The Story Of The Game Genie, The Cheat Device Nintendo Tried (And Failed) To Kill – Feature


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Game Genie© Nintendo Life

Much has been written about cheating in games. The history of which is so old and entwined it’s difficult to find its origins. Developers included cheats to aid development, from Manic Miner to Gradius. In computer games, it was possible for players to ‘POKE’ data values and change things, with old magazines printing listings of them. These allowed unlimited lives, fixing of glitches, and more. Computer games also had ‘trainers’ made, some even being sold – Castle Wolfenstein from 1981 had one by Muse Software. Some developers also built-in cheats, codes, and passwords for players to use. Put simply: the altering of games has always existed, even if it’s less prevalent today than it was during the ’80s and ’90s.

Things get especially interesting when looking at the history of physical cheat devices that interface with game-playing hardware. Game Genie was not the first; Datel produced Action Replay cartridges for the C64 and other computers as early as 1985. There were also the Multiface peripherals for various computers, by British company Romantic Robot. These allowed not just cheats but also backing up games. Plus, there were other lesser-known plug-in devices. By the time Game Genie (initially) launched in 1990 the concept of cheat devices was already well established. Unlike Game Genie, however, none incurred the wrath of Nintendo, with a $15 million lawsuit ensuing.

There was this little Japanese company, Nintendo, which had this funny little console. Generally, people weren’t excited about it. So we thought, that’s interesting, but we ignored it

To fully document the Game Genie saga, we interviewed four key people: Ted Carron, Graham Rigby, Jonathan Menzies, and Richard Aplin. To tell the full, amazing story of this unassuming device, we’ve also supplemented their answers with quotations from other sources, including input from the siblings who founded Codemasters, the company behind the Game Genie: brothers David and Richard, and father Jim Darling. For good measure, we’ve also included quotes from Andrew Graham, creator of Codemasters’ Micro Machines game.

Aplin was easy to track down, given his detailed and fascinating 2009 interview on GameHacking.org regarding Game Genie. “I did several versions of Game Genie, but not the very first NES one. I arrived at Codies just after the NES version launched in the US, and did several other formats; Game Boy, Game Gear, and so on. I did a really sweet ‘Game Genie 2’ for the SNES, but it never launched due to market conditions.”

Aplin then pointed us in the direction of colleagues. “People significantly involved in the NES one were David, Richard, and Jim Darling, the Codemasters family. David started a small mobile games shop, Kwalee, and obviously knows the early days, litigation, Nintendo stuff, and might be happy to talk, now so much water is under the bridge; Ted Carron was part of the early team and still in Leamington Spa, he married a Darling; Graham Rigby now lives in Australia and did a lot of code-finding; Jon Menzies wrote a lot of software at Codemasters; Andrew Graham wrote the NES ROM software for Game Genie as well as other stuff, some NES games, lock chip work and so on. He also flew to Taiwan to work on production/debugging of the ASIC for the NES Genie.”

“You seem to have the core people connected to Game Genie,” says Rigby, seeing the interviewee list. “I was the first to start work on the Game Genie, besides the original trio. Ted Carron, Rich Darling, and Dave Darling were the inventors and responsible for the birth of the Game Genie.”

David, the elder of the Darling brothers and Codemasters co-founder, is the key person to describe Game Genie’s conception. It all started with the launch of Nintendo’s grey NES console in America, which initially didn’t garner much interest. “We went to the CES show in Chicago,” David told us a few years back. “The industry used to go every six months, in Chicago and Las Vegas. There was this little Japanese company, Nintendo, which had this funny little console. Generally, people weren’t excited about it. So we thought, that’s interesting, but we ignored it. By the next show, six months later, Nintendo was everywhere. It took off across America. Even at petrol stations, they were selling Nintendo games. So we thought: this is the machine we have to be involved with.”

Letting The Genie Out Of The Bottle

A 1993 Super Play interview with David confirms it was at the later Vegas show where they made their decision, “I went with Richard and a guy here called Ted Carron to one of the Las Vegas Computer Entertainment Shows, where we realised just how big Nintendo was over there. When we came back we were thinking ‘right, we’ve got to somehow get into this’.” Of course, to develop for the NES required an expensive license from Nintendo and, in that same Super Play interview, David reveals the Japanese giant wasn’t interested. “To be honest, when we went to CES, we tried to talk to Nintendo about doing games for them, but they gave us the cold shoulder because we hadn’t booked an appointment. After that, we just saw doing it without them as a challenge.”

“At the time it wasn’t easy to get a licence and we didn’t need one, so we went ahead without it,” states brother Richard, interviewed by EDGE magazine on the making of Micro Machines. “We produced our own development systems and games. The hardest part was finding a way around the protection on the NES, so our games would not be treated as ‘counterfeit’.”

We tried to come up with a game concept that would appeal to absolutely everybody. 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 defiant seed, planted due to Nintendo’s apathy towards Codemasters, would ultimately cost Nintendo millions of dollars, and it was all down to Ted Carron. Reverse-engineering the NES, cracking the security, building Codemasters’ in-house NES development kit, and ultimately designing Game Genie itself was all down to Carron’s technical expertise. Andrew Graham, in the same EDGE article on Micro Machines, humorously describes how in April 1989 he first encountered Carron’s genius. “I converted Treasure Island Dizzy using Codies’ homemade dev system. Ted had made a rather ‘Heath Robinson’ system which consisted of a PC connected to a Commodore 64 connected to a box full of wires and electronics, all hooked up to a consumer NES. They mailed the lot to me in Scotland. His subsequent NES dev kits were altogether more compact. They were given codenames from characters in Blade Runner.”

The initial plan had been for Codemasters to branch out from computer development and start making console games. Keep in mind the company’s early successes were with budget-priced titles and sports simulators. The intention of the latter being to tap into pre-existing audiences for something, such as BMX fans or rugby fans, rather than grow a fan base from scratch. So while Codemasters’ earliest foray into NES development was porting pre-existing computer games, such as Dizzy, David and co were thinking of ways to reach wider audiences – and what wider audience is there than every single game owner?

“We tried to come up with a game concept that would appeal to absolutely everybody,” David told Super Play 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. You can’t change the ROM. We were wrong, of course – it is possible. You don’t have to change the ROM, you just have to fool it a bit.”





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