The History of the Nintendo NES Seal of Quality

Over the course of the NES active history, Nintendo influenced the video game industry and the video game developers in a manner that most of today's developer would prefer to forget about. To encourage the involvement of third-party developers, Nintendo developed the NES Seal of Quality system. How did it work? Hang on and we'll check it out.

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The security

Nintendo had a complete monopoly over the physical production of the cartridges. They placed an authentication chip into every console (the 10NES authentication chip), and another one was placed into every officially licensed cartridge that would bear the "Official NES Seal of quality". The game wouldn't load if the console didn't recognize the authentication chip inside the cart.

This would allow Nintendo to enforce really strict rules on their third party developers, starting with production runs of their games in the numbers Nintendo would judge appropriate. This had a big impact on many developers since, no matter how high the demand would be for their game, they were limited in the production that Nintendo would allow them to put out, so it was in fact Nintendo who decided how much profit they would allow the developer to make with this physical restriction.

Breach of security

It wouldn't take long before some shady companies wanted to break away from this security feature. The pirate market overseas was huge. Multicarts were everywhere, and some developers in America wanted to break free of the "seal of quality" mold. A company called Color Dreams figured out how to bypass the lockout chip in 1989; by sending a voltage spike from the cart to disable the lockout chip. Color Dreams produced a few games and through a legal loophole (by bypassing the chip, they weren't infringing copyrights on the Nintendo Patent) were allowed to do so. However, Nintendo was silently threatening retailers to not carry the Color Dreams games, and they succeeded. Color Dreams changed their name to Wisdom Tree and started production of religion-themed games as a sting to Nintendo's morality of ruling the game production market.

Other pirate companies at that time used a dongle that would connect to a licensed game with the chip to use it for the authentication process with the 10NES. Many import pirate games worked this way in America.

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Tengen, the renegade


Tengen, an Atari company, was the only official licensee to defect Nintendo. Since they didn't want to risk being liable for damage to NES consoles via the volt spike method, they managed to get access to the lockout chip patent and they were able to replicate it in their own format : the Rabbit chip. Nintendo sued Tengen for copyright infringement and they won, however the claims against Nintendo from Tengen for antitrust were never decided to this day.

You're either with us, or against us

Nintendo also had a strict 3rd party developers policy for many years; if you developed a game for Nintendo, you only developed games for Nintendo. This policy was a killer for most companies who tried to break or shake up the Nintendo monopoly in America. It was the case of the Sega Master System who never really took off in America while enjoying quite a popularity overseas, even surpassing the NES.

They also had a strict censoring policy for games they released in America under their licensed seal. They censored all contents for U.S. releases, removing all questionable words or adult and semi-adult content. This was alienating for many game developers at the time.

When Nintendo finally eased up their policies due to government pressure and the fact that developers were starting to defect to competitors, the market opened a bit again and other companies had a chance to take a fair share of the pie with their systems. When the NES console was reissued as the NES 2 in the 90s, the 10NES chip was removed from the console, marking the end of the tightest hold ever known over third-party developers in all the history of video games.

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Thankfully, no other video game company ever tried again to hold such a tight grip on the development of video games for their system, and we're now able to enjoy masterpieces on any video game system of our choice.

The Nintendo NES is still quite a popular video game system, even if it's only for the fact that it was only this system that Americans could enjoy to play video game for years, thus making the nostalgia element pretty high in a high percentage of the American population who enjoy video games.

The Author

I've been playing Nintendo since the 90s!