Tengen was a video game publisher and developer that was created by arcade game manufacturer Atari Games.
Atari had been split into two distinct companies. Atari Corporation was responsible for computer and console games and hardware and owned the rights to the Atari brand for these domains. Atari Games was formed from Atari's arcade division, and were able to use the Atari name on arcade releases but not on console or computer games. When Atari Games wanted to enter the console-game market, it needed to create a new label that did not use the Atari name. The new subsidiary was dubbed Tengen, which in the Chinese game Go refers to the center of the board ("Atari" comes from the same game). Tengen then made an agreement with Namco to bring some of their Famicom games to the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America before Namco opened its own North American branch in 1993. Tengen also released games by Sunsoft (another developer without a North American branch).
Tengen unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with Nintendo for a less restrictive license (Nintendo restricted their licensees to releasing only five games per year, and required their games to be NES-exclusive for two years). Nintendo refused, so in December 1987 Tengen agreed to the standard licensing terms. Tengen incorporated on December 21 that year. In 1988, Tengen released its first and only three cartridges licensed through Nintendo—R.B.I. Baseball, Gauntlet, and Pac-Man. Meanwhile, Tengen secretly worked to bypass Nintendo's lock-out chip called 10NES that gave it control over which games were published for the NES. While numerous manufacturers managed to override this chip by zapping it with a voltage spike, Tengen engineers feared this could potentially damage NES consoles and expose them to unnecessary liability. The other problem was that Nintendo made frequent modifications to the NES to prevent this technique from working. Instead the company chose to reverse engineer the chip and decipher the code required to unlock it. However, the engineers were unable to do so, and the launch date for its first batch of games was rapidly approaching.
With time running short, Tengen turned to the United States Copyright Office. Its lawyers contacted the government office to request a copy of the Nintendo lock-out program, claiming that the company needed it for potential litigation against Nintendo. Once obtained, it used the program to create its own chip that would unlock the NES.
Tengen announced that they were going to manufacture their own NES game cartridges in December 1988. When Tengen launched the unlicensed versions of its games, Nintendo immediately sued Tengen for copyright and patent infringement. Tengen would ultimately be barred from releasing their self-manufactured NES games in March 1991.
Tengen faced another court challenge with Nintendo in 1989 in copyright controversy over Tetris. Tengen lost this suit as well and was forced to recall what was estimated to be hundreds of thousands of unsold cartridges (having sold only about 50,000). It would later become the most widely pirated version of Tetris, and remains a common fixture on multicarts to this day.
Tengen had also produced games for the Mega Drive/Sega Genesis, Master System, Game Gear, Sega CD, and PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16. Unlike most of their NES games, Tengen's games for these systems were approved by the platform makers. The company also licensed home video games made by other companies that contained Atari Games' properties. Tengen also worked on the 1993 Namco arcade game Tinkle Pit, but it is unknown to what extent. In 1994, a year after Time Warner bought a controlling stake in Atari Games, the Tengen name was discontinued and home games were now released under the Time Warner Interactive (TWI) brand.
Tengen manufactured both licensed and unlicensed versions of three of their NES games. Their cartridges for unlicensed games do not come in the universally recognizable semi-square grey shape licensed Nintendo games come in; instead, they are rounded and matte-black, and resemble the original Atari cartridges.
- Licensed and unlicensed
- R.B.I. Baseball (released June 1988; reskinned version of Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium by Namco)
- Gauntlet (released July 1988)
- Pac-Man (released October 1988; Based on Namco's 1984 Famicom port.)
- Unlicensed only
- Tetris: The Soviet Mind Game (released May 1989)
- Super Sprint (released July 1989; licensed version released in Japan by Altron)
- Road Runner (released October 1989)
- Rolling Thunder (released October 1989; released as a licensed game by Namco in Japan)
- Vindicators (released November 1989)
- After Burner (released December 1989; not related to the version released by Sunsoft in Japan)
- Alien Syndrome (released December 1989; released as a licensed game by Sunsoft in Japan)
- Shinobi (released December 1989)
- Toobin' (released December 1989)
- Fantasy Zone (not related to the version released by Sunsoft in Japan)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a licensed version was published by Mindscape)
- Klax (released as a licensed game by Hudson Soft in Japan)
- Ms. Pac-Man (an original port, released in 1990, unrelated to Namco's port)
- Pac-Mania (developed by Westwood Associates)
- R.B.I. Baseball 2
- R.B.I. Baseball 3
- Skull & Crossbones
- Airball (Unreleased)
- Cyberball (Unreleased, unrelated to the version by Jaleco.)
- Hard Drivin' (Unreleased)
- Licensed To Kill (Unreleased)
- Magical Puzzle Popils (Unreleased original game by Fukio Mitsuji; a slightly different version was later released for the Game Gear. Was intended for release on the Famicom rather than the NES)
- Police Academy (Unreleased)
- TechnoCop (Unreleased)
- Xybots (Unreleased)
- Articles of Incorporation of Tengen Inc. - California Secretary of State (12/21/1987)
- "Tengen Making Its Own Video Game Cartridges" - United Press International (12/13/1988)
- "Nintendo Wins Court Order Halting Rivals" - The Los Angeles Times (3/29/1991)
- COMPANY NEWS; Atari Is Blocked From Selling Game (June 22, 1989)
- Certificate of Amendment of Articles of Incorporation: Tengen Inc. - California Secretary of State (6/28/1994)
- "July 1988 issue" - Computer Entertainer (July 1988)
- "August 1988 issue" - Computer Entertainer (August 1988)
- "October 1988 issue" - Computer Entertainer (October 1988)
- "May 1989 issue" - Computer Entertainer (May 1989)
- "August 1989 issue" - Computer Entertainer (August 1989)
- "November 1989 issue" - Computer Entertainer (November 1989)
- "December 1989 issue" - Computer Entertainer (December 1989)
- "January 1990 issue" - Computer Entertainer (January 1990)
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