The evil secret of the blinky NES power light
"Aleksa has discovered Zelda", said the message from Mom. "Do you think we should get her a Game Boy?"
Sunday I went to the suburbs to squeeze in a last visit with Aleksa before the start of a very busy few weeks that are coming up. (the Ubuntu Developer's Summit in Boston this weekend, then the Hackers conference, then I'm giving a talk at BayCHI.)
(I also had an ulterior motive for going to the suburbs, which was to visit Fry's Electronics in order to get a power transistor for a gadget that I'm building in order to demo at one of said conferences. More about this later.)
Mom said she'd get my old video games out of the attic and asked if I could hook them up. "Wait a minute", I said, "If they haven't been hooked up, how did Aleksa "discover" Zelda?"
"She's been playing it online."
Hmmm, interesting. Playing Zelda "online"? Aleksa and Mom wouldn't have the patience to seek out emulators or ROMS. It had to be something that played in a web browser or they wouldn't have found it. Had some fan converted the original game, or one of its sequels, into a Flash applet? If so, why hadn't I heard of it, and why hadn't Nintendo shut them down?
"There's a lot of different Zelda games. Which one did you play?" I asked Aleksa, trying to get more info.
"It's the one with Tarsis as the end bad guy."
WTF? I've never heard of Tarsis. What was she playing? Was this adapted from one of the Game Boy games I'd never played? Or, (a horrible thought occured to me) was Aleksa maybe playing some kind of cheesy promo/demo mini-game provided for free on Nintendo's site?
"She's also been playing Super Mario Brothers".
"Yeah!" said Aleksa, "I played Halloween Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. Star Catcher and..." she listed off a bunch of titles which did not sound real. Exactly what was going on here?
We got back to the house and Aleksa ran to the computer to show me. Here's the game they were calling Super Mario Bros. and here's the game they were calling Zelda. As far as I can tell, somebody ripped all the artwork from Super Mario World and used it to create a completely unauthorized Flash game. The levels are single screens and the physics is all wrong.
The "Zelda" one is even weirder. As far as I can tell, it's got nothing to do with Zelda other than the swiped artwork of Link used for the main character. Somebody made up an unrelated RPG in Flash, called it "The Curse of Waterdeep: Fellowship of Kings", and used artwork from Zelda. And artwork from Shining Force. And the name "Waterdeep" comes from the Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting. The word "Zelda" doesn't even appear in the Flash file, only on the surrounding page. To make things even weirder, the page hosting it appears to belong to a church or religious group of some kind. I don't know why they're hosting video games at all. The people hosting the game probably weren't the ones who made it; they may not even know who originated it. The instructions on the page are wrong, too.
Yet, this bizzare bricolage creation is on the first page of hits when you Google "play zelda online". Mom just remembered that I had wasted many hours of my youth playing something called "Zelda", but being unfamiliar with the details, she had no way of knowing this flash game apart from the real thing, and of course neither did Aleksa. I wonder how many other people have been fooled?
Anyway, this was clearly unacceptable, so I went digging through the box of old video games from the attic to find the real Super Mario Bros. and Zelda. Being asked to hook up the NES brought back memories. The only people in my family who ever learned how to hook up a video game system to a TV were me and my cousins Jacob and Bobby; everybody else seemed to think of it as some difficult feat of engineering, so various people were always asking me to hook up the Genesis or hook up the Super Nintendo or whatever. Even though I explained again and again that all I was doing was plugging one end of a wire into the TV and the other end of the wire into the console, it seemed like everybody would rather get me to do it than take five seconds to learn how to do it themselves. It was excellent preparation for a future in tech support.
I found the "Super Mario Bros. 3" cartridge and put it in, offering as I did prayers to the spirit of Shigeru Miyamoto for creating this, one of the pinnacles of human achievement, a profound and life-enriching experience I was about to pass on to the next generation. If you ever had a Nintendo Entertainment System, you know exactly what's coming up next. I knew the cartridge was in right because I could see the curtains that make up the opening screen, but the damn power light wouldn't stop blinking on and off.
