Controversies have always been a part of human culture, and even the clean-cut Nintendo Entertainment System was not without its share of controversial topics surroundings its games. From social statements to censorship, these are five fine NES game controversies.
The usual gamer stereotype roughly involves an image of an overweight, socially underdeveloped male who lives in his parents’ basement and enjoys video games to the point of obsession. Despite the increasing prominence of female gamers on the gaming scene, the prevalence of males led to video game developers writing cartridges that were intended to appeal to males. These would include factors such as strong male protagonists, attractive female interests, heavy action, and other targeted components. Only a few titles on the NES had a female protagonist, and even among those, even fewer seemed specifically targeted for girls. Yet the one perhaps most notable example, Barbie, may have been counterproductive; in trying to appeal to girls, the end result was a terrible video game with little replay value at all, and may have only served to perpetuate another stereotype by portraying its main character, Barbie, as a blonde bimbo that just liked to look pretty and shop at the mall. Surely, this game could not be considered a step forward for girl gamers to gain any respect.
Back in the early days of home console video game entertainment, the Nintendo Entertainment System represented renewed hope in the industry following the market crash that resulted from the fall of the Atari 2600, which itself was caused by third-party developers quickly and cheaply creating poor games in an attempt to cash in on what some saw as an endangered fan. As a result, not only did Nintendo put have safeguards somewhat in place to keep only cartridges with their official seal of approval on them going to publication, but they strive be careful with their audience and shrewd in their marketing, actively crafting a family-friendly image. This required drastic measures at times that included censorship in an attempt not to offend anybody. Sometimes, this censorship would take place in the developmental stage, such as with the off-color jokes removed from Maniac Mansion. Other times, certain visual elements would be altered, as with Bionic Commando. In this classic Capcom run-‘n’-gun platformer, originally the enemy forces were supposed to represent the Nazi menace. Instead, the enemy army became more generic, with all swastikas replaced with black eagles. However, the game’s ending boss, Master-D, still bears a striking resemblance to a certain most-famous Nazi figure.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Many video games for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System were first released in versions on the Famicom unit in Japan. Sometimes they would eventually come to America and Europe with mere translation changes; otherwise, the gameplay was outright modified, such as The Adventures of Bayou Billy becoming much more difficult as the main character was made much weaker. In some special cases though, the choices made in how to transfer titles across the ocean were absolutely astounding, as was the case with Super Mario Bros. 2. In Japan, a true sequel to Super Mario Bros. was indeed published as Super Mario Bros. 2. With a reasoning that loosely summarized as “Americans would not like this because it is too difficult,” Nintendo made the interesting decision to, rather than release the Famicom SMB2 directly as a translation effort in North America, instead take a Famicom game entitled Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic and redress it with Mario canon characters, thus being able to call it Super Mario Bros. 2 and release it that way on the NES. Many American gamers would never realize what had happened, and only assumed that this was a sequel that made some notable changes in environment and gameplay style. The ending gave a nod to what had really happened though, and the subject was made even more intriguing when Super Mario Bros. 3 came out and arguably made a more significant effort to get back to Mario’s roots. Soon enough, Nintendo’s little switch-a-roo became common knowledge when the original Super Mario Bros. 2 was rereleased on the Super Mario All Stars compilation on the SNES, entitled Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. Additionally, many of the enemies and other elements of the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 would go on to make further appearances with the Mario universe canon.
Donkey Kong is a classic video game, probably most notably for its original incarnation as a legendary arcade cabinet that propelled digital gaming into mainstream consciousness. However, of course, long before Donkey Kong ever existed, another big ape with the name Kong was around: King Kong, of the classic films. In Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., MCA Universal actually sued Nintendo over the supposed copyright violation, only to discover that they themselves did not own the copyright either. Not only did Nintendo win the case, but was compensated by MCA Universal for legal fees as well. It was the success and popularity of Donkey Kong that propelled the initiative to create the Nintendo Entertainment System, with the vision of making a machine that could bring the Donkey Kong arcade experience into the living room.
As mentioned in the above entry for Bionic Commando, Nintendo of America took significant measures to prevent disapproved third parties from publishing NES cartridges. One of these measures was the 10NES lock-out system, primarily composed of a proprietary authorization sequence that, in simple terms, worked in two parts: A chip in the console checked the cartridge for a matching chip that would give the 10NES code on demand. Despite this innovation, some companies produced unlicensed games with integrated circuits that used a voltage spike to knock the authentication unit in the NES console offline, allowing an unlicensed cartridge to be played. One of these companies was Color Dreams. As if their actions were not already controversial enough, these organization soon undertook a rather bizarre but ultimately somewhat successful tactic: Once Nintendo began pressuring unlicensed companies like Tengen with legal action, Color Dreams began to feel the heat and implemented an idea to alter their previous titles into Bible-themed titles. This strategy actually worked to avoid litigation for two reasons; firstly, because Color Dreams (who soon rebranded themselves as Wisdom Tree) aimed for the target market of Christian bookstores, which never would have stocked video games before, and thus could not be effectively pressured by Nintendo; and secondly, because once Wisdom Tree was established as a Christian brand, the conservative branch of the media would have vigorously assaulted Nintendo had they actually gone through with any legal action against a company that appeared to be making wholesome, Bible-themed cartridges.
Compared to the in-game violence of Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, the continuing issues of addiction and gaming’s effects on children, these early controversies may seem quite tame. Regardless of how worrisome they were at the time, Nintendo obviously survived these issues, and would go on to make video games for decades to come, along with their eventual competitors like Sega, Sony, and Microsoft.