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CREATED NOV.09.2002
UPDATED DEC.17.2002
CREDITS
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY
MARTIN NIELSEN

Special thanks to Richard Frick, Phil Mikkelson, Fred Hoot, Art Cestaro, Franz Lanzinger and everyone else who contributed with information about American Video Entertainment, especially thanks to Phil Mikkelson for answering all my questions over the past few (okay many) weeks.

Picture credits: Joona Pöhö, Patricia Strobel, Hessel Meun, Ken Grifford (|tsr), NES-God, www.greatgamedatabase.com, Ben Strobel and of course myself, Martin Nielsen, thanks man, I couldn't have pulled this one off without you! ;)

Info source credits: Various interviews, The Business Journal, Frontline, MaxiVision Infomercial, tsr's NES archive, Computer News Briefs (January 1991), Dave Ashley, STReport Online Magazine.

ADITIONAL
PICTURES
AMERICAN VIDEO ENTERTAINMENT
THE STORY OF
It has been on it's way for quite some time now, but now I'm back with another unlicensed company special, or rather a very nice and good update, in my oppinion, of an existing special.

This is my tribute to a company, and the people behind it, who have given me a lot of fun moments over the years, both as a collector, but actually also as a gamer, with "kick-ass" releases, using one of their own terms, such as Krazy Kreatures and F-15 City War, which happened to be my first AVE game ever and even one of my very first experiences with unlicensed NES games.

It all happened around 1994, where a small company here in Denmark (somewhere in Europe for those who do not know) started selling something they called "NES happy packs". It was a package of 4 american games, brand new - still shrinkwrapped, and a converter to be able to play the games on a European NES console. My first package had, as far as I remember, Dragon Spirit (Bandai), Vindicators (Tengen), F-15 City War (AVE) and Menace Beach (Color Dreams). I had never seen an unlicensed game cartridge before and actually thought the company had sent me carts for another gaming system than the NES. But since all the carts did fit in my NES and even worked when I powered the console, I decided I had to know more about these strange carts.

So since those days I've had a special interest in the unlicensed games, most likely because they were very uncommon here, they were never really sold "for real" in my part of the world, and the deal about them being unlicensed was very odd, so odd I just had to get more of these, I think I must have ordered somewhere around 5-8 of these packages before the company decided to stop selling them, and eventually going bankrupt. Later on I wanted to find the people who made these games, aswell as why and how. In my years of searching I've managed to find a lot of those people, including the programmer of my favourite unlicensed game, Menace Beach, and learned a whole lot more about the business back then. Anyway let's get started on the American Video Entertainment Special.

It all began in the late 1980's when an American chip manufacturer, Macronix, contacted Nintendo with an offer to do ROM chip production for Nintendo's NES game carts. But according to Richard Frick, who later became president of a small company formed by Macronix, called American Video Entertainment; Nintendo would not approve any manufacturer of ROM's other than Japanese manufacurers.

So in another attempt to get a piece of the cake, Macronix decided to start offering their ROM chips and a system called NINA (NintendoCompatible), in no way related to the Color Dreams graphics artist of the same name, to companies without an official license from Nintendo. The problem of upsetting Nintendo was outweighed by the better profits they (the uncommitted game companies) would get by purchasing Macronix ROMs and (NINA's), Richard Frick continued. Macronix patented the NINA system and actually received an award for the compatibility in April 1991.

American Video Entertainment was formed around February 1990 by Macronix, who left 3 guys in charge of the small etablishment. Their goal was to deliver cheaper Nintendo games to consumers, while still keeping a high game standard. Richard Frick became president of AVE, as mentioned earlier. Richard came from a company called ShareData, who later formed a subsidiary called American Game Carts Inc., where he helped make a NES version of the Exidy arcade game called Chiller. Even earlier he had been working at Atari, and Tengen, for quite some time.

