Saturday, July 11, 2009

Coin-Op Bootlegs

Back in the heyday of the coin-op arcade game, pirates had to put significantly more effort into ripping off game companies than they do today, when home consoles rule the market. It wasn't just a matter of pirating media -- these guys had to build cabinets, controllers and circuit boards, burn ROM chips, and modify the games ever-so-slightly to make their product "unique." More on that in a bit.

Copyright protection for electronic game software was a new horizon at the time, poorly defined from a legal standpoint, and even the biggest hits had fairly short life cycles, so the pirates managed to get away with it for a while. They pumped their bootleg games into the same distribution channels as the legitimate originals, and appear to have been fairly successful, especially when demand for big hits couldn't be met with original machines.

What's interesting is that as far as I know none of them counterfeited the original machines directly -- they all seem to have tweaked the game software and titles a little bit, perhaps in an effort to avoid prosecution. Unlike the unlicensed home conversions that abounded at the time, these were not even new, similar efforts -- these were modified copies of the original arcade ROMs, with new bytes poked in where necessary to achieve a modicum of distinction. But they never put TOO much effort into the changes -- usually they shuffled the color palette a bit, and modified the title screen, leaving the gameplay and sound effects more or less intact. Sometimes the pirate versions were sold as conversion kits, so arcade operators could turn a dying Galaxian arcade cabinet into a bootleg Pac-Man machine, for example.

I only encountered a few such games growing up. One was Crazy Kong Part II, a bootleg of Donkey Kong credited to "Eagle" with the levels in a different order. The other was Frog, which was Frogger with a different, garish color palette and a title screen that lazily replaced three of the letters in the original title with frog sprites. But I'm sure there were many more out there -- magazines at the time reported that Donkey Kong was so heavily pirated that Nintendo offered its own reward for information on the illegal manufacture and sale of such clones.

The pirates didn't ultimately contribute much to the industry* beyond their hilariously futile attempts to disguise their efforts. They were eventually pushed out of the market by the mid-80's videogame industry crash, quality issues, consumer awareness, and encryption of arcade ROMs in later years.

Still, I have fond memories of the piratey days of yore, and have played a few meta-quasi-legal pirate arcade games on MAME for nostalgia's sake. There's part of me that wishes I could go to GameStop and find a weird-looking "Legend of Zleda: Twilight Prince!!" or "Grand Theft Otto V," just for fun.

* One notable exception was Crazy Otto, an unauthorized Pac-Man modification kit designed to freshen up the existing game. Its "underground" designers went on to create Ms. Pac-Man at Midway's request -- Namco later adopted the game as its own, but it was born of the US distributor's need for a hasty sequel.

No comments:

Post a Comment