Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chris' Functional Guide For Making of Spectacular Unlicensed Gaming - Major Unending Success!

While I'm sure many of you have a fair amount of games on your shelf already, I have no doubt that a few of you are just starting to assemble your game collection. So with that in mind, have you ever been out game shopping and you see a cart that looks radically different from the others? A blue nintendo game? A gameboy game with all of the pins showing? A game with an otherwise wacky size, shape or color? You more than likely have stumbled across an unlicensed game. Before you start shelling out your life savings trying to track down everything with an off-color case, perhaps you should ask yourself what you look for in a game and whether or not you need every unlicensed game out there. They range from Christian-themed games to pirated bootleg multicarts, to reproductions and more. So let us dive into the murky pond that is the unlicensed game world and see if we come up with a winner!

NOTE: I'm primarily focusing on the NES for this tutorial. There are certainly a fair share of wacky bootlegs and strange carts for other systems, but the Nintendo has the most notorious set of games and perhaps one of the largest collections.

Publisher: Tengen
Modus Operandi: Released (surprisingly faithful) arcade ports in black carts that slope down to a point on the top label side: resembling a paper airplane from the side.
Popular titles: Gauntlet, Tetris (Tengen,) Toobin, and Skull and Crossbones

Shinobi is pure ninja awesomeness!

Tengen was a branch of Atari and they released several wonderful arcade ports and a few original titles. Tengen is unique in that they started as a licensed third-party company; putting out games such as Pacman, Gauntlet, and RBI Baseball under the Nintendo umbrella. As a result of Nintendo's strict release policies, coupled with a spat over the Tengen release of Tetris: The Soviet Mind Game; Tengen started to release its games in their now familiar, unlicensed, black carts. Most of the games are ports of arcade classics such as Pacman, Toobin', Skull and Crossbones, and Fantasy Zone and a majority of the games were developed by Namco, Sega, or Sunsoft. Most Tengen carts will run you less than 10-15 bucks except for Tetris which has its own unique history of being pulled from the shelves due to a legal spat between Nintendo and Tengen over copyright. This game fetches a hefty penny for this reason - and also because it is considered a better version of Tetris with its 2-player mode intact.
It's available RIGHT NOW (as of this writing)

Publisher: Camerica
Modus Operandi: Released (moderately decent) original games and peripherals for the NES. The carts are typically gold or silver with a NTSC/PAL switch on the back. They also produced the Aladdin Deck Enhancer and the carts for it are squatty, black, and roughly shaped like an Atari 5200 cart.
Popular Games: Bee 52, Big Nose Freaks Out, and the Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy

I'm sure there's a joke about a wall, a big fall, and scrambled eggs here somewhere.

Camerica was a company that released a handful of peripherals and games developed by Codemasters. Along with Tengen, these carts seemed to be widely available in rental chains (in spite of Nintendo's strict policies condemning unlicensed games alongside their own) and the quality is nearly up there with the output of Tengen. Games such as Big Nose the Caveman, Bee 52, and The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy are fun time-killers and while none of these games could be considered gems, they all have a quirky, fun, cheerful quality to them. Possibly one of the best Camerica releases (in my humble opinion) is Micro Machines. The Aladdin Deck Enhancer was a device made late in the NES' lifespan that was made to cut down on production/game costs by eliminating the necessity of a special chip in each cart to bypass the NES' lockout chip. Most of the games released for it are available in non-Aladdin form and there's not really too many reasons to recommend it aside for "collector's sake." What I would recommend picking up are the Quattro series that Camerica released. They are multicarts that feature 4 games of a given genre: Sports, Adventure, and Arcade. They give you a broad sampling of what Camerica has to offer and are really affordable.


Publishers: Color Dreams/Bunch Games/Wisdom Tree
Modus Operandi: Released (notoriously mediocre) original games and clones - as well as cannibalizing from their own library as the company later branched off from Color Dreams to Wisdom Tree to Bunch Games. Carts are usually either blue or black. Also known for releasing Bible-themed games under the heading Wisdom Tree.
Popular Titles: Spiritual Warfare, Bible Adventures, Tagin Dragon, Challenge of the Dragon, and Baby Boomer
Available in Black and Blue varieties! Gotta Catch 'Em All!

