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1989: Atari Breaks into Nintendo's Cartridges
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on December 07, 2002   |   Episode 13 (Show Archive)  

The Scoop: Before Nintendo ever thought about jumping into the console market, Atari was a name to be reckoned with. But as the Nintendo Entertainment System was gaining popularity, Atari and Sega were unable to cash in on the success. Nintendo had a strong controlling grip on who did and did not make publish games for the N.E.S., and one of the companies that did not was Atari.

But that didn't stop Atari from figuring out how to bypass the lock-out chip. Using the name Tengen, Atari published unlicensed games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Tengen's catalog included arcade ports of Klax, Rolling Thunder, Super Sprint, and Pac-Man, as well as a number of Sega games, like Afterburner II, Shinobi, and Alien Syndrome.

There were a number of lawsuits, and then counter suits involved with these releases, but it wasn't until Tengen released Tetris that things got truly ugly. Nintendo had plans on releasing an N.E.S. and GameBoy version of the Russian puzzler, only to find another company beat them to it. This would eventually be resolved in court, to the favor of Nintendo, and Tengen is forced to recall, and destroy thousands of these cartridges. These days they are going for an upwards of $150.

A year later, Atari would drag Nintendo into court accusing them of having an unfair, and illegal, monopoly on the video game industry. One that was achieved through illegal practices, such as a lock-out chip and price fixing. Nintendo wins.

The Other Side: The Tengen version of Tetris is far better than anything Bullet Proof Software ever came up with. It featured a two-player mode unrivaled by any Tetris then or now. It's a shame that it was pulled from the market and most gamers will likely never be able to play it.

And really, a lot of Tengen's releases were pretty good. Shinobi, Rolling Thunder, and Pac-Man all played exactly like their arcade counterparts, and the graphics didn't take much of a hit when ported. Of course, these days Tengen's games are worth a lot of money, so I'm sure people hanging onto those won't do much complaining.

The Impact: After all of the dust settled, Tengen showed other companies you can go up against the big guys. And for the first time, it painted Nintendo in a bad light. It set the table for the 1990's, when the Genesis would prove a formidable foe, Sony would triumph, and cartridges would no longer be chic. Tengen
would eventually find the Genesis to be a perfect place to publish their wares, and Nintendo would never be able to do a thing about it.

Where Are They Now?: It's been a bumpy road for Atari these last few years. After the failure of the Lynx and Jaguar, they have gotten out of the console making market completely, and focused on making software. They company has been bought, sold, and juggled around recently, but they appear to now have their feet on the ground popular games like NeverWinter Nights on the PC and Unreal Championship on the Xbox. These days the name Tengen is nothing more than a faint memory.


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