Genie in a Cartridge
Games for the Nintendo Entertainment System were particularly strange in that most of them were developed with an arcade mentality, despite being produced for a home console. Games built for arcades had become designed in a way to milk the player for as many quarters as possible. Especially in the mid to late Eighties when bosses had attacks that killed the player in a single hit, and timers kept the player moving forward at all costs. It was an interesting time for game development, and despite new technologies sprouting up across the industry, these arcade ideals were held by many companies.
Fortunately, many games also included cheat codes. In many cases they were hidden button combinations that allowed the developers to quickly play through or access difficult parts of the game quickly, other times they were just fun easter eggs stuck in the game for fun. Cheats were a big industry; I still have an ancient paperback of NES cheats.
Magazines had monthly columns dedicated to cheats, and even to this day the cheatbook still exists on clearance racks in backwoods gaming stores. Cheats helped gamers combat the archaic design and punishing nature of many NES games, but many games didn’t include cheats at all. Games like Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania pitted the player against the unabashed difficulty with absolutely no help.
This is where the infamous Game Genie stepped in to assuage the blistered thumbs of gamers across the world.
Developed by Codemasters and distributed in the US by Galoob, the Game Genie was a device that you plugged into the cartridge slot on your NES allowing you to run unofficial cheat codes. Many similar devices exist: GameShark, Action Replay, and even Game Genie on several other systems. These days they’re a part of the gaming world, and most players are at least aware of them. But when Galoob put the Game Genie out it was revolutionary, and drew the attention of the ravenous Nintendo lawyers of the early Nineties.
The Game Genie works by altering the code of an NES game at runtime, meaning that when the system requests some information the Game Genie is able to alter the answer that the cartridge returns.
It works as a sort of live patch for the game, creating favorable conditions for the player according to which codes were entered. Entering random codes will even give interesting effects, usually resulting in the game crashing. The lawsuit that ensued between Nintendo the Galoob was tremendous, with Nintendo claiming that the Game Genie altered the game, thus violating copyright laws. Nintendo was a schoolyard bully at the time, stomping around the industry crushing smaller companies and clinging to the production means of their system.
The court not only ruled in favor of Galoob, but also prevented Nintendo from intentionally altering the NES with the sole purpose of making the Game Genie not compatible.
This was huge for the time, and paved the way for cheat devices for years to come. Of course, I don’t mean to slight Nintendo and make them seem to be a giant evil corporation, but at the time they sure acted like one. They dominated the industry, and made it difficult for many publishers to makes games for their systems. This included several lawsuits, controlling the manufacturing of cartridges, and flooding US markets with Nintendo merchandise.
So the next time you see someone using a cheat device, or punching in a code of some sort. Whenever someone runs a mod or uses an unofficial patch. Remember that Galoob and the NES Game Genie fought hard so you could have that right. Games would be a very different beast had Galoob lost that battle, and I shudder to think the ripples it would have had throughout the industry. So, I salute you Game Genie, your tumultuous life and lasting legacy made my young life a little easier.