Phil Mikkelson became Art Director and Game Producer at AVE, he had earlier been working in Color Dreams' PR department and was a part of the group which founded Color Dreams. While working there he also wrote manuals, did some packing and trade show management, he was also responsible for the SuperCartridge mockup seen in some magazines. He had also been involved in the making of what never really got off the ground, and still remais a bit of a mystery, a game called Hellraiser. As you probably know I met Richard Frick while I was working at Color Dreams. We were about 6 months from releasing Captain Comic. Richard was at Atari's Tengen, they had just started shipping their unlicensed NES version PacMan and several other titles. Nintendo sued them and got an injunction and recall of products.

The third guy was Fred Hoot, who was Director of Manufacturing and Quality. Fred came from a job at Macronix where he was Director of MIS (Management Information Systems). He returned to Macronix after AVE was closed and worked there until 1997. With a small company we had to wear many hats, so I had also spent a good amount of time playing the games in the evenings to track down bugs. The Krazy Kreatures game was the most addicting game for me, and I had dreams of those critters just jumping on the page and the background sounds for months after the game was published. he says. Fred Hoot was, for a long time the missing jigsaw in the American Video Entertainment puzzle.

To me it's a bit funny that Fred Hoot's favourite AVE release is Krazy Kreatures, as this is the most addictive and innovative game release by American Video Entertainment, in my oppinion atleast, not to forget the hilarious boxart. The game was invented by Franz Lanzinger, a former Tengen programmer, with aditional programming by Dave O'Riva, who left Tengen along with Lanzinger to form their own company, called Bitmasters. Krazy Kreatures was Lanzinger and O'Riva's first project away from Tengen and it paied the bills for a few months. Soon after they got contracted to do another game port, Rampart, to be released by Jaleco, an official Nintendo licensee. After reading this article, Phil Mikkelson commented that Krazy Kreatures was his favourite AVE release aswell.

Bitmasters had planned a Krazy Kreatures sequel, it was even mentioned when you completed the original game, but they never even began designing it, as AVE around that time was getting in trouble with incompatibility aswell the NES sale slowing down, so the idea was scrapped, funny why they didn't think of having someone else publish it though. The chance of seeing a Krazy Kreatures game for a system like the Gameboy Advance is probably unlikely. As far as I was able to find out, the rights to the game is still owned by Macronix, unless they lost them when American Video Entertainment was closed down, but no one has been able to clearify that issue.

None of the games released by American Video Entertainment were developed in-house and all developers had to do all the reverse engineering of the NES themselves, atleast according to an old interview with Richard Frick. Art Cestaro Odyssey Software, who made a few games for American Video Entertainment, seems to remember different as he told me AVE actually did most of the reverse engineering. But Phil Mikkelson could verify that AVE didn't supply any documents or programming tools for their developers, We didn't have any dev kits (Color Dreams did). We may have provided to technically help here and there but AVE didn't have any sort of dev tools.

AVE's first release was Impossible Mission II. Another company called SEI had licensed the game from Epyx and originally released the game, but due to licensing problems, the rights for Impossible Mission II were taken away from SEI. Still that didn't keep them from producing a few thousand more carts, known today as the "white label version", before Epyx sold the rights to AVE who rereleased the game. SEI eventually went under and only managed to release one NES game.

A lot of games were developed in the states, but there was also a steady stream of games from Asia, mainly from one company called Sachen, also known as Thin Chen Enterprises. But other companies such as Idea-Tek, Joyvan (who could be an early Sachen) and TXE Corp also supplied games to American Video Entertainment. One of the games developed in the US was Dudes With Attitude, developed by Michael Crick and his daughter Cam. The game is some sort of a puzzle and in my oppinion gets quite repetitive after a while. But no matter what my oppinion was/is, the title still received a sequel a few years later, called Tolls on Treasure Island, where they managed to make a better game, but not at all in the same league as the Lanszinger and O'Riva game, Krazy Kreatures.

I worked for Taito of America in 1990-91 and designed the NES version of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" so I got a good working knowledge of the NES. I knew Richard slightly when I was at Microsoft so when I left Taito I contacted him and I told him a game I wanted to program -- and he said go for it. Then later I saw the Trolls craze emerging so I suggested we revise it with new levels with Trolls as the players. My daughter Cam helped me with both the design and the animation for both these games. She is now at Harvard majoring in Computer Science.

