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Analysis: How To Hack The World: The Strange History Of Hacker International

Analysis: How To Hack The World: The Strange History Of Hacker International

April 5, 2011 | By Kevin Gifford

April 5, 2011 | By Kevin Gifford
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More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

[Gamasutra contributor Kevin Gifford documents the history of 'Japanese bad boy publisher' Hacker International, from the company's legal brush with Nintendo to the production of the Disk Hacker.]

Most NES and Famicom collectors around the world are probably aware of Hacker International, the Japanese bad boy publisher of 8-bit consoledom and distributor of titles such as Soap Panic (Bubble Bath Babes), by this point.

I (like a lot of NES fans, I suppose) first heard about Hacker from David Sheff's book Game Over, where he mentions that the company attempted to defy Nintendo's third-party licensee system for the Famicom, was sued, and went out of business shortly thereafter.

The only factual part of that synopsis is that Nintendo sued Hacker, but it wasn't for anything related to publishing unlicensed FC porn games and it was settled out of court before a verdict was reached.

What's more, Hacker had a very long history -- long enough to result in 16 Famicom games, 22 Famicom Disk System titles (more than most legitimate FDS licensees), 13 PC Engine games (seven on CD-ROM), 15 licensed PlayStation releases under the name Map Japan, and even a handful of Windows titles.


That's not bad for a company so associated with 8-bit pornography, the producer of such illustrious titles as Sexy Invaders, Miss Peach World and the unforgettable Strip Fighter II.

Hacker was founded and led by Satoru Hagiwara, an entrepreneur and former music producer who thought he'd cash in on the personal-computer boom when it hit Japan in the mid-1980s. Their first product was a monthly PC magazine titled Hacker (above), as he explained in a 2005 issue of Game Labo:

"PCs were hitting it big at the time and tons of PC magazines were getting launched all over the place, so I asked a friend of mine who ran a publishing business if he was interested in putting one out," Hagiwara said. "I figured that once we started releasing a magazine, the writers and know-how would come naturally. That's how 'Hacker' got started -- it's a bit of an embarrassing name, but since we were launching after the pack, I went with something that had impact."

So Hacker International wasn't meant to be an "underground" outfit in the beginning?

"Not at all. But people who were into that sort of thing were attracted to the name, and they came to us," Hagiwara explained. "A lot of our writers were into games, and they came up with a lot of ideas for offbeat and fun products. I created Hacker International to help put those ideas out on sale."

"At around that time, I had a lot of negative emotions toward the collusion and under-the-table agreements [console game] publishers had with each other. Even so, none of the products we made broke any laws," he said. "The music industry ran under a set of well-defined laws, so perhaps that experience affected me a little too, but either way, I didn't think to myself that we wanted to break the law with our products."

Following the magazine, Hacker launched a product called the Hacker Junior, an upgrade to FC consoles that added composite-video output and new controllers with turbo functionality. You could buy the upgrade parts yourself, or send an FC to Hacker's offices and they'd perform the upgrade for you. Nintendo sued to get the product off the market, claiming copyright infringement.

"That was an incredibly gray-market product," Hagiwara said. "I'm not allowed to discuss the terms of it, but we did enter a full settlement with Nintendo. The lawsuit took place long after we stopped producing the Hacker Junior anyway -- it took a lot of work to produce for not very much profit."

Hagiwara was obviously having fun tweaking Nintendo on their home turf, though, so his company followed up soon after with the Disk Hacker, a Disk System utility disk that let you break the protection on FDS disks and copy as many games as you wanted, all without any special hardware. The Disk Hacker went through several versions.

"While we were doing the Hacker Junior, we'd have technically-gifted people bring us software, he said. "The first Disk Hacker came from that. Our distributors and other people all told us that there was a demand for a backup tool."

From that came original games, mostly made by amateur hobbyists who reverse-engineered the Famicom in their bedrooms and brought the results to the Hacker offices. Given that most of these amateur hackers were otaku nerds, the great majority of the games they made were adult in nature.

"We had no documentation, so none of the games were all that interesting content-wise," Hagiwara said. "Because they were weak games, a lot of them went down the adult track -- we called them 'semi-adult.'"

The original Disk System games were popular enough that Hacker moved on to FC cartridge releases, many developed by assorted companies in Asia and the US. When the PC Engine was released in 1987, Hacker established the Games Express brand to support the console, again in a totally unlicensed manner.

"We established the Games Express brand near the start of the PC Engine's life," explained Hagiwara. "I liked the Hacker brand because it had sort of a bad-boy image, but by that time it was starting to get too associated with criminal behavior, so I felt like it needed to change. Hacker earned a lot of its fans during the PCE days and we sold a surprisingly large amount of games. Although they didn't do so directly, we did receive thanks from NEC for our games, because they helped them sell hardware."

Given the PCE's software girl game-laden lineup in the later years, it's little surprise that Games Express's adult releases proved to be such great system sellers. But how did Hacker get away with making unlicensed porn games for consoles all those years?

Part of it was that Hacker was extremely careful when it came to tiptoeing around the law, making their cartridges in a way that didn't break Nintendo's patents. Another reason: The third-party licensee system Nintendo pioneered was untested at the time, and apparently they weren't as willing to test out its legality in courts as their American branch was when Tengen broke their NES licensee agreement. Hagiwara brings up another fact, though:

"It's because we were 'semi-adult,' by Japanese standards," said Hagiwara. "The fact that we never climbed over that wall was key; if we did, it'd all be over. As long as we were living in Japan, it was absolutely vital that we didn't have any brushes with the law."

Things changed with the PlayStation, which Hagiwara decided to become a legitimate licensee for. Why the change of heart?

"The biggest reason was that I liked how Sony was doing things," he said. "The PlayStation basically destroyed the game distribution scheme that was in place when it launched; they had a stated goal of creating a completely new type of game business, and I was really impressed by that."

"Once we started developing games, though, other makers got into the scene, you started to see 2800-yen rereleases, and worst of all, I stopped being interested in games. So that's why we quit the business -- I wanted to wrap that up while we could still do so and try something new."

Hacker and Map Japan closed up shop in 2001, with Hagiwara moving on to other businesses. They leave behind a legacy of... well, smut, yes, but also of thumbing their noses at authority and being the sort of freewheeling, independent geek entrepreneurs that Akihabara was known for all through the '80s and '90s. I have to give them a round of applause for that, at least.

[Kevin Gifford owns over 8000 video-game and computer magazines. Despite this, he is capable of sustaining a conversation with a woman for at least three minutes per go. He runs Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things, and in his spare time he does writing and translation for lots of publishers and game companies.]

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