In my youth, I was an average video game player.

The list of games I was able to beat, versus the list of games that went unvanquished, was dead even in length. For every Metroid, Punch-Out!!, or Legend of Zelda I conquered, there was a Ninja Gaiden, Silver Surfer, or Contra that I lost, over and over again. Any game with one-hit kills or limited lives eluded my abilities.

So you can imagine my delight when I was watching my cartoons one day, and this commercial came on.

Game Genie – it seemed like the answer to every gaming problem I ever had. It promised to crack my most challenging games – more lives, more speed, more weapons. My favorite part of the commercial was when the kid slid the Game Genie into the Nintendo cartridge, and the little, electric lightning bolts shot up the sides. It was like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory – for a young kid, the Game Genie seemed dark, forbidden, and magical. It would go on to sell over 5 million copies – its popularity, however, led to legal action from Nintendo. The ensuing court battle defined game ownership, and even today, the remix culture it helped inspire continues to grow.

Codemasters, a British gaming company, developed the Game Genie in 1990. It was originally known as the Power Pak, and Galoob, a San Francisco-based toy company, released the Game Genie to the American public.

The Game Genie inserted itself into a game cartridge, and the resulting combo was then placed, Game Genie first, into the console. Inserting the Game Genie required a bit of force – you had to hold the back of the NES for support, and you were always in danger of breaking the connector pins by pushing too hard. Once you crammed the Game Genie/Cartridge into the console and pressed the power button, the following title screen came up – a charming, no-frills testament to efficacy.

Included with the Game Genie was a thick booklet, stuffed with codes for every NES Game imaginable. A player could enter up to three codes, although some effects required more than one code to work properly. The Game Genie intercepted data sent from the game cartridge to the console, and the player, by entering codes, substituted portions of that data, assigning new values to key, mechanical elements of the gameplay.

Some of these effects were incredibly useful. One of Contra's codes, for instance, would give the player infinite lives – a relief for those who used Konami’s 10 lives code, and still could not win. Other effects made the game more difficult.

A Ninja Gaiden sadist, for example, could start Ryu’s quest with a single life. Other effects were stranger, and humorously varied the gameplay. In Mega Man 2, for example, there was a ‘Moonwalking’ code. When I entered it, Mega Man would slide backwards, a la Michael Jackson, in the opposite direction I instructed him to. You haven’t laughed until you’ve moonwalked off the edge of the Air Man stage – as if the Air Tikkis and Fan Fiends weren’t difficult enough.

Some of the effects would last for a level before rendering the game unplayable. In Super Mario 3, for example, I could create hilarious jumping effects for Mario. Mario would perform ‘Mega Jumps’ like he was on the moon, and he would even ‘Skywalk,’ floating through each stage on thin air. After World 1-1, however, the game would immediately glitch, and I would have to reset my NES.

Developers responded to the Game Genie in varied, interesting ways. Sega took the most progressive view – they endorsed the product as a complement to their own, and they gave the Game Genie their official approval. Nintendo took the most conservative view – they sued, and they issued an injunction against Galoob to force the product off of shelves.

At stake was the issue of a ‘derivative work’ – was the Game Genie, through its alterations, creating a separate game, and thus, a copyright infringement? In Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America, Inc., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that the Game Genie had done no such thing – that a ‘derivative work’ had to be “fixed” in form, and that the Game Genie “merely enhance[d] the audiovisual displays (or underlying data bytes) that originate in Nintendo game cartridges.”

In a legal spanking that was heard around the world, the Court also forced Nintendo to pay Galoob over $15 million in compensation – for money lost during the temporary injunction.

This early legal scuffle foreshadowed the problems that mod and fan game communities would face in subsequent years –the fine lines that separate a game tribute from game add-on from a separate game unto itself. Freed from the threat from any legal action, Galoob would go on to release Game Genies for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo as well.

Today, the Game Genie is all but dead – a Playstation revival was attempted a year or two ago, but it’s fizzled since, along with a quasi-racist mascot that’s better left unseen – although, we’re going to show you anyway.

Why did it fail? For most modern games, the Game Genie would have been an antiquated redundancy. Most games now have adjustable difficulty, and they no longer have a lives/continues system – instead, they rely on multiple checkpoints, allowing for as many attempts as the player is willing to make. The old system – of making games insanely hard to increase their playtime – is mostly dead. Additional security measures, not to mention the popularity of disc based gaming, have also made it difficult for the average consumer to modify their software or hardware.

We are currently heading into a future that will do away with all physical media – an ‘always online’ future, where we will subscribe to our games rather than owning them. Thus, we wistfully toast the Game Genie, a device that allowed us to assert our ownership – to personalize our gaming experience and play the game that we wanted, at any time we wanted to.

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