Patrick Hope: Coming soon to a console near you!
One of the more rewarding parts of game collecting is finding out about hidden pieces of gaming history.
You may remember back when stores had actual kiosks where you could play games and test systems. I remember very well the old Dickinson Walmart’s N64 station, complete with its broken controller, where you could play “Super Mario 64” and “Ocarina of Time.” Anyway, these store demo stations needed to be filled with games, and usually a store would just take an extra copy from the back, plop it in the system, and be good to go. But occasionally, Nintendo helped out by providing games that were specifically meant for these demo kiosks. And when their time was up, these games were supposed to be sent back to Nintendo. Hence, they were marked “not for resale.” But some cartridges weren’t sent back, and, thus, NFR cartridges became a collector’s item, especially when only 26 games actually got the official not-for-resale mark.
Being selected as a store demo game was a pretty big deal. After all, whatever game was in the kiosk was likely to be a lot of potential customers’ first contact with the fancy-shmancy new system. So only the biggest releases were made into NFR carts. Almost all of them are big-name, first-party releases from Nintendo itself or from Rare. And by and large, the NFR versions are identical to their much more common retail counterparts, but some of them are very, very special and are effectively the crown jewel of N64 collecting.
Yes, some NFR games are honest-to-goodness demos and couldn’t actually be resold at all and are thus much rarer and much more sought-after than all but the most uncommon of the regular NFRs. “Jet Force Gemini” — far and away the most common of the demo games — has some changed sound effects and random beta content, but actually makes it impossible to progress past the second level due to a missing panel. The rest of the game is just missing. It really is just a demo. And it’s the least interesting of these.
The “Turok 2” demo, which doesn’t even have the normal artwork on the cartridge, instead replacing it with a plain white background with “DEMO ONLY” in all caps, turns off the blood so it can be played in stores, gives you all the guns (which have some pretty major beta differences), and lets you wander around the first level. “Yoshi’s Story: International Version” is just the Japanese game modified to fit American consoles with a special label slapped on. The text is even still in Japanese. And then there are the big three (“Turok 2” might as well be the fourth): “Donkey Kong 64,” the Blockbuster version of “Pokemon Snap,” and the gray “Majora’s Mask.”
“Donkey Kong 64” was one of the biggest releases on the N64 and it would only make sense that Nintendo would try to hype its release with a demo cartridge. And so a preview version, in a gray cartridge (as opposed to the yellow of the retail release), complete with a “Rating Pending” ESRB rating — the only time I’ve ever actually seen that on something that got sent to a store — was thrown out there. The demo consists of two boss battles and one minigame.
This short preview even has its share of beta content, with some text differences, a life balloon item that didn’t appear in the final game and some sound effect changes, like Army Dillo having this crazy bass voice so he can yell things like “YOU CAN’T BEAT ME!” And when you get done with all three attractions, win or lose, text appears saying “Coming Christmas ‘99” and you get looped back to the beginning.
The Blockbuster version of Pokemon Snap is differentiated from its much more common cousin by the text in its little box that says “Not for Resale” is, like “Jet Force Gemini,” a truncated version of the actual game. This one also has the most interesting story behind it. It’s known as the Blockbuster Video version because it is believed to have only been used in Blockbuster (Remember them?) printer kiosks. When “Pokemon Snap,” a game where you photograph Pokemon, came out, Nintendo had a deal with Blockbuster where you could print off a sticker of your in-game photos. This version of the game was only the first two levels. If you access the third, the game says “Want to play more? Go buy ‘Pokemon Snap!’” in its best impression of “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” and kicks you back to the title screen. Also interesting in this version is that there are a bunch of photos presumably taken by the developers permanently stored on the cart for lazy kids to print off.
And last, but certainly not least, is the gray “Majora’s Mask” cart. Like “Pokemon Snap,” there are two “Majora’s Mask” NFR versions. There’s a gold one that’s just the retail game and the gray one. The gray “Majora’s Mask” NFR is the holy grail of N64 collecting.
One comes up for auction on eBay about four times a year and it is pretty much the single most expensive N64 item out there. If you want one, be prepared to fork over four figures. One sold last week for $1,400. It’s the convergence of being freakishly rare and being a “Zelda” game, so it has an insane fan-base already. It’s also the most special of any NFR cart.
Instead of being a shortened version of the game or a demo, the “Majora’s Mask” cart is a set of several save states that the developers thought would give a good idea of the game. In most of the scenarios, you’re given most of the items, all of the masks, a healthy supply of hearts, and are allowed to wander around — though the game is in its default state, so you can trigger more or less all the events. The programmers just hacked the game to give you everything to play around with. There are an insane amount of text differences, some leftover stuff from the Japanese version, and some limitations put on Link.
You can’t save (the owl statues don’t work and playing the Song of Time does nothing as turning the game off removes your progress) and you can’t beat any of the bosses, as doing so will reset the demo. (Interestingly enough, the same thing happens if you get another bottle, so no Gilded Sword for you.) Someone actually did use a hack to get past the lock here and got the boss remains, got to the Moon, and beat the game, but it still froze during the credits, so there you go. But if you want to see the sights of Termina and determine if you like “Majora’s Mask,” this is the best opportunity you would have gotten before the game was released.
It took me approximately a year and a half of checking eBay more or less every day to put the N64 NFR collection together. Finding an NFR cart out in the wild is borderline impossible (in about 14 years of N64 collecting on some level, I’ve seen three of them) and even the more common carts are still pretty high on the rarity scale, with the special ones and a couple regular ones, like “Goldeneye” and “Diddy Kong Racing,” being in the “extraordinarily rare” range.
These first editions and demos of some of the system’s biggest games are why game collecting exists. By all accounts, they shouldn’t exist anymore and should have gotten destroyed years ago, but here they are. All games have stories of some sort and these have some of the most interesting of all.
Patrick Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. His NFR of Banjo-Tooie was previously played for about 30 hours and made more or less no progress in the game-the true mark of a store demo.