back to article Happy 30th anniversary, Tengen! Your anti-DRM NES chip fought the law, and the law won

In 1985, Japanese giant Namco got out its wallet, and bought control of Atari Games – the coin-op arcade games maker that was doing rather well compared to its ailing home console cousin, Atari Corp. The deal was the first step toward a massive legal battle that changed the way console manufacturers produced, licensed, and …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "the court ruled that reverse engineering was protected"

    Although oddly it seems in the triggering case that reverse engineering hadn't sufficed and good old fashioned fraud was resorted to (the false copyright claim to examine Nintendo's trade secrets) I guess the court was saying that reverse engineering would have been a fair practice instead, ie through it Tengen might have prevailed?

    Of course it's somewhat moot in these protectionist DMCA days, with the full horrors of the new trade agreements yet to be unleashed (maybe TTIP's proponents are right and corporations won't resort to damage claims whenever a government tries to balance consumer interests against them. Maybe...)

    1. Ian Michael Gumby

      @Mongo ...Re: "the court ruled that reverse engineering was protected"

      If reverse engineering done properly, then it would be ok.

      It means that you have a clean room where you transcribe your notes about the product you're reverse engineering and then hand them to engineers to build a net new product from your notes.

      Its when you break this wall and the net new code wasn't developed cleanly, you run in to issues.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: @Mongo ..."the court ruled that reverse engineering was protected"

        I don't think that reverse engineering is still allowed nowadays though. That's want the DMCA is about. And even if it were allowed, you might well run into patents...

        Also, how does the copying lawyer trick work? Was there documentation on file ... ? If so, did Nintendo intend to publish it? Otherwise it would have been a trade secret and would never have left the Nintendo "IP Vault"

        1. david 12 Silver badge

          Re: @Mongo ..."the court ruled that reverse engineering was protected"

          Last I looked, reverse engineering is not protected in Malaysia or Australia. Dunno about the rest of the world, but I suspect that Malysia and Australia are not unusual in this respect. In Aus and Malaysia, the ban on reverse engineering falls out of the copyright law. (Note: not "is the copyright law"). The effect is much wider than DRM: it also prevents reverse engineering of car parts and other objects..

  2. Unicornpiss

    Cut the reset pin and wire to a switch?

    ...Obviously not for the average user, but this should allow unapproved games to run by removing the ability of the CIC chip to reset the CPU?

    1. LaeMing

      Re: Cut the reset pin and wire to a switch?

      I was thinking that myself. Today there would be a bunch of web-pages with images and instructions on how to do it.

      And several thousand tedious you-tube videos where there is a 68:1 ratio of pointless-yacking to what-you-actually-want-to-know.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "several thousand tedious you-tube videos"

        Amen and a thousand +1s - if only 1 in 68 videos actually added any value over simply reading the text. If I really want them I can always add the nervous giggles and awkward pauses myself, along with an appropriate level of hyperbole, some totally rad street argot, and I'll cross my eyes a few times to simulate the wonky automatic focus control.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Cut the reset pin and wire to a switch?

      Just get one of the late-model top-loading units. IIRC they removed the CiC from them. There are also the aftermarket players that came about after Ninty's patent protections ran out. Since the NES has been studied top to bottom for such a long time support is quite extensive even by third parties.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They didnt want crap titles?

    Then how did LJN get away with releasing untold showers of shit on the world?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: They didnt want crap titles?

      LJN was just a second NES label for Acclaim, an already-registered company. Much as Ultra Games was Konami's second NES label.

  4. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Nintendo have always been a--holes

    and they continue to be, by busting the chops of Lets-Players, so they're down in the basement with Sony, as far as I'm concerned.

  5. Sarah Balfour

    I've never owned a console…

    …nor has my sister, so the reason as to why there's a Jaguar in the loft shall forever remain a mystery. There's also an Atari computer, I had Amigas. I also had every single issue of Amiga Action, complete with cover discs, till my dear mama decided they were junk, and chucked 'em without even ASKING. No sense of nostalgia, my mother. She could've ASKED FIRST!

    My cousins still have all theirs, except for a MegaDrive which was sold to help fund the purchase of an N64.

    The games never interested me, I had a mild, passing interest in Zelda, but that was about it, my cousins have every Mario Bros game ever made. I was going to say I don't like games where death happens, but I was text adventuring in the '80s, finished every Zork, the only Amiga TA I never finished was Planetfall.