I performed the time-honored ritual of taking out the cartridge and "blowing the dust off the contacts", but I knew that this never actually worked; it was always just a superstition that we kids had come up with because we couldn't understand the random cruelty of the blinky power light. Like prehistoric farmers trying to summon the rain, we had to believe there was something we could do to influence our fate.
Back then, I always thought the infamous fritziness of the NES (besides the blinky power light, there was also the Blank Grey Screen of Death; it felt like we spent more time getting the game to work than playing it) was the fault of its weird front-loading cartridge design; every other console in the universe had top-loading cartridges and they never seemed to have problems to the same extent. The re-designed NES2 with the top-loading cartridge slot didn't have these problems, and neither did the Super NES.
But a recent Wikipedia search turned up a horrifying truth: the blinky power light was a side-effect of the 10NES lockout chip. In order to enforce their absurdly restrictive licensing agreements, Nintendo put a lockout chip in the NES to prevent unlicensed third-party cartridges from working. If you wanted to make a cartridge for the NES, you had to sign a contract with Nintendo which said, among other things, that you would not produce the same game for any other video game console; that Nintendo would have the sole right to manufacture the cartridges, and would be the one to decide their sale price and how many to produce. This is how Nintendo enforced their near-monopoly. Maybe this even has something to do with why third-party developers are so reluctant to make games for Nintendo's more recent consoles. Worse, the 10NES lockout chip was flaky and would often incorrectly try to lock out a legitimate cartridge, resulting in the blinky power light. It's an earlier version of what would later happen with copy protection schemes on CD games that can backfire and prevent legitimate copies from working.
I knew most of this story beore, but I didn't know that the lockout chip was responsible for the blinky power light of doom! Dang yo! The bane of my childhood was the fault of a badly-implemented DRM chip put in to protect a Nintendo monopoly? I don't think even Microsoft ever did anything that bad. The Free Software guys are right: DRM is evil!
There are instructions on the net for disabling the lockout chip (cut pin 4). Not only will this solve the blinky power light problem, it also allows you to play European game cartridges, which are otherwise locked out. Because it's a form of copy-protection-breaking, cutting this pin may technically be illegal under the DMCA. BOO! I bought an NES, I own it, it's my property, I can cut all the pins I want, and down with any stupid unenforceable law that says otherwise.
...Although, now that I've seen those crummy bootleggy Flash "Zelda" and "Mario" games, I understand exactly the kind of stuff that Nintendo was trying to lock out with that chip. This is just one of those cases where the cure is worse than the disease.
The happy ending to this story is that I hooked up the SNES and "Mario All-Stars", so I got to teach Aleksa how to play Super Mario Brothers on the better-graphics, non-glitchy version. She's about the same age now as I was when I first played it, and she's equally enchanted by exploring the colorful landscapes of the Mushroom Kingdom and learning how to overcome its obstacles. Super Mario Brothers stands the test of time surprisingly well; even though I'd rather play number 2 or 3, the first game has remarkably ingenious level design, a nice smooth learning curve, and plenty of challenge in the later levels. I'm watching Aleksa retrace my own steps in learning how to play; for now she's just trying to walk and jump her way to the end of each level. It takes a while to master tricks like holding down the B button while running in order to get more distance on a jump, or checking every brick for hidden power-ups, or kicking a turtle shell into a row of enemies. But in alternating 2-player mode, I can go through each level before she does and show her how to do things: "So if you stand on top of the pipe and push down, sometimes it leads to a secret coin room!" I also continue to surprise myself with just how much I remember. "How did you know there was a mushroom in that block?" Aleksa often asks me. "I just... um... I guess I remember it from when I played before."
I'm so happy that Aleksa is at the age where I can share this experience with her. This must be the kind of pleasure traditionally felt by the stereotypical dad when he takes his son fishing for the first time.
Epilogue: Two days later, I was back at the family home again, and Aleksa ran up to me excited, to tell me that she had found the Warp Zone and gone to world 4-1 where the guy riding the flying tooth (she thinks the clouds look more like teeth) is throwing eggs at her that turn into spiky things. I was so proud. Also, she had played it with her father, and done much better than him. "Don't feel bad, Dad" she said. "I had a really good teacher."