Dealing with “Inverted Jennys”

“INVERTED JENNYS”invertedjenny

Nobody is going to shoot for a complete NES collection without being both a gamer and collector at heart. What you consider a collection, however, determines which side you more lean towards. In the 90s, my brother was a huge toy collector, and I never understood why he had to own, for example, both the Darth Vader with the red light saber and the one with the blue light saber. Isn’t owning the Darth Vader enough? For some, not so much.

In the early 20th century, the post office began air-mail shipping with a whopping accompanying rate of 24 cents instead of the 3 cent traditional ground postage. To bookmark this event, they created a special 24 cent air-mail stamp. Common practice for multiple color printing at the time was to feed a sheet through once for each color, in this case, once for the red border with the text and again for the blue airplane. Of course, in their haste, mistakes were made and the second feed occasionally went in the wrong way, printing the airplane (a Curtiss JN-4 or “Jenny” biplane) upside-down.

But this wasn’t an example of a widowed grandmother cleaning out her attic and selling a Mickey Mantle rookie card at her yard sale by mistake for extra bingo money. Stamp enthusiasts knew there would be inverts, sought them out, and sold them for thousands immediately after their release. And today, naturally, they go for the better part of a million.

Just like any collection, the NES has “Inverted Jennys” of its own. Some consider them essential components, some would be happy to add them as multiple copies if affordable but are content without, and some write them off as ridiculous anal-retentive redundancies. Which are you? Well, let me ask you this: If you just found out a pissed-off factory employee printed seventeen 10-Yard Fight cartridges in 1989 without the hyphen, would your collection be complete without a copy? Only you can know the answer.

Cartridge Evolutions

gyromiteWhen the system was released in North America, the carts stuck to the same 60-pin format used on Japan‘s Famicom and special 60 to 72-pin converters were stock to create compatibility with the NES “Toaster.” This was soon abandoned to make way for an obviously more cost-effective 72-pin stand-alone cartridge when the system took off in the states. While the hardware grew, the programming stayed the same and the games themselves are identical. But the early “black-box” games like Gyromite, Pinball, and Stack Up still exist and may or may not contain one of these components. What’s interesting is the converters themselves, able to adapt Japanese Famicom games directly into a North American system, can make an otherwise cheap product quite valuable to serious gamers.

There are two downsides to this collection: First, you won’t find the 60-pin game until you randomly snatch up old, relatively worthless games and dissect them for yourself. And two, whoever has the knowledge of when Nintendo transitioned into 72-pin games hasn’t made the information public. So exactly how many different American 60-pin games actually exist remains a mystery.

Another notable hardware change was the switch from five screws to three, then from tiny flat-head screws to hexagonal tamper resistant screws. Now this level of collecting doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but it does make the difference in some auctions, so I’ll cover it briefly.

5screwCartridges were originally released with five screws, one in each corner and one in the center. Later, the molds were changed so the back of the case held two male clips which hooked snuggly into the front’s “slot-B” holes. This eliminated the need for the upper corner screws and was, again, probably introduced as a cost-saving alternative. And when business really started to pick up, the tiny flat-head screws were changed to security screws. The rationale of this move stumps me, however, because anyone interested in reverse engineering Nintendo cartridges would surely own a standard screwdriver bit, or at the very least not have any morality issue just smashing the game’s cover with a hammer. I’m sure it was so children wouldn’t get the games they’ve been blowing into for years to accidentally work again, thereby eliminating any chance Nintendo has of selling them another copy. Needless to say, if you’re interested in this level of collecting, you obviously have the drive for more research than me – I can’t help you.

Alternate and Re-releases

THIS STUFF JUST REMINDS ME OF PHOTO HUNT

THIS STUFF JUST REMINDS ME OF PHOTO-HUNT

Back in my days of “hunting-in-the-wild,” I bought another copy of Golf – you know, the useless piece of crap Mario golf game? I noticed something slightly off and didn’t want to regret not being able to find it later after the hundreds of other gamers swarmed the Salvation Army for this particular copy of Golf. Later at home, I compared it with the one in my collection, and sure enough, it had blue letters instead of green. I was ecstatic – who wouldn’t be? Until of course I discovered that someone leaving a 20-year old video game out in the sun long enough for the sticker to fade before giving it to a resale shop for charity doesn’t, in fact, skyrocket its value. But there are a few examples having nothing to do with buyer stupidity that some consider worthwhile.

The “Classic Series” is the most popular re-release for the NES. Towards the end of the system’s life-cycle, five games were repackaged just to make things a bit more difficult for future collectors. They are:

Metroid (Yellow Label)

The Legend of Zelda (Grey Cartridge)

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Grey Cartridge)

Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream

Blades of Steel (Red Label)

And that’s it. Not Super Mario Bros. or Tetris…just…Blades of Steel.

bladesofsteelMost would consider this a small, affordable “why-not” addition. I sure did. But be prepared – the red Blades of Steel can be a little hard to come by (if the owner even knows it’s different than the millions of other copies floating around), but it’s on the cheap side when you find it.

And we’ll do anything for Zelda – she’s brought us so much happiness. Most would immediately equate the Zelda grey cartridges to Tengen’s release of both unlicensed black cartridges and what appear to be official grey alternatives, both housing the same game. Atari wasn’t happy with Nintendo’s monopoly of the game market (which is ironic considering not having Nintendo’s restrictions is precisely what destroyed their system), so their software subsidiary, Tengen, released only three games with the consent of Nintendo’s iron-fist: Pac-Man, Gauntlet, and RBI Baseball. Later, when Tengen got defiant, these same games would be reproduced in unlicensed black cases, along with a black cartridge version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, to which software company Mindscape had distribution rights. Like the classic series, collecting both is just too affordable for most to avoid, with the most expensive Pac-Man selling for a measly five bucks.

But the story doesn’t end there and it gets much more expensive. Tengen also created its own versions of officially licensed games Tetris (a very convoluted copyright tale) and Ms. Pac-Man (a much more true to the arcade version). This is probably what stuck in Nintendo’s craw and forced litigation, inevitably leading to Tengen’s failure. Furthermore, Nintendo officially released Pac-Man with the creator Namco’s label and title screen as well, which can fetch quite a bit more than its Tengen counterparts.

pacman

This leaves us with two copies of RBI Baseball, Gauntlet, Ms. Pac-Man, Temple of Doom and Tetris, and three copies of Pac-Man to worry about – all with different cases and labels! And each one of them is widely considered a necessity for a complete collection, especially since Tetris and Ms. Pac-Man are completely different games.

inverted-captain-comicBut once you go down this road, it’s hard to get off, and you’ll be left holding a bunch of duplicate copies, an empty wallet, and a lot of frustration. The subtle differences are just too vast. Take the company Color Dreams (A.K.A. Bunch Games and A.K.A. Wisdom Tree). The price gap between these unlicensed games’ black and blue packages can amount to hundreds that you might want to think about wasting on licensed games you don’t have. I’m not saying you shouldn’t grab a copy of Menace Beach when you see it cheap. I’m just saying you might want to think twice before you decide to spend money based on whether a third-party crappy game company found a K-Mart spray paint sale one weekend before church, all so you can own a duplicate of the same garbage with a black case instead of blue.

And speaking of Color Dreams, there are also true Inverted Jennys. Occasionally popping up are copies of the unlicensed Captain Comic with inverted labels. Should you concern yourself with mistakes like these? Would you if it was an official licensed game with the coveted Seal of Approval? Again, only you will know when it’s available whether or not you “have to own it.” It all boils down to what type of collector you are, how much money you have, and how far you’re willing to go.