[Translation] The story of the three cartridges

[Translation] The story of the three cartridges

Almost all fans of video games of a certain age are familiar with game cartridges and their principle of operation: you insert a cartridge into the console, turn it on and start the game. Less well known are cartridges that were not so simple, including a subset of devices designed to insert into them other cartridges. Let's look at three examples of similar intermediate devices: find out why the creators of such cartridges generally bother with adding extra cartridge connector, how these cartridges used games connected to them, and what advantages this unique design gave the players themselves.

Game Genie

Game Genie was probably one of the first devices for cheating in video games, faced by an ordinary player on the home console. This tricky device was located between the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and the standard game cartridges, and gave players the ability to adjust difficulty levels, move forward in the game, or just experiment.
For children in the 90s, Game Genie seemed like real magic. First you inserted one of the game cartridges into the Game Genie. Then, not without effort (because it was rather difficult to insert), you connected the construction from the Game Genie and the games to the console and turned it on. But instead of the usual start of the game, a mysterious screen appeared, asking to enter meaningless passwords 1 . Each password influenced the game in its own way, and no passwords were repeated in any game.

So how did the Game Genie fulfill the desires of the players? Game Genie versions existed for NES, Super NES and Game Boy, as well as for Sega Genesis and Game Gear. They intercepted data exchange between the console and the game cartridge. The internal work of the game console was controlled by bits and bytes, so the ability to overwrite data transferred from the cartridge to the console allowed the Game Genie to perform incredibly powerful stunts.

Game Genie password entry screen on NES.

In essence, the entered password told the Game Genie what to do: replace one part of the program code of the game, change the initial value of other data value in memory, or not allow changing the third of the memory. For example, if you insert Super Mario Bros. in Game Genie. 3 , and then enter the password LEUXKGAA , then you will enter the world 1-1 and Mario will turn into a Raccoon-Mario.

The first version of Game Genie was developed in the late 1980s by the British company Codemasters. Although it was the first cheat cartridge for the video game console, it did not become the first cheat cartridge in history. Cheat cartridges originally appeared on the home computer market, and the first example was the 1986 Action Replay 2 3 . Initially, Codemasters was the developer of computer games for Commodore, so it’s likely that she drew inspiration from Action Replay.

Anyway, after several years of successful sales and a long legal battle with Nintendo, Game Genie cartridges disappeared when optical discs became the main storage medium in home consoles.

Noah's Ark Super 3D

Noah's Ark Super 3D is ready to connect another cartridge.

The early 1990s were a good time for the gray market for Christian-themed video games. Most of the religious games of that era were low-grade imitations of more popular games with chaotic biblical references.Therefore, very few of these games 4 are of interest to us. Noah’s Ark <3D> turned out to be quite strange, and therefore it deserved our attention.

First, Super 3D Noah’s Ark gameplay, oddly enough, on id Software's Wolfenstein 3 – D Wolfenstein 3 – D first-person shooter. Only instead of wandering through the dark corridors of the Nazi fortress, the players ran along the Noah's Ark, forcing them to fill recalcitrant animals with food.

The transition from Nazi to biblical subjects was rather confusing. When, after the initial release on PC, Wolfenstein 3 – D was ported to Super NES, Nintendo required id to make significant changes to the game content. The original version of the game was too cruel for Nintendo, which saw its console as a product for young players, and therefore their parents, who, in fact, acquired the console. Company id complied, but was not pleased with this. Therefore, she made a charming sabotage and sold a license to the game engine Wisdom Tree 5 - an unlicensed Nintendo developer who created mediocre video games on religious subjects. Wisdom Tree just redraw the content and call the game its own. Instead of controlling the hanging weapon of an American soldier, the players took on the role of Noah’s armed slingshot, subduing instead of the Nazis unruly goats and sheep.

Left: Wolfenstein 3 – D. Right: Noah's Ark Super 3D

Miraculously, getting rights to one of the most powerful engines of the time, Wisdom Tree now had to find a way to publish Super 3D Noah’s Ark , but it was not easy. In the 80s and 90s, Nintendo had a strict set of rules that games had to follow (the same rules infuriated and id Software), and one of the points was a total ban on any religious content. Despite the ban, there was a small artisan industry of religious video game developers who were desperate to capitalize on the insanity of video games. They sold games to virtuous parents who sought to instill in children their values ​​through this new form of entertainment. However, all these developers are faced with one technical problem: Nintendo consoles did not run cartridges that did not have the Checking Integrated Circuit (CIC) proprietary security chips. The games that tricked the CIC chips of the original NES were spread quite widely 6 , but No 3D’s Ark was the only unlicensed game for Super NES.

One glance at the Super 3D Noah’s Ark plug-in cartridge is enough to understand its history. Dissatisfied that the NIC CIC chip could be sabotaged with ease, Nintendo created a stronger version of the chip for Super NES. To bypass the CIC chip, Super 3D Noah’s Ark required that the player first plug the regular licensed Super NES cartridge into the top and then insert Super 3D Noah’s Ark into the console. A clever scheme allowed CIC signals to be transmitted through a non-licensed cartridge to a licensed game, causing the console to believe that the licensed game was running.