    I do apologise for this slight detour. As you were…

    1. VinceH

      Re: I've never owned a console…

      " I also had every single issue of Amiga Action, complete with cover discs, till my dear mama decided they were junk, and chucked 'em without even ASKING. No sense of nostalgia, my mother. She could've ASKED FIRST!"

      I feel your pain. I have - repeated - first hand experience of a similar problem. With the first two I know what happened:

      The first time: When I was a nipper, I bought comics - just things like Beano, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, etc - and I didn't throw them out. I built up a nice little collection. We moved. On packing day, I brought all my comics down into the living room, intending to take them with us, then went out with my friends. When I came home, the comics were gone - and I discovered that mother dear had used them to wrap her ornaments. :(

      I'd also built up a nice collection of toy cars. On this occasion, those did go with us, and the collection continued to grow over the next few years. I had some nice ones - and I'm sure some of them are now worth a nice few squids. At some point, however, I no longer had them, and it's only in recent years that mother dear told me what happened. She said that because I didn't play with them - I merely got them out of their boxes, looked them over, then put them back again - she decided to give the lot to my cousin (or was it cousins - I forget!).

      Unexplained disappearances - which probably amount to things in the loft being thrown out with no notice taken of what they were - include Star Wars, Marvel and 2000AD comics.

      1. DiViDeD

        Re: I've never owned a console…

        Not much to add, except my entire collection of Science Fiction Monthly, evry issue plus the loathsome and thankfully short lived SF Digest.

        When I attempted to recreate it some time later, I was in over 500 quid before discovering there were many issues not available at any price.

        It didn't help when, some years afterwarda, my mum said I should have got binders for them rather than keeping them in A3 boxes.

        Still, at least I still have my Omnis.

    2. DJV Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      @Sarah Balfour

      Not exactly the real thing but these may help a little:

      Amiga Action at Bombjack

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reverse Historical Engineering

    Wow, so many errors (or rather regurgitation of Nintendo spin), so little time. The chip that shipped in the Tengen carts was in fact reverse-engineered, The CIC was never about quality (as already pointed out), but always about per-cart tax on developers, plus a way to punish anybody who dared squawk. "pirates" could just solder-suck a CIC off a "quality" cart that mysteriously didn't sell. The fact that the CIC had no idea what was in the ROM helped that. Or just use a little charge-pump to zap the console's CIC. Instructions for that were definitely available, on UseNet. And "not deterministic? Pull the other one.

    Tetris? I suspect Nintendo's win had something to do with the Russian government not allowing the original negotiator to testify (and denying travel permission). So nice to be able to sell the rights twice, once before and once after Tetris took off.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Reverse Historical Engineering

      Several manufacturers like Color Dreams IIRC charge-pumped the CiC, allowing them to release unlicensed games. Meanwhile, the Game Genie used a piggyback technique to slip through. However, some models that appeared just before the top-loaders had diodes to defend against charge pumps.

      Tengen's reverse-engineered chip, BTW, was codenamed "Rabbit".

  7. Stevie


    Point of information: Although Pac-Man looked the part and made the right noises (coulda swore it was the arcade version in fact) it had a game-destroying bug from the get-go in that it would often not obey the joystick.

    Pac-Man requires only one thing to be playable: reliable and responsive code wrt the steering stick. Remove that and you have an expensive door-wedge.

    And though Tetris was great in the original versions (pretty damn close to the arcade version) absent Gauntlet the rest of the Tengen catalog was abysmal, exactly the sort of poorly produced and badly visualized crap that killed Atari (and the console market shortly after because the fast'n'cheap release mindset extended to Coleco etc) and which Nintendo was trying to make a bad memory.

    People coming of age in the post-NES world don't remember how badly the pooch had been screwed and how much better NES made things - notwithstanding companies going under waiting for chips. I still break out the NES for games of Gauntlet, Arkanoid and SMB3 on occasion.

  8. Old Handle

    So that's where it all went wrong huh? I sure wish I lived the the alternate reality where the court had agreed proto-DRM was anticompetitive.

    1. Stevie

      I lived the the alternate reality

      You wouldn't like it. That's the one where all the games look like Pong Tanks.

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