Confessions of a Bootlegger

Five

Five

You see that binder over there? Yeah, it doesn’t look like much. To you, it might just look like a bunch of magazine pages tossed together in a three-ring, wrinkled by time, with numbers scribbled across page after page. Here and there, a note finds space on an otherwise-filled page. Yeah, garbage to most, yet this is one of my treasures, let’s call him “Five”.

Five doesn’t belong in our world today; he’s too old fashioned, and not handsome enough to compete with those X Box and PS guys. He was a 16-bit stud in his day though, and has seen a lot through the ages, before retiring to a dusty shelve in the residential corners of an old shop in Taiwan.

If we run past the narrow road filled with the strange aroma of exhaust fumes mixed with food from roadside vendors, we will come to the remains of an old game shop of long ago. Five’s companions have disappeared in ages gone by, to make room for gaming modernity. But even that has fallen to the wayside, as smart phones edged their way into the scene.

When you go to the counter, ask for old man Wang, and he’ll tell you a thing or too. Business is slow, conversation is great, but only if you can speak the local tongue. Mr. Wang is standing behind a glass counter, once-filled with treasures. Now, nothing occupies this real estate, aside from a couple of dusty PS3 boxes. Peering behind Mr. Wang is an ancient computer, two floppy drives sticking from it’s tower. A fat monitor sits next to it, covered in grime. Curious, I inquire.

“Oh that thing,” asks Wang, pointing to the computer. “Let me show you something, I’ll give you a look.” Wang disappears for a few moments, mentions hitting the bathroom as well before returning. “Be patient for five minutes”, he tells me. When he reemerges, Wang is carrying Five under his arm and throws it on his counter. “This”, he tells me, “goes along with that”, and I settle down for a story.

“Back in the early 90s, Super Famicom was starting to become popular over here. People also had Sega Mega Drives, but it was not the popular brand. Compared to Super Famicom, everyone felt that there were less games to choose from, and besides, the people’s favorite was always Mario, not Sonic.” Wang stated my exact feelings. In my household, Nintendo was also the fan favorite. Growing up, I knew few people with Segas.

Wang continued, “All of the Super Famicom games, you can see them in Five. It’s a catalog of sorts. Copied games were the norm here, and for good reason. A single cartridge would cost $1000 (local money), but we could get that cost down to $100. Here’s what we’d do.”

Homemade Index Page with Game Titles and Numbers

Homemade Index Page with Game Titles and Numbers

At this point, Mr. Wang reached under the counter and pulled out a dusty Super Nintendo machine, nearly jet black in dirt and grime. Attached was a game copier. And without loading up the computer, he prepared to demonstrate what he did.

“$10,000”, he chuckled. “That’s what this thing cost. Throw in the SNES and that was another $3000, $13000 total. Sega also had copiers, same price. But with less games came less popularity. So I bought a copier, and copied the games onto that old machine over there. Kids and teenagers would come in, pay me $100, and within minutes they’d walk out with a brand new Super Nintendo game, all on one disk. If in the same situation, if you could buy one cartridge or ten floppies for the same price, which would you choose?”

I smiled and nodded, as the answer was clear to me.

More Games One Could Select

More Games One Could Select

His setup was basically like the Nintendo’s Famicom Disk Writer machine, only it consisted of a generic computer, Taiwan-produced copiers, and standard floppy disks. And the link between consumer and the copies was Five, the beat-up magazine pages stuffed inside the binder. Presumably the numbers aided in locating the game file on the computer, to make copies.

Game 844, 32 M

Game 844, 32 M

With my treasure in hand, I thanked Mr. Wang and climbed back into the saddle, prepared for the long journey back home. As the wind whipped through my hair as I rode down city streets and over bridges on that cloudless night, I couldn’t help but turn over the things I had heard minutes earlier – a shopkeeper proudly explaining the dynamics of selling in a country uninhibited by copyright law. And to have a token of that moment, a folder that had witnessed thousands of copies being made in a bygone era, priceless. A true piece of history. As always, the best things in life are free.

Game Genie – Unlock the Power! (A Disorganized Writing)

Sometimes I feel as though collecting for Famicom can be an odd beast, some sort of mythological bird that slips through your grasp time and time again. On the Nintendo side of things, we take a lot for granted, namely the ease at which games are sorted and lists are compiled. There are NTSC games, mostly surfacing in North America, and PAL games. Although there are a few PAL exclusives as well as many which are available in NA only, the mileage covered and countries counted is not so great. And that is what makes Famicom collecting so weird.

On Famicom, the “canon” titles were all released in Japan. Some of those titles were then exported to other Asian countries, but they are still part of the “core” collection. But then Taiwan, Hong Kong, and possibly other countries received some official licensed variants that never made it to Japan. And when it came to unlicensed games…Korea had it’s own set of exclusives, as did Russia, Taiwan, China, and so on. It is no longer a two-continent battle; the availability of Famicom titles varied drastically by region, with the scope and range being much broader than anything on the 72 pins side. Enter, Game Genie.

