This idea was not entirely new. So-called “acceleration kits” were sometimes installed in Pac man arcade cabinets to speed up gaming in the 1980s. But Codemasters turned that thought into a device that could modify a number of NES titles on the shelves. If a game was compatible with the device, players could customize their experience based on the codes entered. Codemasters employees Graham Rigby, Ted Carron, Richard Aplin and Jonathan Menzies were the main players behind the device, from engineering to programming.
To understand how Game Genie works, it’s best to think of it as a middleman. Once a game and the device were plugged into the NES’s cartridge slot, it could find the memory codes for game specifics, like how many lives or how high a character could jump. Using a lot of trial and error, Codemasters was able to find these commands and then modify them. If a game’s jump code was 000004, for example, typing 00005 could allow players to jump much higher. (The device came with a codebook, though players would later try to find codes on their own.)
What Codemasters had done was create a product that essentially reprogrammed existing NES titles, giving fans unprecedented control over how games were played.
Originally titled the Power Pack, the Game Genie ($60) was launched in the United States by toymaker Galoob in 1990. That in itself was not unusual: it was Mattel, not Nintendo, who had overwhelmed the world with the Power Glove the previous year. .
But Mattel had Nintendo’s blessing. Galoob did not.
Mario goes to court
Knowing that Nintendo would likely send lawyers, Galoob chose to act first, ask a court to declare that Game Genie does not infringe any copyright and to seek an injunction to restrain Nintendo from taking any action that may interfere with sales. It wasn’t much different from asking for a restraining order against someone you anticipated to be mad at you. (Codemasters also had a Canadian distributor, Camerica, which quickly defeated Nintendo in court.)
Nintendo was no stranger to litigation to protect themselves, whether they initiated it or not. One of their most infamous court battles was against Universal in the early 1980s, when the movie studio argued that Nintendo donkey kong arcade game violated Universal’s King Kong copyright. Nintendo prevailed, pointing out that Universal once described Kong’s character as being in the public domain. And they also won the Game Genie fight – for a while, anyway.
Nintendo argued that by modifying games, Codemasters was creating derivative works and infringe on its copyrights. Worse still, they made things too easy for players.
“We cannot sit idly by as the essence of our business – creating ever more challenging video games – is put in jeopardy by the Game Genie product,” said Howard Lincoln, Nintendo’s senior vice president, said in 1990.
After obtaining an injunction preventing Galoob from selling the Game Genie in the United States, Nintendo enjoyed a year without the Game Genie on the shelves.
It was a blow for Galoob, who had seen Micro Machines to contribute to a peak year in 1989 before the trend waned. An estimation estimated their losses at $100 million when they were unable to market the Game Genie for the 1990 holiday season.
Then, in the summer of 1991, a judge ruled that Galoob could sell the device. While the Genie could modify games (and bypass the lock chip), it did not do so permanently, negating the argument that it was creating a derivative work. the decision was upheld by the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May 1992. In 1994, Nintendo Agreed to pay Galoob a $16.1 million judgment to cover sales that had been lost during the injunction.
This left the Genie’s fate in the court of public opinion, and the response was heartening. After a succeeded testing in San Francisco and Fort Worth, the NES version sold 2.5 million units through 1993, with millions more for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo versions. (The Game Boy version had a small codebook that fit neatly into an opening in the device.) Galoob also had Sega’s cooperation for a Genesis version of the Game Genie, reaching a deal before he could. go to court.
It was easy to see the appeal of the Game Genie. While Nintendo had millions of fans, not all of them were good enough to see the games until the very end. others liked to edit titles for proofreading value; some took games just long enough for a weekend rental and were able to play before they returned. The Game Genie also had a hint of salaciousness, as if gamers were “pirating” titles.
In the end, Nintendo may have simply chosen the wrong argument. As gamers discovered, repeated insertion and removal of the Game Genie in the NES caused the console’s connector pins to bend. While the device didn’t hurt Nintendo’s reputation, it may have put a few NES devices on the road to the repair shop.