For this article I thought I would go over collecting a popular subset of unlicensed NES games, those being the games made by the Tengen company. But being the type of collector & historian I am, I’ve decided to first provide a little bit of history about the games. If you don’t care about the history, feel free to scroll down past this next section.
A Little History:
Believe it or not, Tengen was actually an Atari subsidiary. Back in 1985 Atari was split into two companies: Atari Corporation and Atari Games Corporation. In 1987 Hideyuki Nakajima (previously Namco’s manager of American Operations) gained a controlling stake in Atari Games. Obviously he wanted to begin publishing many of Atari’s strong titles. But, unfortunately, the Atari Games half of the company couldn’t release games under Atari’s name because that right belonged to Atari Corporation. So Nakajima came up with a new branch of Atari Games named Tengen. The name “Tengen” was a reference to the game “Go” much like the name “Atari” had been.
With the NES being the powerhouse and dominant video game console on the market at the time, Tengen sought to become a licensee. There was a problem however, Nintendo had some very strict rules about the number of games a licensee could produce in a year (only five). Nintendo saw this as a sure-fire way to guarantee a quality product for its system without being overrun by terrible games, similar to what had happened with Atari and its collapse years before. Tengen was not happy about this; with potential access to Atari’s many titles, Tengen thought it should be given special treatment to be allowed to produce more games. But Nintendo wouldn’t budge and eventually Tengen agreed to become a licensee. Soon after, Tengen came to an agreement with Namco to port some of their major titles. I find it interesting that Nintendo wouldn’t budge, since that same year they manipulated their own rule and allowed Konami (as Ultra) and Acclaim (as LJN) to produce an additional five games under different names and, given Tengen’s Atari Library (although many rights still lay with the other side of the company), you would think that Nintendo would be interested in allowing Tengen to produce some of its popular titles. But the joke was on Nintendo, as Atari Games was already working on ways around Nintendo’s lockout chip so that it could produce its own third party games.
Supposedly, Atari Games engineers were close to finding a way around the chip. But before they could, Atari made a huge mistake. Atari gained access to the lockout chip program by obtaining the program from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They did this by claiming that they needed the program for a lawsuit they were filing against Nintendo, which they were not actually doing. Atari now had the plans to get around the chip and, through their licensing agreement, also got access to Nintendo’s retailers.
Following this, Atari preemptively sued Nintendo, claiming that they were a monopoly on the video game market. This did actually buy them a significant amount of time. But Nintendo struck back hard, filing their own lawsuit with a myriad of charges. More importantly, Nintendo contacted retailers and informed them that if they sold Tengen games they could be sued by Nintendo and lose the rights to sell their games. With Nintendo sales being what they were, Nintendo’s tactics were very effective in keeping retailers from stocking Tengen games. Nintendo ultimately proved victorious in the lawsuit filed against them. While bypassing the lockout chip itself wasn’t illegal, Nintendo was able to prove that Atari had illegally infringed on their copyrights since parts of the code to bypass the chips were non-functional and came directly from Nintendo’s chip. So basically, Atari’s gamble with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office completely backfired. As an aside, Tengen was successful in claiming Nintendo as a monopoly. This resulted in Nintendo agreeing to give $25 million back to consumers. However, Nintendo achieved this by sending $5 discounts to consumers who, in return, used it towards purchasing other games and actually helped Nintendo sell more games. Tengen continued to make games for the NES throughout its existence, but also produced many licensed titles for other systems. All in all, Tengen produced three standard gray licensed games for the NES and twenty-one unlicensed titles for the NES that featured unique Atari cartridges.
See, now wasn’t that a fun little history? The story doesn’t stop there however. The battle between the two companies over the Tetris title is another fascinating tale that I’ll save for another article since the Tetris story itself is so fascinating and this history section isn’t as short as I wanted it to be…
Collecting a Tengen set for the Nintendo Entertainment System isn’t too difficult a task. The lower number of titles and amount of cartridges produced make this a good set for beginners even. There are only 24 NTSC games needed to complete the set. Many of which can be obtained for a very reasonable amount.
The first thing of note about the collection is that while the majority of games are unlicensed products. There are actually three titles that were in fact licensed with Nintendo and were being made before Nintendo and Tengen’s dispute. So these three games, along with having unlicensed versions, also had standard Nintendo gray cartridges. These titles are:
The rest of the Tengen titles for the NES were unlicensed and came in a more traditional black Atari type cartridge. These are actually very high in quality in my opinion. With respect to the other unlicensed games produced by other companies, these have to be the most sturdy. Along with that, they also had quality labels and good reliability. Below is a picture of the standard black cartridges from Tengen:
The three titles that were released while licensed with Nintendo were also released in the black cartridge design as well. The carts were all put together with three screws which, like Nintendo, don’t use traditional screw heads. One of my favorite things about these carts is that one of the screws is actually underneath the label on the back. Which, as a collector, that means that you can tell if someone has previously taken the cart apart because either they had to remove the sticker or puncture it to get to the screw. Unfortunately, this also makes cleaning the carts more difficult. There is one specific thing that kind of annoys me about the carts. I like to be able to see the titles when the carts are on the shelf, because the top is slanted I have to pull the games off my shelf to see the titles.
So as a collector, if you bide your time and wait for the good deal to come along, there is no reason this cartridge collection in its entirety should cost you more than $95-$150. In general, you should be able to purchase all of the titles for in between $3-$5 dollars. Sometimes the Pac-Man titles can garner a little more however (Tengen Ms. Pac-Man is considered a better version of the game than the Nintendo licensed release). The only title in which there is a very noticeable price gap is the Tengen version of Tetris. This game commands generally between $25-$35 dollars for the cartridge. There are a few reasons for this which I’ll cover briefly. One of my next articles will be specifically about the battle for Tetris and will cover more of the Nintendo vs. Tengen aspect of Tetris that has made the Tengen version more valuable.
The short story is this; Everyone thought they had the rights to Tetris and had secured them the correct way. However, most of these people were wrong. This was because of confusion about who exactly was allowed to give the rights to Tetris and because once someone thought they actually had the rights, they usually started selling those rights to others leaving a confusing mess which I will go into better in the Tetris article. The way rights and politics worked in the Soviet Union caused much confusion. Anyway, both Nintendo and Tengen both thought they had secured the rights to produce the game for the NES. So, both companies created games and of course another battle in court ensued – a battle which Nintendo ended up winning and, as a result, Tengen couldn’t sell anymore copies of its version of Tetris.
It’s not known exactly how many copies of Tengen Tetris were sold. I’ve seen different sources cite different estimates so I’d rather not guess a number. The amount was small enough that during the initial years that the game had been banned the cartridges sold for as much as $300. Now they command significantly less but this shows their popularity at the time. A big reason for this was that many believed it to be a superior game to the Nintendo version. One of the biggest advantages it had on the Nintendo version was that it was a two player game. Players could play against other players or against the game. Many people cite better gameplay and design as well. At one point there were 268,000 copies of the game that Tengen stored in a warehouse. It’s believed those have since been destroyed since they weren’t allowed to be sold.
Checklist of NTSC Tengen Tetris games:
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
RBI Baseball 2
RBI Baseball 3
Skull & Crossbones
Tetris: The Soviet Mind Game
Kent, Steven. The Ultimate History of Video Games. New York: PRIMA PUBLISHING, 2001. Print.