A Brief Overview of Console PiracyBy Miodrag Kovačević | November 27, 2011 | Editorials | 16 comments | Share
Piracy is a problem that has plagued the entertainment industry since forever. Whether it’s the music, film or video game industry, the temptation of getting something for free with close to no consequences is often too great for many people. These days you can buy individual songs for a low price, movie tickets aren’t expensive and watching a movie isn’t as time-consuming, but games still stand out because they demand the consumer invest more time and money into them than in most other forms of mainstream entertainment.
With the mass influx of Internet users in recent years, it’s much easier to get a hold of various information on any subject we wish, but on the other hand, we are rarely inclined to do so. Perhaps this lack of motivation is partially to blame for the current opinion on piracy: that it is something that troubles only the PC platform at the moment, whereas the bane of consoles are only used sales.
I say partially because it is not consumers alone who are rather silent on the topic of console piracy. Mainstream gaming media rarely, if ever, bothers with reporting about it. Developers and publishers are also quiet on the subject, sometimes only vocal when they need a reason to not support the PC platform. Of course, it’s much easier to blame piracy for a game not doing well, rather than saying the game might not have been as good as you thought. This excuse is never uttered when it comes current generation consoles. And it does make sense. If a developer were to criticize the Xbox 360, they would have to answer to Microsoft. That’s something you wouldn’t want if you intend to develop for the platform in the future. If that same developer criticizes the PC, do they answer to anyone? Microsoft because they made the OS? Nvidia because they made the graphics card? Intel because they made the processor? There’s nobody really that’s affected by such statements aside from PC gamers, who can’t really do anything about it when it comes down to it.
That’s, in part, the motivation behind this overview: to point out that video game piracy is not synonymous with the PC platform. We’ll be taking a look at some major consoles from the Atari 2600 and up until current gen systems. The goal is to look at the systems and discuss whether piracy was present on them. The scope is something I do not wish to address at the moment, unless it’s quite high or extremely low. But in the end, it does boil down that it has always been a problem and will continue to be a problem for any popular gaming platform, console or PC. Since piracy obviously didn’t exist in the same form in days of old as it does today, we’ll be taking a short look at bootleg hardware and multicarts wherever possible.
A disclaimer before we start: the information contained inside this article is based on first-hand experience, talking to people who’ve had experience with console piracy, as well as browsing on the Internet. There are no tutorials here on how to mod your console or where to download games, so if you’re looking for that, go somewhere else.
Piracy during the first generation of consoles is pretty much synonymous with the Atari 2600. The problems weren’t limited to just the illegal copying of games, but rather various small-time video game companies creating clones of popular Atari arcade games.
One example of how piracy was possible was the ill-timed Vidco Copy Cart. As Atari Age reports: “It was sold in a bundle with the cartridge duplicator and the game Dishaster. Basically, the copier was a double-ended apparatus in which you would insert the copy cart in one end and the source cart in the other. Press a button, and the code is copied to the copy cart. The cartridge could be erased and reused.”
The term “ill-timed” refers to the overflow of cartridges during the time of its release in 1983. The device and the blank cart cost more than the insane amount of original games available at retailers did. Still, it shows that piracy as we know it today was indeed possible even from the earliest era of video games.
The other issue involving game clones was of far greater concern to Atari, though. An official Atari ad that could be found in magazines said enough about how miffed the company was regarding this problem: “ATARI gives warning to both the intentional pirate and to the individuals simply unaware of the copyright laws that ATARI registers the audiovisual works associated with its games with the Library of Congress and considers its games proprietary. ATARI will protect its rights by vigorously enforcing these copyrights and by taking the appropriate action against unauthorized entities who reproduce or adapt substantial copies of ATARI games, regardless of what computer or other apparatus is used in their performance.”
However, the ad’s motives aren’t entirely in correlation to the magnitude of clones at the time. Rather, in 1981, when the ad campaign was run, Atari bought the exclusive rights to home console adaptions of Pac-Man. Naturally, as Pac-Man had an astonishing number of clones from various small companies, Atari wanted to stomp any competition, most notably the Magnavox Odyssey game K.C. Munchkin, which was later pulled from the market thanks to Atari’s efforts.
