Jun 242010
 


Curious how the Action 52 evolved to its present glorious form?

The Action 52 is one colorful NES game.  Given its shady past and foggy history, NES collectors seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Action 52.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Action 52 or the the fact that a man by the name of Greg Pabich recently realized he’d been sitting on the only known Action 52 prototype, then check out my previous articles (Articles 1 & 2)!  My second article on the Action 52 covers the game’s outer appearance, a bit of Action 52 history, and the story on how Pabich acquired his prototype version.  This article focuses on a new screenshots that Greg Pabich sent over for my feedback. What I found was fascinating!

Introducing: ACTION GAMER!

First off and most significantly, Pabich’s prototype Action 52 cart contains a game named “Action Gamer”!   This newly discovered game resides in the esteemed game spot number 52. The release version of the Action 52 places their flagship game “Cheetah Men” as game number 52. Thus, the presence of Action Gamer in that slot raises quite a bit of curiosity! What’s action gamer? In his e-mail Pabich stated the following:

The game is completely different than any known CHEETAHMEN.

I AM STILL WORKING TO GET BEYOND LEVEL 1, A TESTAMENT TO MY SKILL LEVEL(POOR) AND THE FACT THAT THE GAME IS HARDER THAN ANY OTHER VERSIONS OF CHEETAHMEN I HAVE SEEN.

I haven’t seen Action Gamer yet, and I’m excited to see screenshots of it. As I write this, Greg and his kids are still trying to beat the first level in order to provide more info on differences. Additionally, he explains:

Putting my son in law and daughter to work on the New CHEETAHMEN game has so far had the same results; they haven’t advanced beyond Level 1 either. They keep laughing saying it’s NOT THAT HARD, but they get blown away every time they play it.

Pray that the Pabich family beats level one so we can see some more screenshots!

How did the Action Gamer get its name?

For the time being, my best way to make sense of the title “Action Gamer” is based on the intro credits for the game “Cheetah Men” from the release version of the game.  Notice that the during the intro sequence, the character who gets sucked into the TV screen is referred to as “Action Gamemaster.” That title could easily be shortened to “Action Gamer.” So my best guess is that Cheetah Men originally had the working title of Action Gamer.

Why did Vince Perri name his game Action 52?

Before knowing about “Action Gamer,” I think people generally answered this question by saying that there were a lot of action (mostly shooter) games on the Action 52.  Thus, it would make sense to call it Action 52.  I would have agreed with that until I learned about Action Gamer.  Now, my best guess it that Vince Perri, the illusive creator of the Action 52 and owner of Active Enterprises, simply combined the “Action Gamer” title and the fact that there are 52 games on the cartridge.

How did Perri create the Action 52?

We’ve always known that the Action 52 was one of the worst collections of video games ever assembled on one cartridge. Other multi-carts existed at the time, but they generally contained clearly pirated copies of popular licensed games. What’s unique is that the Action 52 contains 52 supposedly original games. Sure they were largely thrown together, unpolished, and so bad that they’re often unplayable. Sure they borrowed strongly from other licensed games, blatantly stole music from other sources, etc., but it seems Active Enterprises did have a person or team trying to create original games.

That being said, people have previously compared the menu screens of the release version of the Action 52 to those of 51-in-1 NES pirate multi-carts. The two seemed strangely similar. Both obviously contained 52 games (18 on menu screen 1, 18 on screen 2, and 16 on screen 3). Although the background patterns were different, the layout template was to- similar to go unnoticed. And even the menu’s functionality and sound effects were the same. The two were just too similar…

Now that we have knowledge and photos of Pabich’s prototype, the similarities are 100% undeniable. A side-by-side comparison of the prototype’s and pirate’s menus shows identical background, layout, header titles, etc. For me, it’s pretty clear that Perri pirated a pirate cart in order to make the menus for his game. (If you steal from a thief, that’s ok, right?)

Have you ever wondered why the Action 52 game menu starts with game “5. Ooze” selected? Simple, that’s because the pirate cart’s menu was programmed that way, and no changes were made to that portion of the code after Action 52 copied it.