I honestly believe that aside from the most hardcore of the bunch, most collectors and gamers reading this page will shit themselves when they learn that the infamous Game Genie cheat device swam around in Famicom waters, as well as the Nintendo ones. Everyone can recall the notoriety surrounding Codemaster’s Game Genie: there was the lawsuit from Nintendo, the delayed release times in the United States, and the antagonistic “Thank You Canada!” adverts plastered throughout Canadian media, receiving none of Nintendo’s oppression in the great country up north. And as we all know, after a long and tireless fight, Galoob would eventually market the Game Genie in the States, every kid could finally discover what was on the other side of the flagpole in Super Mario Bros., and life would be complete. But the Game Genie was not finished with its journey – there was still one last adventure for it, and it was the 60 pins ride.

Game Genie on Famicom

Game Genie on Famicom

You see, Codemasters has an intimate relationship with Asia…at least their unlicensed works do. As many might recall, childhood Codemasters favorites such as Micro Machines and Dizzy would make an appearance on the Nintendo, though those games would be somewhat “special”. Instead of appearing in gray game cartridges, these titles found themselves locked inside magical gold or silver cartridges, complete with a special switch on the back. For the European market, the cartridge design was even funkier, and the programmes were housed in Game Genie-esque carts. Yes, I used the British spelling since we are referencing a company hailing from the UK 🙂 Simply put, these carts were unlicensed, released without Nintendo’s approval.

What does this have to do with Asia? To sum things up simply, Taiwan and Hong Kong were the go-to places for unlicensed game companies, when it came to accessing a healthy supply of IC chips and PCBs. As such, the Camerica-published (and Codemasters developed) Nintendo games all contain PCBs manufactured from the aforementioned region.

Even more interesting, though, is the fact that the same manufacturer (BIC, and later Realtec) had also purchased the rights to the whole line of Codemasters’ Nintendo software. As such, Micro Machines was released on Famicom, as well as Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy, Ultimate Stuntman, and other fan favorites. In fact, some of the Nintendo multicart-exclusive Codemasters titles were released on Famicom in single cart packages. The largest area of distribution seems to have been Poland, with the basic Pegasus package containing a 5 in 1 cartridge of Codemasters goodness.

The artwork on these Famicom Codemasters games can be a bit quirky, and thus they seem to be unofficial products; however, they were all licensed by Codemasters themselves. In my own personal opinion though, these Famicom version are much harder to track down than their 72 pin cousins.

Realizing that Codemasters had an enterprising business running in Asia, it comes as no surprise that their Game Genie cheat device would also make an appearance on the 60 pin format; however, this device is much rarer than it’s 72 pin relative.

One of mis amigos, Danilo, helped me to obtain one of these Famicom Game Genies for my collection – I love you bro, and hope I can help you out as well! Since the Game Genie I possess traveled from Argentina to Taiwan, making a brief pit stop in Chile, I am unsure how this compares to locally-distributed versions, but alas I will talk about what I have as well as what I know.

Game Genie was heavily promoted in Taiwan, judging by the adverts and reviews in gaming magazines of the time. Both Famicom and Sega versions made it to Asian shores, though I have never seen any mention or evidence of Game Boy or Super Famicom Game Genies existing. Likewise, although Game Genie was heavily promoted in these parts, I’ve never seen one for sale, outside of South America. Take it for what it’s worth.

The Game Genie I possess comes in a box quite similar to that of it’s 72 pins brethren; English is prevalent up and down the box, as well as French (perhaps this is the remnant of Game Genie’s Canadian launch?). The box just seems to be a 90s “photoshop” edit of the original, with Camerica replaced with Realtec. In addition, a code book is included, though of course it is the generic Camerica version. This is not all too surprising, considering the fact that some of the BIC / Realtec Famicom releases contained Camerica-version boxes and instruction manuals. The reuse of materials is appalling, to be quite frank about it.

On a more interesting note, the package also included a second code book containing cheats for games off of a 76 in 1 multicart. I am quite curious, will these codes work on the original versions of the games? Or will they only work on the multicart versions? This is something I will have to check out later.

Otherwise, there is little to say about this device. It is just Game Genie. Because I grew up without using a Game Genie (I only got a Game Genie for the Nintendo in 1998 or 1999), I don’t have a large use for this item, since I don’t feel a need to cheat myself through the older games. I do particularly love Game Genie for allowing me to access secret areas of games though. But I love the Famicom’s Game Genie even more, for what it is is: a Western device that ended up making it to Eastern shores as an obscure footnote in gaming history.