It’s also interesting to note how the ad’s interpretation of software piracy refers to the “audiovisual” feel. While we’d laugh at the idea of someone releasing a game which is exactly like Uncharted, save for the actual graphics and names, it was still a pretty new concept back in the day. You can read the whole ad here, courtesy of TRS-80.org.
Another interesting anecdote is regarding the game Moon Patrol. According to one of the game’s programmers, Scott Smith, the prototype for the Atari 5200 was leaked on various bulletin boards shortly before the game’s release, with a clever hacker managing to hack the game into working with the Atari 8-bit computer. In general, bulletin boards were one of the main problems for Atari games, as they were freely shared there.
If you’d like to know how most of these crappy clones were packaged, jump over to Atari HQ and take a look at some Taiwanese copies.
Nintendo Entertainment System
Being one of the most popular systems ever, the NES had a ton of piracy problems which lasted long after most of the world had moved on to the SNES or even the N64. First off, it might seem silly to younger readers, or even older ones, but the NES had plenty of hardware clones. Some, like the Dendy Junior, looked nearly identical to the original NES/Famicom. Others went with a more “original” design, while some copied the look of other popular consoles, like the Mega Drive, PS One and even the original Xbox (but played NES games). This obviously gives you an idea as to how much the clones actually “outlived” the original hardware.
These were mostly popular in regions where the NES was never sold, like South America and the former Soviet Union. Despite never being a part of the Soviet Union, I guess Serbia and the Balkans in general counted as “former Soviet Union”, as I have never personally seen a real NES, but I have seen plenty of clones, the most notable one here being dubbed “Terminator”.
Games came in two variants. They were either built-in or came in popular (usually) yellow cartridges. Often, there were multiple games on a console or on the cartridges, sometimes reaching absurd numbers like 999,999,999. Of course, this wasn’t really the case. These compilations would contain a handful of games, but some fiddling with the hex code would create things like “Super Mario Bros M”, “Super Mario Bros G”. Sometimes, this would result in the game starting from a different level, the character being invincible, or other odd changes, both intentional and unintentional. Obviously, nobody made that many variants either, so there were multiple entries of the same game just to show 999,999,999 entries on the menu list.
Such multicarts weren’t the only choice for owners of Famiclones. The general consensus was “the less games it has, the better”. So, a multicart with “only” 4 games was likely to have 4 “quality” games, like the bootleg port of the SNES version of Aladdin. Heck, I actually had the opportunity once to play a bootleg port of the Mega Drive version. To give you an idea of what else was considered “quality”, games like Spy Hunter, Ninja Gaiden and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beat ‘em ups were all only on the smaller compilations, while the ones with the inflated numbers had things like Tennis, Super Mario Bros, Ice Climber, Dr. Mario and so on. Some games, I never saw on Famiclones, though. I never saw any Zelda game, for example (although I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed).
It’s worth noting that some patents for the NES have expired now, so the production of Famiclones isn’t exactly illegal, but if it contains pirated software, then it is.
Sega Mega Drive/Genesis
There were hardware clones of the Mega Drive as well, but what’s interesting this time around are the actual games. Cartridges were now sold to be used on the original console, for many indiscernible from the real games. To give you a better idea of how this worked, here’s a bit of Serbian gaming lore. The West had arcades, which, logically, contained arcade cabinets. We had those too, but we also had locales with plenty of consoles like the Mega Drive, SNES, PSX, hooked up to TVs. Say, a locale has five TVs and five consoles. You’d wait for one to free up, pick a game from the locale’s library and play it depending on how much you paid. Half an hour, an hour, two, your choice. Obviously, the more games you had, the better, because if you happen to not have something your competitor down the street had, you were at a disadvantage. Since games were bought in bulks, you’ll go for the cheaper, pirated variant.
