Among Nintendo’s low 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 tip line gave them advice; walkthroughs in books and issues of Nintendo Power explained tricky paths in games like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. The player would still have to perform the tasks, but at least they had clues.
In 1990, Nintendo’s executives were astonished to see that a third-party developer had cut right to the chase with an unapproved peripheral device that promised unlimited lives, endless ammunition, and other perks to players. All they had to do was insert a game into the device and plug the whole thing into their NES. From there, cheat codes could unlock even the most difficult games and make beating them within reach. Mario, Link, and others could be rendered invincible.
It was called the Game Genie, and Nintendo’s most fervent first, second, and third wish was that it disappear from store shelves forever.
Cracking the code
The Game Genie was conjured by Codemasters, a British-based video game developer looking to capitalize on the explosive success of the NES. But Nintendo was fiercely protective of its brand, requiring approval for third-party games and peripherals and limiting their quantity. Unlicensed Nintendo games were difficult to manufacture due to the “lockout” chip located inside the NES that made producing unauthorized titles a risky proposition. Unless the lockout chip was defeated, the game wouldn’t work.
Nintendo’s byzantine and domineering attitude was seen as a challenge by Codemasters, which had also been researching 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 would appeal to absolutely everybody,” Codemasters co-founder David Darling told Super Play (via Nintendo Life) in 1993. “We thought that to achieve this you'd have to give the game loads of options, so people could make it as hard or as easy as they liked. This, in turn, got us thinking about how neat it would be if we could modify every game like that, but we thought it wasn't possible with Nintendo games being on cartridge.”
That idea wasn’t totally new. So-called “speed-up kits” were sometimes illicitly installed in Pac-Man arcade cabinets to make the game move faster in the 1980s. But Codemasters evolved that thought into a device that could alter a number of the NES titles on 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 principal players behind the device, from engineering to programming.
To understand how the Game Genie worked, it's best to think of it as an intermediary. Once a game and the device were plugged into the NES's cartridge slot, it could find the memory codes for game specifics, such as the number of lives or how high a character could jump. By using extensive trial and error, Codemasters could find these commands and then change them. If a game’s jump code was 000004, for example, punching it 00005 might allow players to jump much higher. (The device came with a codebook, though gamers 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 an unprecedented amount of control over how games were played.
Originally titled the Power Pack, the Game Genie ($60) was released in the U.S. by toymaker Galoob in 1990. This wasn’t by itself unusual: It was Mattel, not Nintendo, that had burdened the world with the Power Glove the year prior.
But Mattel had Nintendo’s blessing. Galoob did not.
Mario goes to court
Knowing Nintendo would likely dispatch lawyers, Galoob chose to act first, asking a court to rule that the Game Genie wasn’t in violation of any copyright and requesting an injunction to stop Nintendo from taking any action that would interfere with sales. It was not unlike asking for a restraining order against a person you anticipate being angry at you. (Codemasters also had a Canadian distributor, Camerica, which quickly defeated Nintendo in courts there.)
Nintendo was no stranger to litigation to protect itself, whether they had initiated it or not. One of their most infamous court battles was against Universal in the early 1980s, when the film studio argued that Nintendo's Donkey Kong arcade game violated Universal's King Kong copyright. Nintendo prevailed, pointing out Universal had once described the Kong character as being in the public domain. And they also won the Game Genie struggle—for a while, anyway.
Nintendo argued that in altering games, Codemasters was creating derivative works and infringing on its copyrights. Worse, they were making things too easy for players.
“We cannot stand by while the essence of our business—the creation of ever more challenging video games—is put at risk by the Game Genie product,” Howard Lincoln, Nintendo’s senior vice president, said in 1990.
After getting an injunction preventing Galoob from selling the Game Genie in the U.S., Nintendo enjoyed a year free of the Game Genie on shelves.
It was a blow to Galoob, which had seen Micro Machines contribute to a record year in 1989 before the trend faded. One estimate put their losses at $100 million when they couldn’t market the Game Genie for the 1990 holiday season.
Then, in summer 1991, a judge ruled that Galoob could sell the device. While the Genie could alter games (and bypass the lockout chip), it didn’t do so permanently, negating the argument it was creating a derivative work. The ruling was upheld by the U.S. 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.
That left the Genie’s fate in the court of public opinion, and the response was encouraging. After a successful trial run in San Francisco and Fort Worth, the NES version sold 2.5 million units through 1993, with millions more for Game Boy and Super Nintendo versions. (The Game Boy version had a tiny codebook that fit neatly into an opening on the device.) Galoob also had cooperation from Sega for a Genesis version of the Game Genie, reaching an agreement before it 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 games through to the very end; others liked modifying titles to have replay value; some grabbed games just long enough for a weekend rental and were able to play through before they were due back. The Game Genie had a hint of salaciousness to it, too, as though gamers were “hacking” titles.
In the end, Nintendo may have simply chosen the wrong argument. As players discovered, inserting and removing the Game Genie repeatedly into the NES prompted the connector pins on the console to bend. While the device didn't damage Nintendo's reputation, it may have put a few NES devices on the road to the repair shop.