At that time one of Cam's friends was Masayo Arakawa (granddaughter of the head of Nintendo) so the lawsuit was an embarrassment to me. I tried to mediate a few times but the parties were antagonistic. There was a TV segment done on AVE that would be worth your while tracking down altho I have no idea where to start looking for it.

These are two of my favorite games and one day I hope to adapt them to another machine. The timing is so critical that doing it on the PC would be very hard. Michael Crick wrote in an email a few years ago. He was also responsible for designing and programming a NES cycling "program" for something called the CompuTrainer.

Another batch of games came from a small company run by Art V. Cestaro III, called Odyssey Software. The Odyssey titles are in both ends of the quality scale (please note that this is my oppinion), with Deathbots in the bad end of the scale and Solitaire, Blackjack and Cuestick (unreleased) in the better end. Odyssey also sold a game to Color Dreams called Moon Ranger, which ended up being released on their low-budget Bunch Games label.

Sachen was a big player in the production of unlicensed NES games, selling games to both Color Dreams and American Video Entertainment; Silent Assault (Color Dreams, Taggin Dragon (Bunch Games/Color Dreams) and Misson Cobra (Color Dreams), Pyramid (AVE) and Double Strike (AVE), which original title was Twin Eagle.

At one point American Game Carts Inc., the ShareData subsidary, finished a new game of theirs and even made a few test runs using their own cartridges format, of which only one has surfaced sofar, and may never even have been sold to retailers. But before AGCI could release the game, American Video Entertainment came along and bought out AGCI and then releasing the game themselves under the AVE label. If you have no clue of what game I'm talking about, it's Wally Bear and the NO gang.

Originally the game was called "Wally Bear and the Just Say No Team", but because that was a copyrighted slogan, the title of the game was changed to Wally Bear and the NO gang.

Most of the games planned for release at the American Video Entertainment headquater were released, but a few didn't make it, such as a Backgammon, Poker, Big Mouth Bass and CueStick. Other games were under consideration, such as Little Red Hood. Yea it sucked. We thought about publishing it Phil Mikkelson said in the interview, and fortunately they didn't.

Another of the games that went unreleased was CueStick, which working title was Pool. We changed the name simply to come up with a better name. Pool was just the working name before we had Byrne. We thought that CueStick had a better chance of becoming a brand then Pool Phil Mikkelson says. The pool legend Robert Byrne was hired to promote the game, and it was supposed to be AVE's last NES game, but due to serveral delays in the development of the game at Odyssey Software, American Video Entertainment was closed down just as the final beta of the game was compiled.

Cuestick actually came out really good. The ball physics were right on. Took along time to get them right. George was having problems but we hired a friend of Lane's named Mike Smith. He was really good with math. George and he sat down for like 2 weeks do math, physics and stuff and came up with all the formula's for that. It was amazing. Especially since the nes 8 bit had like no computing power. Just to calculate the formulas on that thing was amazing let alone animating the results on screen. Art Cestaro explained.

The Backgammon and Poker games could most likely have been future project ideas thrown around at Odyssey Software eventhough no one seems to remember. Big Mouth Bass, another game possible AVE title, stays in the wild as no one remembers anything about that one either, it could have been another asian developed game.

The MaxiVision 30in1 cartridge was seen announced in the Solitaire manual with a release date of June 1992, the small ad goes like this; Get ready for the most technically advanced, most powerful, most challenging, most excellent video game cartridge ever made - MAXIVISION. This revolutionary cartridge is jam packed with 30 complete and individual games. Great games like F15 City War, Deathbots, Soccer, Krazy Kreatures, and many many more. Contact your local video game store and try-out the most powerful 8-bit game cartridge ever. Experience MAXIVISION!! TO BE RELEASED IN JUNE.

Another game which should've been released that same year (July) was Stakk'M, an Idea-Tek title originally called Poke Block, but it never happened, atleast not as a single game cartridge, instead it ended up on the MaxiVision 15in1.

