Did the first piece of NES code ever programmed by Nintendo’s late president Satoru Iwata just get sold on Yahoo Auctions? Seems so.

For quite a few years now, I’ve watched (and occasionally pitched in to help) my friend Frank Cifaldi, a game producer and historian, in his efforts to track down and preserve the history of videogames. Occasionally, this extends to placing bids on some weird-looking online auctions that may or may not contain unreleased game code on prototype boards. Weeks ago, Frank pinged me to help with one of these—a seller on Yahoo (which, improbably, is Japan’s premiere online auction site) had what looked like some prototype boards for the Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES.

There was very little information about them in the descriptions, and honestly, they looked a little suspect, as if the stickers had been put on recently. The circuit boards didn’t look official, either. But what had Frank interested was something I don’t know if many other watchers would have noticed: According to the serial codes on the EPROM chips that housed the game data, they were manufactured in 1984. And Joust, one of the games, wasn’t released until 1987. That meant it was very possible that the game programs differed, perhaps significantly, from the final product that was released to stores.

Prototype games that differ from the final game code can be treasure troves of data, offering insight into the game development process. They also were never supposed to last this long; the chips were reusable, meant to be overwritten with new game code and eventually discarded. And Joust was of particular interest, because it was the first Nintendo product created by Satoru Iwata, a programmer for HAL Laboratories who would eventually become the company’s president.

Moreover, this particular version had a fascinating history all to itself. Before Nintendo made the decision to attempt to launch the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States in 1985, it nearly inked a deal to have Atari, then the dominant maker of games in the U.S., release the system overseas. As part of the proposed deal, Nintendo would convert some of Atari’s game properties to the Famicom format. That seems to have been why this version of Joust (a multiplayer arcade game in which players riding flying birds armed with lances attempt to skewer each other) came into being, and why it wasn’t released even though it was programmed in 1983. Four years later, HAL would release Joust under its own publishing label.

Frank ended up buying these game boards, in the hopes that the versions of the games would indeed be unfinished ones. And Joust was indeed. There aren’t many differences—mostly, it’s just misspelled words.

But a win on a technicality is still a win—based on the dates on the chips and the unfinished nature of the program, this is likely the version of the game that Iwata submitted to Nintendo for that aborted Atari deal, and the first Nintendo program written by the guy who’d eventually lead the company back to greatness.

There’s a sad footnote to the story. By the time that Frank originally noticed the Joust auction, the seller on Yahoo had already sold some similar boards. One of them was a version of Super Mario Bros. If you examine the photographs the seller used, one of them shows the game’s counter text scrolling off the screen, which never happens in the released version of this classic.

Given what we know about these games, that most likely means that an early, unfinished version of Super Mario Bros., which would basically be the Holy Grail of prototype researchers, sold at auction for about two hundred bucks and disappeared. Hopefully its new owner preserves it in some way, before the chips die.

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Sketchy Auction Turns Out to Be a Rare Nintendo Prototype