It was a masterful solution to a creative problem, and despite the rather unusual appearance, the cartridge supplement coped with its work. It may seem surprising that such a strategy did not spread to 7 , but Super NES did not attract much attention from the religious games industry. At the same time, illegal biblical games for the NES continued to be released even after the release of the official 8 games.

Sonic & amp; Knuckles

Sonic & amp; Knuckles with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 connected to it.

Last we look at Sonic & amp; Knuckles is the 1994 game for Sega Genesis, complementing the original Sonic the Hedgehog series. In contrast to the two previous cartridges we examined, Sonic & amp; Knuckles is fully functional in itself and contains six levels of a classic platformer. At first, it doesn't even seem to be anything special - its cartridge looks a little strange, but it does not look like the first two. But instead of the top label, like on regular Genesis cartridges, this one has a flip cover, under which there is a connector for another Genesis cartridge.

This cartridge has a few tricks up its sleeve. Depending on the game connected to it, you can see three results. By connecting most Genesis games, players could play variations of bonus levels from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 with blue balls. Sonic & amp; Knuckles read the ID of the second cartridge and depending on it changed the scheme of bonus levels. Players could experiment with different games and find different sets of levels; for example, if you connect ToeJam & amp; Earl , you will get a set of very difficult levels, if Altered Beast , then you will have better luck.

With Sonic the Hedgehog 2 the situation was more interesting. Sonic & amp; Knuckles read data from a Sonic 2 cartridge and replaced Sonic with the character Knuckles, without changing all of Sonic’s abilities. This meant that players could play a new character in a game that came out a few years before this character was invented.

However, the real star of this show was Sonic the Hedgehog 3 . By connecting this game (released just eight months earlier than 9 ), the player received Sonic 3 & Knuckles - a new gameplay that flows smoothly from the levels of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to Sonic & amp; Knuckles . This combination was considered the “real” version of the game, and its unusual release strategy was the result of tight time constraints — Sega released the first half of the game as soon as it was ready, and later in the same year, she released the second half as a 10 cartridge.

Although players had to buy two cartridges to play the full version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 , the connection trick seemed so new that it was worth it. Unfortunately, Sonic & amp; Knuckles was the only plug-in cartridge of this type.


Video game cartridges were a very remarkable 11 information carrier, full of surprises and providing ample opportunity to create ingenious additions. These cartridges are just a small example of the complex and surprising history of bizarre hardware hacks and intermediate equipment that allowed them to overcome the limitations of consoles and provide players with a unique gameplay. In the second part, we will look at the elder brothers of plug-in cartridges: video game cartridges themselves were separate video game systems.


  1. Hackaday has a short article on Game Genie , which is worth read. The basic idea was that part of the passwords were identified as part of the game’s memory, and the rest of the code told the Game Genie what to do with it: either always keep the same value of a certain value, or change it depending on the current state. This is both a simple and ingenious idea.
  2. The first dedicated cheat device was Action Replay , released for Commodore 64 in 1986. Like the Game Genie, it spawned a series of variations for different computers and consoles, produced over the next ten years.
  3. The forerunner of special cheat devices was hardware peripherals such as Multiface , which provided enthusiasts with unprecedented access to the insides of their computers. It allowed users to do almost everything with the software running on their computer, including using cheats.
  4. If you are not embarrassed by obscene language and toilet jokes, then YouTube has the Angry Video Game Nerd channel, which presents a humorous review quite a lot of similar games .
  5. Some people consider the history of selling Wisdom Tree’s id Software license as apocryphal. It is difficult to confirm one or the other point of view, but this fact is included in the Masters of Doom book in 2004 (p. 121). However, Super 3D Noah’s Ark is actually based on the Wolfenstein 3 – D version for Super NES.
  6. Tengen (owned by Atari) became the most famous publisher of unlicensed games for NES, but it did not have the approval of Nintendo, performing illegal reverse engineering of a CIC for NES chip using documentation submitted by Nintendo to the US Patent Office. A more honest (and interesting) example was Camerica : her strategy for bypassing the lockout chip was to transmit buggy electrical impulses that temporarily cut down chip.
  7. In the unlicensed game, Little Red Hood , which many are considered to be one of the worst projects for NES , also used a similar scheme with a connecting cartridge.
  8. Sunday Funday was the latest game released for the console in North America, by at least until a surge in interest in vintage gaming in the 21st century.
  9. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released in North America on February 2, 1994, and a total of 258 days later (October 18), Sonic & amp; Knuckles .
  10. For details, see the development section of Sonic & amp; Knuckles in a Wikipedia article .
  11. In my blog, this topic is often covered; See, for example, my previous article on game saves . It tells how permanent memory was added to video game cartridges thanks to a small “pill” battery. There are countless other examples of greatness of cartridges that I will consider someday.


Source text: [Translation] The story of the three cartridges