Well let's stay with the MaxiVision cartridge a little longer. The original idea for the MaxiVision cartridge was to make it a 30 in 1 cartridge as mentioned earlier. American Video Entertainment even had a 30 minutes infomercial produced to promote the MaxiVision game cart. The informercial hosts something called "The MaxiVision Power Video Challenge" where 3 teams, with 2 kids and a "wrestling" coach on each, play different games from the MaxiVision cartridge. The team scoring most points in one game gets 1st place, and receives a certain ammount of points in the challenge.

The whole thing was presented by no other than Hulk Hogan and the Video Game Federation, but the president of AVE, Richard Frick, was also in the infomercial telling how incredible the MaxiVision game cart is with it's 3D graphics, while he slams his hand into the desk to add more power to the intense action going on in the infomercial (grin). The original idea for the cartridge was to make it gold colored, with a pretty nice white label that has a bit of Action52 style over it.

The game line-up on the MaxiVision 30in1 (a 24mbit cartridge) is as follows, using the names from the actual menu screen and an explanation added if needed; F-15 City War, Puzzle, Pyramid, Tiles of Fate, Krazy Kreatures, Double Strike, Dudes w Attitude (Dudes with Attitude), Venice Volleyball (Venice Beach Volleyball), Ultimate Soccer (Ultimate League Soccer), Deathbots, Rad Racket Tennis (Rad Racket Deluxe Tennis II?), Mermaids (Mermaids of Atlantis), Wally Bear (Wally Bear and the NO! Gang), Menace Beach, ShockWave, Poke Block (Stakk'M... but has Poke Block titlescreen in infomercial!), Death Race, Captain Comic, Robo Demons, Neptune Adventure (King Neptune's Adventure), P Radicus (P'radicus Conflict), Pesterminator, Castle of Deceit, Moon Ranger, Challenge Dragon (Challenge of the Dragon), Solitaire, Secret Scout, Baby Boomer, Chiller, Dudes II (Trolls on Treasure Island?)

The informercial was aired only once and received a pretty good number of orders according to Richard Frick, eventhough the cartridge actually "didn't exist" due to missing licenses. Another few funny bits from the informercial is that there's a small MaxiVision commercial in it as a break from the intense action in the Power Video Challenge. In the commercial a MaxiVision cartridge is shown, but it's not the usual AVE shape cart, instead it's a gold colored Tengen cartridge. After the commercial has been shown, Richard Frick is replaced by a guy called Michael Elson, who have had his name in Nintendo Power according to the infomercial host. Well he is asked what his favourite game is and it turns out to be Menace Beach because of "the intense sound, the killer graphics, and crazy characters. The 3D graphics are so intense, I feel like I'm actually in the game when I play" he says. I too like Menace Beach a lot, but I never felt like I was actually in the game, oh well.

Eventhough the response to the infomercial was great, the cartridge never came about in it's 30in1 format, instead it was resized to "only" 15 games, the reason was, according to Phil Mikkelson licensing and manufacturing issues. We didnt have the rights to all the stuff when we did the infomercial, and as things moved forward it was also cheaper to manufacture a cart with half the memory. I think they actually played the comercial in some market and they had a good response on the the order line BUT I don't think any product was actually delivered. About 10 gold MaxiVsion 30in1 carts are shown in the infomercial, unfortuately no one knows what happened to them. It's also said that if you dig into the MaxiVision 15 rom code you will still be able to find the MaxiVision 30 game lineup, I haven't tried this though.

The MaxiVision 15in1 was released, but again licensing problems stopped the production and sale. It turned out that American Video Entertainment was missing a "multicartridge" license for a couple of games, Pyramid and Double Strike, both owned by Sachen. So American Video Entertainment had to change the games and the replacements were Blackjack and Death Race, not a bad choice if you ask me, plus the intro for the MaxiVision was changed a little. This second version ( picture ) of the MaxiVision is quite hard to find in AVE format cartridge, the first version ( picture ) with Pyramid and Double Strike seems to be the most common of the two. Both versions were also released in Australia by Home Entertainment Suppliers (HES) where the second version with Death Race and Blackjack is the most common.

There should be a good ammount of Maxi15's out there though, Richard Frick told me they once sold 5000 units to Ktel in Canada, so chances are that there's a few (or lot of) boxes of brand new Maxi15 in a warehouse somewhere in Canada.

To add some spice, and probably hoping for the press to catch on and write about it, American Video Entertainment did something Nintendo would never do, in fear of the consequences most likely. For their planned series of sports games, AVE created the "Kick-Ass Sport Series" label, where a donkey get's kicked in the rear end. I'm not sure if it made people buy their Ultimate League Soccer game, except for the few hoping you would get to kick a donkey's ass in the game?

Phil Mikkelson had the following to add. In regards to Kick-Ass, as you might know I was always trying to but weird stuff in the games (swear words, misspelling and odd references) and for the most part Richard wanted to play it straight. In 92 or whenever we released the Soccer game we where also involved in the Gulf war. There was a point where President Bush (old Bush not new Bush) said that we were going to kick Sadam's s ass. Richard figured if the President of the United States could say Kick Ass then we could say it on our box. We had considered created a line of "Kick Ass" sports games, but as you know AVE died about 6 months or so after we shipped the Ultimate League Soccer Game.

Another game released AVE was originally an "Adult" Famicom game, Bubble Bath Babes, released by Hacker International. It was a Bubble Popping/Tetris/Strip/puzzle game where each time you got 10,000 points you would see one of 6 girls with and without cloths. To release it in the States (since Americans can't handle tits) we had to replace the 12 images of girls with something else. We came up with a liner story that unfolded in 12 pictures and we changed the game into a Bubble/Tetris/Little Mermaid/puzzle game.

If you play the game or read the box you'll find that the Evil Emperor Odnetnin (Nintendo backwards) has encased all the undersea merpeople's toys (games) in protective bubble (key chip), and makes them pay a licensing fee to play their own games. Phil Mikkelson continued. The original game also reached american shores though. It was released by Panesian, who also released 2 other Adult games, Hot Slots ( picture ) and Peek-A-Boo Poker. Panesian Taiwan Ltd still exists and is today a manufacturer of computer parts.

But the unlicensed NES game business wasn't pink and fluffy if anyone thought so, and only a few years after the birth of the company, American Video Entertainment was going out of business. Eventhough AVE had good relations with some of the major retailers such as Toys R Us, Nintendo still managed to make sales of AVE games a nightmare. This was done by changing the NES lockout chip code, which exact job was to prevent companies such as AVE from making and selling games for the Nintedo Entertainment System, atleast without a license from Nintendo. But Nintendo also made stores drop their stock of AVE games by sending out a letter stating that Nintendo wouldn't take any orders from a store if they carried unlicensed games, and that scared off most retailers as there was good money in the video game sale. Nintendo has of course declined that such letter was ever sent to retailers.

In an interview with a TV program called Frontline, Richard Frick was asked which of the top 20 toy stores at the time were carrying AVE games, the answer was "none". The fear they have of not receiving future products into their stores, which they very much count on for their profits., and the interviewer carries on "What's the response you get from Toys "R" Us?"; Well, they try to be very careful about what they say. They don't want to do anything to get themselves in trouble. And more than anything else, they just say that we're not a vendor that they can deal with at this point in time.. Richard Frick also told Frontline that he could sell his games for less than $20 and still make a big profit. So just think about the profit Nintendo made/make.

After Nintendo had made a few revisions of the lockout chip, AVE launched a large campaign to warn people and tell how Nintendo secretly changed the NES internals to prevent consumers from being able to buy cheap games, without an official Nintendo license, and use them in their NES systems.


On the boxes they had to make a small note to cunsumers to warn them that the AVE game they were about to buy might not work in their NES if it was bought after October 1990, and remove their "100% compatible" from the box. AVE also gave consumers the option to get their NES modified to play unlicensed NES games again by calling a number (1-800-HOT-4AVE). Some manuals ( picture ) also had a description of how to modify the NES system to be able to play unlicensed (AVE) games. As a reward for the trouble, consumers who performed the operation on their NES would get $10 off any game purchased directly from AVE.

