Monday 11 March 2013

Article: Camerica - A Brief History

While shopping at a flea market not too long ago with a friend we came across a vendor selling a strange looking NES cartridge (the one in the picture above). Neither of us had ever seen something that looked like it. The vendor thought it was worth a lot of money so we decided to look into it. As it turns out the cartridge was nothing more than a sample Camerica game: The Ultimate Stuntman. One of only a handful of unlicensed games published by Camerica.

Back in the late '80s, during the time of the NES, Nintendo had a pretty onerous publishing license. They restricted publishers to only 5 titles per year and they had to be NES exclusive for two years. On top of that it could sometimes be quite difficult for companies to actually get a hold of the cartridges for their games because Nintendo had to produce them all. Some publishers took this as a sign to start releasing unlicensed games whereby they could produce they're own cartridges and release them without permission from Nintendo. Camerica, of course, was one of these publishers.

Built into every NES was a so-called 'lockout chip' preventing games from being played unless a corresponding chip was present in the cartridge. To get around this Camerica would send small voltage spikes to the lockout chip, freezing the chip and allowing their games to be played on an unmodified NES. Nintendo, not happy about this, sued Camerica several times but lost in each case and was eventually ordered to pay Camerica for damages.

Camerica released 15 NES games in total mostly developed by Codemasters. All of them used Camerica's unique catridge shape and were painted a shiny gold or silver colour not unlike the the original Zelda and Zelda II carts. On the backside of each game was a small switch that allowed the user to play the game on an NTSC or PAL NES, essentially making them region-free.

During Camerica's brief run they also produced an arcade style joystick for the NES with a very strange triangular shape as well as a wireless controller. Their most popular device though, was the Codemasters-developed Game Genie which they were able to release in Canada due to their close relationship with Codemasters. In America though, the Game Genie was sold by the Galoob toy company.

Near the end of 1992 Camerica released their final product: the Aladdin Deck Enhancer. It was basically a cartridge cradle that housed game RAM and the lockout bypass circuitry. Smaller cartridges would be placed into the cradle and the whole thing would be placed into the NES. Camerica hoped that by not having RAM and the bypass circuitry in every cartridge they would be able to produce cheaper games. However by the time of its release the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were already out so it never sold very well. Eventually leading to the closure of Camerica.

Unfortunately for Camerica they were one of the many companies that never made it out of the NES era. But it's always interesting to learn something new about early gaming.

Thanks for reading.

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