Everyone who enjoyed video games in the late 1980s and early 1990s knew the big AAA+ first-party titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System: Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda, Kirby's Adventure, and so on. We also knew of the AAA+ third-party titles from reliable publishers like Capcom and Konami (the many games of the Mega Man and Castlevania franchises come to mind). Then we move down to the lesser titles from movie property shovelware publishers such as LJN and THQ such as Friday the 13th and Home Alone. Venture far enough down to the bottom of the barrel, however, and you'll find the unlicensed third-party also-rans of the NES generation that broke through Nintendo's licensing protection hardware in order to publish whatever they damned well pleased. GameSpite takes a look back at the NES's illicit thrills and dubious pleasures (warning: pixelated nudity).
Easily recognizable by their distinct lack of the NES “Seal of Quality” (to say nothing of their generally amateurish art and weirdly shaped and colored cartridges), these bootleg releases were produced by companies that for various reasons chose to work outside of Nintendo’s mandatory licensing, manufacturing, and distribution models. Some were simply fly-by-night operations who didn’t want to pony up the cash to go legit or whose work was too slipshod to clear Nintendo’s approvals process. Others were more respectable outlets who simply had political issues with the formal licensing process.
In any case, these unofficial publishers were a unique by-product of Nintendo’s overall business strategy. In the Atari VCS days, there were no licensees, and these games would have been released alongside blockbusters. Nintendo hoped to avoid another market implosion and employed its licensing rules in large part to ensure a certain minimum level of quality for the NES library. An admirable goal to be sure, though free-market advocates were less than enthusiastic about the means Nintendo used to enforce its rules: Merchants found selling unlicensed NES wares could have their distribution deals revoked. Given Nintendo’s popularity (and its near-monopoly on the console market), that would have been a disaster for a retailers’ bottom lines. Later, it would become clear that loyalty through punitive threats isn’t precisely the key to healthy business relationships... but for the NES’s heyday, it did the trick.
You'll hear all about Active Enterprises and its Cheetahman "crown jewel", AGCI's Death Race and Chiller gore fests, American Video Entertainment's ambitiously named Puzzle, the dismal output of Color Dreams both before and after it found Jesus, and, of course, the pornographic titles offered by Panesian (well, as pornographic as little pixels could be back in the day) among others. While these unlicensed games are enjoyable to read about, you certainly wouldn't want to play them. Moreover, you certainly wouldn't want to buy them. Due to their notorious stature, they are ungodly expensive on the collector market just because they are rare and notorious. Save your money and get your unlicensed kicks vicariously.