What’s also interesting is that his team at Active Enterprises was able to manipulate the pirate’s menu enough to change its background and to add its own header and footer text. However, he made zero changes to the number of games on the cart. If you were Perri and were struggling to create or compile of list of 52 games of questionable quality, wouldn’t it just be easier to rewrite the menu for fewer games?

Feel free to take a closer look at screenshots of the menus to see the similarities for yourself.

PIRATE

PROTOTYPE

RELEASE

Pirate Screen 1

Proto Screen 1

Release Screen 1

Pirate Screen 2

Proto Screen 2

Release Screen 2

Pirate Screen 3

Proto Screen 3

Release Screen 3

So what are the menu differences between the Prototype and the Release versions of the Action 52?

PROTOTYPE RELEASE
Game: “18. Atmos-Quake” Game: “18. Atmos Quake” (No Hyphen)
Game: “27. Non-Human” Game: “27. Non Human” (No Hyphen)
Game: “52. Action Game” Game: “52. Cheetah Men”
Header Title: “Section #” Header Title: “Action 52”
Footer: No text. Footer: “Copr. 1991 Active Ent.”
Background: Mario-styled bricks Background: Tetris-styled bricks
Font: White Font: Pink
Font of Selected Game: Pink Font of Selected Game: Matches background

It’s also odd that Active Enterprises made a few changes to the menu, but they didn’t catch the spelling errors.

Which came first the Action 52 or the 52-in-1 Pirate Cart?
While geeking out over these comparisons yesterday and discussing them with GamerGirl, she asked a good question: “How do we know that Perri copied the pirate cart? Couldn’t the pirates have copied the Action 52?” It’s a good question. Given the foggy history surrounding both the Action 52 and pirate carts, we don’t have an exact production date on either. Thus, it becomes a chicken-or-the-egg question.

However, given the fact that Greg Pabich got his hands on an Action 52 prototype that wasn’t in circulation, we have a snapshot into the development of the Action 52 at a specific time. That snapshot matches the 52-in-1 pirate cart’s menu. Additionally, we can see that the production Action 52 menu differs from the 52-in-1’s menu. Thus, it’s fair to reason that the Action 52 was originally working off of code taken from the 52-in-1.

Furthermore, it’s unlikely that the software pirates who made the 52-in-1 got ahold of a copy of the Action 52 prototype in order to copy its menu. It’s much more likely that Active Enterprises got their hands on a 52-in-1 (which were in circulation), dumped, and reworked the code for the Action 52.

Finally, if pirates had gotten a hold of the Action 52, it’s likely that they would have used a much more accessible production model. And if that were the case, we’d probably see a menu that looks more like the Action 52’s release version menu on the 52-in-1.

Conclusion

Thus, it’s fair to reason that Active Enterprises pirated the 52-in-1 pirate cart. The evolution of gaming is an interesting thing, and it seems clear that licensed games gave rise to pirated games which gave rise to the beloved and despised Action 52!

To Be Continued…

Since the Pabich family is currently working through “Action Gamer” in order to identify and document differences, I’m waiting on game screenshots, but I’ll let everyone know as soon as I receive them.

In the meantime, here’s my list of questions for Greg Pabich:

  1. Do the loading screens for your prototype Action 52 cart match those of the release version? How about the music?
  2. Does the Action Gamer game still feature the Cheetah Men or is it a totally different game?
  3. Does the Action Gamer cartoon intro sequence match that of Cheetah Men?
  4. Have you noticed any other differences between those two games?
  5. Have you noticed differences in the game play of any other games? (I’m sorry that answering this question is probably a dreadful project/request since even the release ones were mostly unplayable.)

Feel free to take a closer look at all the photos and to contact me with your feedback or to leave it in the comments section below. And, many thanks to Greg Pabich for providing these great photos and a closer look at his Action 52 prototype. Thanks!

Also for your reference are a couple of YouTube videos on the topic:

Video 1: Side by Side Comparison of the Production Action 52’s Menus and a Pirate 520-in-1 Menus

Video 2: Curious about the 52-in-1 NES Pirate Cart? The creator of this video had a Famicom version that plays identically to my NTSC version. Here’s a longer look at the game play: