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How Did the Game Genie Work?

The Game Genie was the technological holy grail of my Nintendo-playing childhood. Here was a device that would let me play Super Mario Bros. with infinite lives, or get infinite rockets in Metroid. Here's exactly how it worked, and how people are still using it today.

Plugging In

From the start, the Game Genie was marketed as a "game enhancer," though there's a fine line between "enhancing" and "cheating." In short, it was able to modify games at startup, so you could change them in ways that made your gaming life easier—typical enhancements involved adding lives or weapons, or in rare cases strange things like accessing hidden areas of the game that weren't normally playable.

The NES Game Genie was designed to be crammed into the front of the NES; it stuck out the front and you had to attach game cartridges to the slot on the Game Genie. The Game Genie had a wicked set of connector pins that attached to the NES's slot with a death grip. This connection ended up being a double-edged sword: using the Game Genie could eventually damage your NES's cartridge slot if you inserted and removed it a lot. But if you left it inserted permanently, it effectively replaced the NES cartridge slot, and that connection could be more reliable than inserting and removing games within the NES itself. So the good news was that if you were willing to keep the Game Genie in there forever, it could provide a more reliable connection for your games, and was probably better than blowing into your cartridges.

Here's a totally rad commercial (right down to the Bill and Ted knockoff dudes) explaining, in kid-friendly terms, how the Game Genie worked:

A Slightly More Technical Explanation of the Genie's Magic

When using a Game Genie, the NES started up showing a basic Game Genie menu. On that menu, the player could enter one or more codes, which would modify certain aspects of the game. From there on out, the Game Genie acted as an intermediary between cartridge and NES, intercepting requests and spitting out different results based on the codes that had been entered.

The Game Genie's technical functions were surprisingly basic when examined from a computer science perspective. Each Nintendo game cartridge set up a series of locations within the NES's memory where various pieces of information were stored—the number of lives you had left, the level you began on, the items you had, or even cooler things like the height your character could jump. Sometimes these locations in memory contained simple numbers. By finding these locations (almost always through trial and error—because game developers don't share that information), Game Genie users could then insert new numbers into them. So by finding "How Many Lives Left" in Super Mario Bros., you could switch the standard number of lives (three) with a much bigger number, and play the game with effectively infinite lives. (For the record, apparently the code SXIOPO offers infinite lives for both players in SMB.)

The Game Genie thus used two important pieces of information to make an important effect occur within the game: The location of a variable, and the content of that variable. So to create a Game Genie "code" (their simplified alphabetical interface for inputting memory locations and values to pop into them), an enterprising gamer could find the location, then experiment with possible contents to pop in there—lots of contents could just crash the game, but ultimately you could hit on something usable. By putting those two pieces of information together, you got a code. Codes were traded among gamers, and published in booklets collecting the best ones. Even today, gamers are developing new codes. I spoke to Dain Anderson, founder of NintendoAge.com, about this process. He said:

"One of the interesting aspects of the Game Genie is that

it's an organic piece of hardware whereby codes can be created and changed by anyone at anytime, whether the game is 20 years or 2 years old. Because it acts as a pass-through between the console and cartridge, you can implement changes in real-time. In fact, creating codes has become a bit of a niche for some of the more technical types, and you’ll find many threads on NintendoAge where people are requesting new codes for older games that perform a specific function.

"Creating codes would encompass an entire article, but the nuts and bolts of it is that you use a hex editor inside an emulator like FCEUX, and trace what aspects of the game change as you modify RAM locations. For example, if you take a RAM snapshot and you have three lives left, die, then take another RAM snapshot, you can determine through trial and error, on the changed locations, which affect the number of lives. By changing this memory location, you can create a code that alters the number of lives a player will receive."

If you're a programmer, check out this technical explanation of how the codes work, including snippets of C code used to decode the Game Genie's user-friendly alphabetical codes into programmer-friendly hex values.

Galoob v. Nintendo

The Genie, introduced in 1990, was created by the UK company Codemasters; they originally called it the "Power Pak" (a play on the "Game Pak," Nintendo's official name for its cartridges). The rebranded Game Genie was distributed by Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. in the U.S. If you're a child of the 1980s, you likely remember Galoob as the company behind Micro Machines (the whole outfit was eventually sold to Hasbro).

Nintendo didn't like the idea of Galoob's gizmo modifying NES games, even though it didn't permanently change the games themselves. Nintendo exerted control over both games and accessories, creating a Seal of Quality which was only granted after Nintendo had evaluated and approved a particular game or piece of hardware for use on the NES. The NES console even had a "lockout chip" that tried to prevent unlicensed games and accessories from working—until enterprising programmers found ways around it. You may notice that the Game Genie did not carry Nintendo's Seal of Quality. Nintendo refused to grant the precious Seal to the device, but that didn't stop Galoob from selling it. Until Nintendo sued Galoob in 1991.

The lawsuit was a fascinating piece of legal argument: Nintendo claimed that Galoob's device modified Nintendo games, creating "derivative works" and thus infringing the copyrights of game makers. (This is fairly similar to the lawsuits of that era regarding music sampling.) If the Game Genie were indeed creating derivative works every time it ran, then those works would either be illegal (if the game maker/copyright holder didn't approve them) or at the very least require some sort of licensing structure by which Galoob would compensate the game maker for them.

Long story short, US courts sided with Galoob. An interesting twist harkened back to the Game Genie's own marketing, which claimed that the Genie "enhanced" games—the court agreed. Patent Arcade writes (emphasis added):

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that no independent work is created by the Game Genie. In making this determination the court made a distinction between products that “enhance” copyrighted works and products that “replace” copyrighted works. In this case, the Game Genie “enhances” the Nintendo game, but it does not “replace” the Nintendo game. The Game Genie, by itself, cannot produce an audiovisual display.

In other words, flipping a few bits in a game really did enhance the game—but the gamer had to buy the original game, plug it in, and then do the bit-flipping him or herself, so there was no damage done to the copyright holder. This is a different story from the music-sampling cases, in which a new song could actually replace the old song being sampled. If Galoob had been selling modified Super Mario Bros. cartridges, that would have been a different matter, but the Game Genie's technology was deemed legally legit, and it continued to sell. (If you're into legal history, read this article discussing the case and a few others.)

In a counter-example of how to handle this sort of product, Sega actually licensed the Game Genie, giving it its Seal of Quality. There were a few restrictions on how the Game Genie worked with Sega games (mainly around not modifying saved games), but at least nobody went to court over it.

Game Action Replay (GAR): An Awesome Way to Void Your Warranty

Game Action Replay - NES

I spoke to Frankie Viturello, who co-hosts the retro gaming Digital Press webcast, about an interesting gizmo that occasionally shared shelf space with the Game Genie: the Game Action Replay. Viturello said:

"Unlike the Game Genie, which had the financial clout of of manufacturing/distribution by a big toy company, the Game Action Replay was released by a company called "QJ" and found limited distribution in the US in mom-and-pop video and toy stores. You wouldn't find this thing at your local Toys 'R Us.

"The Game Genie [had a hex-editing code system], but this thing had a "save state" feature which would allow the user to immediately save progress to an on-board memory bank. You could power down your NES and power it back up and the Action Replay would allow you to pick up at the exact moment in gameplay that you left off. Unfortunately, you needed to take your NES apart to "install" it! (Warranty voided!)

The GAR had a few other features, including several slow-motion modes (which could cause games to crash). Dain Anderson, the aforementioned founder of NintendoAge.com, also mentioned this bit of wizardry:

The idea behind the GAR is that you could create “save states” of the game you’re currently playing, allowing you to start again at a spot you keep dying in. To use the GAR, a gamer would press SELECT + A Button, and they’d see a flash on the screen indicating the save was successful. They could save up to five states which could be retrieved using SELECT + B Button.

He also mentioned that the device was glitchy, and its use of RAM (rather than ROM) eventually led to the GAR's demise. (Oh well, some things are too beautiful to live.)

Your Game Genie Memories

If you had a Game Genie, what were your favorite codes? Share your memories in the comments. I'm also taking suggestions on next topics for Nintendo explainer articles—hit me with ideas, folks.

I'd also like to thank classic gamers Frankie Viturello and Dain Anderson for answering my NES questions.

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technology
13 Tricks and Tips to Get the Most Out of Google Maps
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It’s hard to imagine life without Google Maps. Memorizing routes and printing out driving directions seems like a distant memory in a world where a detailed map of any location is available at a moment's notice. Still, you could be using it more. Google’s popular software is packed with secrets, tricks, and Easter eggs beyond what you might expect. Ahead of the popular tool's update later this year, here are 13 ways to get the most out of Google Maps, from one-handed use to offline location tracking.

1. CHECK WAIT TIMES AT YOUR FAVORITE RESTAURANT

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Before you head out for dinner, use Google Maps to see if you’re about to waste an hour standing in line. Just search for the name of the restaurant on your desktop browser or in Google Maps for iOS and Android. Then, scroll down to the Popular Times chart and select a specific time. There, you'll see how long the wait usually is at that time and make your plans accordingly.

2. SEE HOW STEEP YOUR BIKE RIDE WILL BE


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There’s nothing worse than unexpectedly hitting a big hill while riding your bike. Next time, plug your route into Google Maps and ask for biking directions. You’ll see a graph that shows the steepness of each part of your trip and be able to avoid those big inclines in the future.

3. ADD MULTIPLE DESTINATIONS TO YOUR TRIP

Google Maps typically defaults to simple point-A-to-point-B for directions, but it’s easy to add an extra stop to your trip. In a browser, press the “+” icon under your destination. On Android or iOS, tap on the three horizontal dots in the top right corner to pull up a menu and then select “Add stop.”

4. TRAVEL THROUGH TIME WITH STREET VIEW

Street View is a fun way to explore neighborhoods all over the world, but it’s also a treasure trove of old photos. Just launch Street View in your browser and click on the clock-shaped icon in the top left corner. From there, you can browse through all the pictures Google’s taken over the years for any specific spot.

5. MEASURE DISTANCE

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If you’re using Google Maps in your browser you can easily measure the distance between any two locations. Right click somewhere on the map and select “Measure Distance.” Then, click anywhere else to see how far away it is.

6. USE GOOGLE MAPS WITHOUT AN INTERNET CONNECTION

If you’re traveling and you know you won’t have any internet, you can download a map of the area ahead of time. Pull up that location in Google Maps on your phone. Then, open the settings menu and select “Offline maps” to save it. When you arrive, you’ll be able to view the map without any service and even track your location thanks to GPS.

7. SEE YOUR ENTIRE GOOGLE MAPS HISTORY

Google Maps tracks you everywhere you go, and you can pull that information up whenever you want. Head to this website to see a detailed map of all the places you’ve ever been. If that creeps you out, you can also click on “Manage Location History” to switch this feature off.

8. ZOOM IN AND OUT WITH JUST ONE FINGER

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Pinch-to-zoom works fine most of the time, but if you only have one free hand it’s not that easy to do. Thankfully, there’s another option that only requires one free finger: Tap twice on your smartphone screen and then hold your finger down on the spot you want to get a closer look at. Google Maps will zoom in, and from there you can adjust the scale by sliding your finger up and down.

9. REMEMBER WHERE YOU PARKED YOUR CAR

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The next time you park your car, boot up Google Maps and tap on the blue dot that shows your location. When a menu pops up, select “Set as parking location” to leave a marker on your map for later so you can easily find your car when you’re ready to leave.

10. TURN THE STREET VIEW ICON INTO A UFO

If you want to have a little fun with Pegman, the yellow Street View figure, just search for Area 51 in Google Maps. Then, grab the man-shaped icon and hover it over the map to make him transform into a flying saucer.

11. SHARE YOUR LOCATION WITH FRIENDS

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If you’re meeting a friend, this feature makes it easy for them to track you down. Open Google Maps on iOS or Android and pull up the options menu (located in the top left corner) and select “Location sharing.” From here you can decide how long to reveal your location and who to share it with.

12. MAKE A LIST OF YOUR FAVORITE SPOTS.

Google Maps makes it easy to store all your favorite restaurants (or parks or book stores) in one spot. Tap on a location and hit “Save.” Then, select “New list” and give it a name. Now, you can add new locations to your existing lists. You can also share lists with friends, and they’re even accessible when you’re offline.

13. CHECK OUT SKI ROUTES.

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Google Maps has information on almost 100 ski routes from across the United States and Canada. Head to this webpage to start planning your next ski trip.

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Live Smarter
The 25 Most In-Demand Job Skills Right Now, According to LinkedIn
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Looking for a new job? Depending on what line of work you’re in, you may want to brush up on your technical skills—or learn some new ones. LinkedIn recently released a list of the 25 most desirable skills for 2018, and it’s clear that many employers are on the lookout for people with experience in computing, web development, and software and data engineering.

LinkedIn analyzed data from its member base of more than 500 million people to determine which skills are most needed by employers, according to Business Insider. The thousands of individual skills that can be found across member profiles were grouped into overarching categories (iOS, for instance, would go under the mobile development umbrella). Next, LinkedIn analyzed hiring and recruiting activity during an eight-month span and “identified the skill categories that belonged to members who were more likely to start a new role within a company and receive interest from companies.”

Here’s the full list:

1. Cloud and Distributed Computing
2. Statistical Analysis and Data Mining
3. Middleware and Integration Software
4. Web Architecture and Development Framework
5. User Interface Design
6. Software Revision Control Systems
7. Data Presentation
8. SEO/SEM Marketing
9. Mobile Development
10. Network and Information Security
11. Marketing Campaign Management
12. Data Engineering and Data Warehousing
13. Storage Systems and Management
14. Electronic and Electrical Engineering
15. Algorithm Design
16. Perl, Python, and Ruby
17. Shell Scripting Languages
18. Mac, Linux, and Unix Systems
19. Java Development
20. Business Intelligence
21. Software QA and User Testing
22. Virtualization
23. Automotive Services, Parts and Design
24. Economics
25. Database Management and Software

Many of these skills can be learned from the comfort of your home via online classes that are available on platforms like Udemy, Coursera, edX, and Lynda. While it couldn’t hurt to know these hard skills, 57 percent of business leaders surveyed by LinkedIn said soft skills are even more important. Those tend to be more universal across careers, with leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management being identified as the most crucial soft skills to have in 2018.

If you’re ready to start learning a new skill but don’t know where to start, check out this list of 25 ways to learn a new skill quickly.

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