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Wacky Wednesday – Konami’s Nintendo Hack

Ultra Games

This week’s Wacky Wednesday offering doesn’t focus on any specific hardware or software, but rather the ingenious way one company hacked their way through Nintendo’s old third-party-software regulations.  A round of applause for Konami, if you please, for creating Ultra Games…

If you were a third-party developer for Nintendo back in the days of the NES, there were a few simple rules you had to follow.  First, like all jealous lovers, Nintendo wanted a committed, monogamous relationship.  No wandering eyes to those other competing platforms of the time owned by rivals with names like “Sega”, “Atari”, or “NEC”.  If you wanted to make Nintendo games, then by God, you were going to make games for Nintendo and Nintendo only.  Heaven help the company suspected by Nintendo of even considering digital adultery.

There were no pictures of Loreena Bobbit suitable for this article, so here's a pile of bunnies instead.

Because I did NOT want to search for ‘Loreena Bobbitt’ on Google Images for this article, here’s a bunch of baby bunnies instead.

Second, no matter how well-intentioned the action, developers were allowed neither to use cartridge shells manufactured by anyone but Nintendo, nor to bypass the hardware lockout chip Nintendo installed in each NES unit.  Nintendo also required a minimum purchase of 10,000 cartridge shells per game, so if your sales projections were more on the conservative side, you had to A) hope you were wrong, B) make up the deficit through sales of something more popular, or C) not make that game.  Most developers chose C.  Oh, did we mention that in addition to those shells, you had to purchase a minimum of 10,000 Nintendo-manufactured chips holding the authentication code to the afore-mentioned lockout hardware?  Do we have to remind anybody how dickish this was?

Fine, it's about this dickish.

Roughly this dickish.

Finally to prevent another market crash created by a flood of awful software, third-party studios were limited to producing only five games a year for the US market.  Developers, especially Japanese studios who weren’t bound by these restrictions overseas and were in the process of converting large quantities of software for the US market in addition to making new titles, petitioned for this rule to go away and Nintendo had a change of heart, right?

Well…no.  Nintendo in the 1980s was the 800-pound gorilla of the gaming world, and their response to anybody not playing by their rules was to cock-block the living bejeezus out of them.  Nintendo ruined companies for the slightest infraction of these rules, locking them out of the NES’s enormous US market share, tying their releases up in ass-clenching levels of litigation, or both (see: Tengen, Galoob).  All software developers back then worked to placate their master: they knew the Good Nintendo giveth, and the Good Nintendo could taketh the hell away.

Except Konami.  Konami was one of those developers used to releasing as many games as they damn well pleased on the system at home in Japan, and Nintendo’s five-game rule stuck in their craw.  But rather than bitching about it and risking a Donkey Kong-sized flaming barrel of excrement on their porch in the middle of the night, they decided to make the system work for them.  Konami might be able to only release five games per year, but if they could split themselves in half, they could release five more, right?  And thus was born Ultra Games.

Ultra Games existed only on paper: it was owned by Konami, staffed by Konami developers, housed in Konami-owned property, and bankrolled by Konami’s financial division.  Nevertheless, because they were not named “Konami,” they could publish five additional games every year–even if some of those games were localizations of Japanese titles developed by Konami in the first place.

Like the Michael Biehn simulator shown above.

Like this Michael Biehn simulator.

It didn’t take long for Nintendo to figure out the more games they allowed a third-party to release, the more money they stood to make.  The US release of the Super NES heralded a lifting of restrictions concerning third-party software, and Konami dissolved Ultra Games shortly thereafter, presumably by printing up new business cards for everyone and exchanging a bunch of high-fives.

So the next time you find yourself playing the likes of Metal Gear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Skate or Die, consider that without Konami’s simple act of creating a nesting company on paper, you wouldn’t have seen these games in the US until much later, if at all.  It’s such a simple, elegant and amusing solution to what Nintendo assumed was an insurmountable obstacle.  And that’s what Wacky Wednesday is all about.

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