What were the disadvantages? Aside from not being “the real thing”, only cosmetic differences. The box and box art would often be of lower quality, as well as the art on the cartridge itself. This wasn’t always the case, and as I said, a good deal of people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. You have to keep in mind that this was way before the Internet had reached the level where it’s at now, so looking these things up wasn’t exactly possible.
However, in some rare cases, there were real disadvantages. The example I like to quote is that of Sonic and Knuckles. The original cartridge would let you slot either Sonic 1, 2 or 3 in it, and then combine it together in a “new” game (to put it simply). The pirated version never had this. It was your run of the mill cartridge. Heck, until a few years ago, I didn’t even know you could slot Sonic 3 into Sonic and Knuckles. When I did find out, I finally figured out that what we’ve been playing as kids were pirated games.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
I’m a bit on the uninformed side here as to the actual details about SNES piracy, not to mention that the Internet is a bit scarce on info as well. However, I did manage to actually find screenshots of some multicarts on NESWORLD. So, at least we can say for certain that piracy did exist on the SNES. Whether it was as prevalent as with the Mega Drive, I cannot say. In case you have some stories to tell on the subject, feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to update the article.
Game Boy and Other Handhelds
Much like with the NES, the most popular form piracy for the Game Boy were multicarts. The numbers weren’t as astronomical as with the previously mentioned Famiclone examples, but there were still around 20 or so games crammed inside. I don’t know whether individual games were pirated (like, a pirate version of Super Mario Land trying to pass off as the original), but considering multicarts were possible, I see no reason why single variants wouldn’t be viable.
While we’re on the topic of handhelds, we might as well mention the other Nintendo portable, the Nintendo DS. Considering it’s more of a contemporary device, piracy is far more widespread and boils down to buying a flashcart, following instruction and downloading ROMs onto the flashcart. That’s about it. It’s so easy, that people are more surprised if you actually buy a DS game instead of just downloading it. Let’s not even get into the subject of fully functional DS emulators.
As for the PlayStation Portable, the process isn’t as simple as with the DS, but still simple enough. You also install custom firmware, download an .iso of the game you want and just transfer it via USB cable from your PC.
This is one of the more interesting cases, as you could easily say that Nintendo “beat” piracy with the N64 by being so damn expensive. To elaborate, it was definitely possible to pirate N64 cartridges and the only known to exist so far are Killer Instinct Gold, Pilotwings 64, Wave Race 64, Top Gear Rally and Diddy Kong Racing. That’s it. the problem was that manufacturing a pirate N64 cartridge was such an expensive process that pirates promptly stopped bothering with it and moved on to the PlayStation.
Sony PlayStation and PlayStation 2
Out of all the consoles I’ve read up on, the PlayStation was the first console I read about requiring some actual fiddling with the hardware. The most widespread form of piracy for both the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 was modding the console and then just burning a game and running it. Most people I know of bought their consoles already modded, and while I’m sure it wasn’t as widespread and open as in the West, it was at least present.
There were also some scene releases which came with built-in trainers before the game started. You could choose things like playing the game with infinite lives, health, ammunition and so on.
Other than that, there is not much worth mentioning. It was present, it was widespread, cheap and simple. Obviously, it was a problem for Sony as well, as they resorted to some propaganda of their own.
The Dreamcast was free from piracy for the first two years, until the infamous Boot Disc 1.1 by Utopia was released. It was an astonishingly simple process: you put the Boot Disc in, waited for it to load, opened the lid, put in the burned or imported game copy and played. That was it. Within a few months, various rips plagued the Internet, as well as the first self-boot, Dynamite Cop, being released.
Many cite piracy as what killed the Dreamcast. I always found that claim beyond absurd, as piracy was extremely widespread on Sony’s consoles, and yet they never “suffered” for it. But don’t listen to me, I urge you to read Xiaopang’s article on the subject. It goes into great detail about how piracy came to be on the Dreamcast, the circumstances, the consequences, as well as other useful details.