On January 11th 1991 various news sources spreat the news that American Video Entertainment had filed suit for $105 millions against Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Japan in the US District Court in San Francisco on January 7th. The charges were Nintendo having an illegal monopoly and changing their machines unlicensed cartridges wouldn't work. Tengen had filed a similar suit in 1998, charging Nintendo with monopoly and that case wasn't closed when AVE filed the suit.

Computer News Briefs wrote:
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - In a new legal challenge to Japanense video game giant Nintendo, a U.S. company filed an antitrust suit on Jan. 7 seeking $105 million in damages.

The U.S. District Court suit filed by American Video Entertainment Inc. alleges that Nintendo of America Inc. and its parent company, Nintendo of Japan, violated U.S. antitrust laws by using a secret lock- out system in its game consoles.

American Video manufactured cartridges compatible with Nintendo game consoles, but the lock-out system in the Nintendo machines caused the cartridges to be rejected, the San Jose company's complaint said. American Video, a subsidiary of Macronix Inc., says Nintendo controls 80 percent of the home video entertainment market and alleges that it is using its monopoly power to ruin the San Jose company.

American Video also alleges that Nintendo failed to inform buyers that only Nintendo cartridges would play in their machines. American Video maintains that Nintendo had represented to courts that cartridges made by other companies could be used in Nintendo consoles.

Nintendo spokesman Tom Sarris said the company hadn't been formally served with the suit. But in a statement, Howard Lincoln, a senior vice president at Nintendo, said, "Based on the news we've read, the charges are baseless, and Nintendo will vigorously defend itself". Another antitrust suit against Nintendo, filed by game maker Atari, is pending in the same court.

In an interview with NES WORLD, Richard Frick said: With Nintendo constantly changing of the base unit's internal workings. We could not come up with new compatibility chips fast enough. We would be 100% compatible, and Nintendo would change a few thousand units and ship them to the US. We could not blame Toys R Us for being uncomfortable selling a cartridge that may or may not work. The changes Nintendo made violated the Anti-trust laws of the United States. We hired Joseph Alioto (the famous and best Anti-Trust lawyer in the United States) and sued Nintendo for anti-trust. Unfortunately due to the judicial appointments made to the Federal Courts by Ronald Reagan and the changing business "climate" it went from 95% to 45% we would win. This happened during the three years we litigated the lawsuit.

By this time, Richard Frick had made contact to a guy named Dave Ashley, who had invented a Sega Genesis development kit. Dave had a few unsuccessful attempts to sell the kit and almost had given up when Richard Frick called him. They made a partnership where Richard Frick would handle the marketing of the development systems. Sales were great, and they even made a new version of the development system which had 4 megabytes of memory. AVE was thinking of getting into the Genesis business as the NES business was slowly dieing, thanks to Nintendo and 16-bits systems such as the Genesis being out. But without sufficient revenue from the Nintendo based products we could not get into the SEGA based units. Dave Ashley would have been our source of development systems for the SEGA. Richard Frick continued in the interview. About a year later AVE was shut down.

The case between American Video Entertainment and Nintendo was settled under a secrecy order. The following explanation of a secrecy order is taken from the Federation of American Scientists website; Secrecy orders provide a security procedure to prevent technical data contained in a patent application from being disclosed in a manner that would be detrimental to the national security. Secrecy orders are imposed by the PTO upon specific recommendation by defense agencies, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, National Security Agency, Department of Energy and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

American Video Entertainment's games also reached Europe, they had distributors in Germany, France, UK, Austria, and Holland. The most successful distributor was in Austria. He sold several cases of products. Richard Frick added. But the sales were still very low, most likely due to almost no advertisement, a Maxi15 ad was seen in Total Magazine ( picture ) around 1992 though. But incompatibility was even worse in Europe, especially in the later production runs, which of course also had it's impact on sales.

ADITIONAL
PICTURES