This Week in Gaming History: Game Genie goes to court0 Comments
Nintendo's entry into the North American video game console market came with a great amount of planning. Eager to avoid the same mistakes made during the Atari era, great care was taken by Nintendo of America as it related to product licensing, production runs of games and accessories, and other factors aimed to control their own market while giving the most they could to the consumer. Not surprisingly, this level of control also meant that during the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Big N spent more time in court than Judge Judy.
One of the most famous cases started in May 1990, when Nintendo and Galoob started to face off in court over the Game Genie. The 8-bit Nintendo era had developed a huge demand for secret tips and tricks hidden within games, allowing players to start with extra lives or warp ahead to later levels. The Game Genie allowed players to do even more, allowing the gamer to enter codes that gave them access to more cheats than ever before. All the user had to do was plug the Game Genie into their NES, their game into the Game Genie, insert the codes, and begin play. Players could attempt to use and discover their own codes or they could use the codes printed in a book included with the device.
Nintendo wasn't thrilled by the Game Genie, refusing to give the device an official license and arguing that it "shortened the lifespan of a cartridge" by giving gamers numerous ways to cheat and complete games quickly. Galoob argued that their product didn't violate any of Nintendo's copyrights. The makers of the Game Genie filed an injunction to prevent Nintendo from altering the design of the Nintendo Entertainment System to counteract the device. Nintendo filed an injunction to keep Galoob from selling the Game Genie in the United States altogether.
A similar video game court case had come to pass many years sooner, when Atari attempted to sue General Computer Corp. over the Super Missile Attack add-on device for their arcade hit Missile Command. In that case, GCC argued that their program in no way altered Atari's copyrighted game code, instead changing how the code acted by way of their add-on device. In that case, Atari avoided the potential nightmare a court loss would have caused by putting GCC on their payroll and asking the company not to sell add-on kits for any other arcade games without permission. That led to GCC going to Bally Midway with permission to sell an add-on that became known as Ms. Pac-Man, not to mention years of continued work with Atari.
Nintendo chose to act differently, eventually facing defeat on May 21, 1992. After all the arguments, filings, and injunctions, it was eventually ruled that since the Game Genie did not change any of the stored game code nor stored any of the altered game code itself that Nintendo had no basis for complaint. The game code in Nintendo's cartridges was only protected as it was "created" not as it was "prepared", noting that the Game Genie "did not contain or produce a Nintendo game's output in some concrete or permanent form." Nintendo appealed the decision to no avail.
Sega, eager to be the cool kid to Nintendo's business style in every way at the time, actually embraced the idea of the Game Genie for their Sega Genesis console. They did, however, ask Galoob to ensure that the Game Genie didn't work on games with a save feature. The Genesis version of the Game Genie shipped with Sega's official seal of approval on the packaging.
The result of the Game Genie case saw changes both inside and outside of the video game world. In the years that followed, more versions of the device were made for later game consoles, including the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Game Boy, and Sega Game Gear. Other cheat devices by other companies also started to hit the market, some of them lasting longer than the Game Genie brand itself. Recognizing that gamers enjoyed having control over their games, many studios began putting in more and more options for the player to choose from.
Results of the case were referred to within many later lawsuits involving devices that allowed consumers to skip over commercials in television programs and on DVDs. Like in the Game Genie case, many of these devices were ruled as simply giving the user the ability to alter their experience of the copyrighted content rather than altering the content itself. The case was also referred to in another video game-related case involving user-created content for Duke Nukem 3, but in that case the court actually decided to rule in the opposite and granted victory to the copyright holders.
Today, some game companies continue to fight against users who attempt to modify copyrighted video game code, while other companies actually embrace it and encourage it. Meanwhile, finding an original Game Genie complete with book has proven somewhat challenging on the collector's market, where use of emulators and hacks have arguably overtaken the desire to use one. Nonetheless, the Game Genie case remains one of the most talked about and interesting legal battles in video game history.