Now we get to the part which nobody ever talks about, namely the current generation of consoles. This is now far beyond the point where you worry about people buying pirate copies from shops. Most gamers have Internet access (after all, a lot of people do play on their consoles online), meaning rather than buying any burned discs from street sellers, they are just a Google search away from a new game.
Out of the big three, the Xbox 360 is the only console that requires actual hardware modification. Without detailing the process, you basically mod your console and burn any game you wish to play, much like with the PlayStation. The way in which this limits you is that Microsoft can detect whether you’ve modified your console when you connect to Xbox Live, and will promptly ban you. They might not do it right away, but they often keep a record. I recall people getting banned during the big Modern Warfare 2 sweep without ever running the game. There are ways to play online with a hacked console and hide that fact, but none are completely reliable. If you can live without connecting to the Internet and are content with single-player games, there’s pretty much no drawback for you running a modified Xbox 360.
The Wii is probably the easiest to hack to play burned copies, as it doesn’t require any hardware fiddling. It’s probably most akin to the PSP in that regard.
The big thing which sets console and PC piracy apart at present is that, for most part, games are available to download on consoles long before their PC counterparts
As for the PlayStation 3, it’s a mixed bag right now. We all know the recent drama with the PlayStation 3 hack, but as it’s only a firmware update that can make all the difference, it doesn’t take Sony long to invalidate a hack. Anyone with a firmware version of 3.55 or lower can play pirated PS3 games, but as newer games require that you update your firmware before you can run them, that means that piracy only works for older titles.
However, pirates seem to have found a work-around for newer games, so Uncharted 3 is fully playable with a pirate copy. Newer game support is, however, on a case-by-case basis, so we can say that while not impenetrable, the PlayStation 3 is the most sturdy of the current generation.
The big thing which sets console and PC piracy apart at present is that, for most part, games are available to download on consoles long before their PC counterparts. Do you remember the drama about the beta build of Crysis 2 getting leaked on torrent sites? Likely, as the Internet was up in flames about it. But I doubt you knew that the Xbox 360 version of the game got leaked three days before the release date? Or how Skyrim for the same console got leaked ten days before the official release date? Skyward Sword hit torrent sites nine days before legitimate customers had a chance to enjoy it. Heck, Fallout 3 got released on October 28, but it was available for download on October 8.
Sure, it happens on the PC as well, the most noteable example being Starcraft 2, but for most part, console copies are available to pirates long before legitimate customers can go into a shop and buy them. The availability on torrent sites often coincides with gaming sites receiving their review copies, so that is also something that would warrant investigation. Mainstream media outlets rarely report when a game hits torrent trackers, as that always happens and it would just clutter up the news feed. The drawback is that it makes the typical gamer unaware of the problem existing on every gaming platform, not just the PC. It’s quite common to see people believing that piracy isn’t possible on consoles. There is a lack of education.
On the other side, we have developers and publishers who also rarely acknowledge the fact. It is somewhat understandable, as criticizing a platform openly could harm your relationship with the platform holder (unless you’re Valve). Attacking the PlayStation 3 means you answer to Sony. Attacking the Xbox 360 means you answer to Microsoft. Attacking the PC means you only answer to disgruntled PC gamers. And if your game does badly, why would you resort to admitting you didn’t do a good job, when you can just blame it all on pirates?
So, here it is. A brief reference of how no console is immune to piracy. How, today, console pirates are the first to play new games, even before customers who legitimately pre-ordered them can. Next time somebody tells you piracy is a PC problem, direct them here or at one of the links below. Trust us, it’s a problem everywhere. Don’t be lazy and read up on it.
Atari HQ – Atari 2600 Pirate Gallery
Bootleg Games Wiki – Wiki for bootleg games and hardware
Nesworld – Contains, among other things, information on piracy for Nintendo consoles
“Piracy killed the Dreamcast… or did it?” – An excellent read on Dreamcast piracy
Sega8bit.com – The Rare Items Gallery has a few relevant pictures regarding Sega Master System piracy.
If you have any links, stories, or information to share that could contribute to this article, feel free to e-mail the author at miodrag.k [at] deltagamer.com