Ah, Color Dreams. Better and wiser game reviewers than I (Seanbaby, The Angry Video Game Nerd, and many more,) have decimated the Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree/Bunch Games collections for their shoddy controls, mediocre graphics, absurd storylines, and grating music. That being said - I know at least a handful of people (as well as myself) who have a strange, morbid nostalgia for this quirky little footnote in video game history. Many of their games are either clones of popular titles (Super Mario Bros 2, Legend of Zelda, Solomon's Key) or actually clones of their own games (Sunday Funday is Menace Beach with 30% more Jesus, Exodus is really just Crystal Mines gone all Old Testament, etc.) Some of my friends and I would actually file these games into the so-bad-they're-hilariously-great category. They come in baby blue and black varieties and many places online will tell you that one variety is rarer than the other. If that's true, I honestly don't understand nor care to understand the distinction. As far as I can tell the colors are interchangeable based on how much stock they have of one type or the other and just about every copy of Captain Comic I see has an "inverted Jenny" style label so just because your label is upside down doesn't make you a lottery winner. Besides, that game is so bad-it's-awful. So we all lose. Their rarer/ more valuable games are Baby Boomer, Tagin Dragon, Operation Secret Storm (a game based on the first gulf war!) and Challenge of the Dragon. Whether or not they are worth the price is based entirely on how hardcore of a collector you are. Lukie Games frequently has most of these games available on a fairly regular basis so if you need to fill out your unlicensed game collection, I can't think of a better place to do it!

Publisher: American Video Entertainment
Modus Operandi: Released (mostly forgettable) puzzle games, clones, and a handful of original titles here and there.
Popular Titles: F-15 City War, Deathbots, Wally Bear and the NO! Gang, Venice Beach Volleyball

Brought to you in Booty-vision!

AVE put out quite a few games in their time as an unlicensed game publisher - many of which are fair-to-middling games that would not be out of place among the game packs you get when you get a stock Microsoft PC with games such as Solitaire, Mahjong, Blackjack, a sliding puzzle game, and a Tetris style game as well. Probably the best game from AVE is F-15 City War which feels the most like a professional action shooter game. For the hardest of core game collectors - you should start with this game first, and then pick up oddities like Wally Bear and the NO! Gang,  Deathbots, and Mermaids of Atlantis. For someone looking for a lot of these games (as well as many other unlicensed games) should pick up the Maxivision 15, better known as the Maxi-15. It combines a few games from AVE, American Game Cartridges, and Color Dreams. The cart includes many of these AVE games as well as rare titles Menace Beach and Chiller which make the multicart worth the price of admission alone if you're a collector that needs every NES game but not necessarily every NES cart.

Let's not get it twisted - they aren't ALL individually awesome games...
Publisher: Panesian
Modus Operandi: Released (less than stimulating) adult games for the NES that were themselves clones/hacks of other unlicensed games with nudity shoe-horned in. Games were released in black carts not unlike a backwards AVE cart and housed in Clamshell VHS style boxes.
Popular Titles: Hot Slots, Bubble Bath Babes, and Peek-a-Boo Poker.
Earn yourself a cool 1000 Lukie Points in one sweep!

While this publisher only released three games here in the states - not much to justify bringing it into this list; it's a unique company in that they released the only set of Adult NES games here in the US (barring Sachen's Honey Peach and a few other Hacker International games that would wind up on strange multicart bootlegs.) There's really nothing special about the games themselves, 8-bit nudity aside - and they are all just naughty versions of other releases. That being said, they are interesting to collectors because they are very scarce (being available strictly through phone order) and very few made it into the market.

So that is a brief sampling of what is out there in the vast universe known as unlicensed games. There's certainly games that didn't make my list here. There's "Action 52"...but you don't really want that. And there's a slew of white, grey, translucent, and black carts that have multiple games, homebrew games, or unreleased games on them. If they are cheap and you're willing to take the gamble, pick one up! Most of the previously mentioned games are available at Lukie Games on a regular basis so get yourself a copy or put yourself on the waiting list!
Just say "meh?!"