Back in the 80s when Nintendo president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, worried about the fate of the Nintendo Famicom/NES, he required a few things from his third-party licenses to do their part.
Yamauchi was worried that the glut of poor product that acted as one of the catalysts dooming the Western console market and which had sunk Atari might happen again. One of the solutions he saw going forward was to heavily restrict how many games could be made available by its licensees on Nintendo’s console. He had already paved the way by controlling the production of the cartridges or “game paks” and, thus, controlled how many of any one title could be made available to retailers.
Konami proved to be prolific developer back in the day with a wide variety of games for the NES over the years thanks to a large library of arcade hits and early talent such as Hideo Kojima. Despite that, they were bound to release only five games a year for the console as a third-party licensee. With Nintendo’s runaway success and with millions of NES consoles being sold by the end of the 80s, Konami along with a few other licensees were hungrier for a bigger part of the pie. They had the games, but how to get more titles out without breaking their agreement?
The answer was to make another company. It was as if Konami used its own Konami Code in real life to multiply itself.
Thus was born Ultra Games in 1988 based in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, USA. It was a shell corporation, a company with no real assets as a true business like Konami would have, owned by Konami and treated as a separate entity thus allowing Konami to go beyond that five-games-per-year restriction. It was as if Konami was playing an MMO called Cartridge Wars and to get around a restriction on being only able to make five enchanted cartridges at a time, set up another account to double their production. And it was perfectly legal.
Ultra Games’ name would emblazon boxes for games like a port of Metal Gear along with an action adventure license based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which were on fire at the time (and which would later be followed by a port of the arcade game as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game). It also didn’t rely on Konami exclusives to pad its catalog. In a way, Ultra Games was treated as Konami’s ambassador to the thriving PC games market in North America.
Games such as EA’s Skate or Die and Interplay’s Star Trek: The 25th Anniversary adventure game would be ported over and published via Ultra to the NES. Other games, such as Microprose’s Silent Service and licensed titles like Mission: Impossible (based on the revived TV series at the time) also rounded off its Western-leaning catalog. Over in Europe, Palcom Software Limited was formed for the same purpose.
By 1992, in the wake of the release of the SNES the year before, Nintendo eased their restrictions and Ultra Games was quietly retired by Konami with Palcom also meeting the same fate in 1994. With the SNES, Konami’s brief flirtation in porting Western games seems to have declined almost immediately, though by then, developers like EA and Interplay were already capable of publishing their own games on either the Sega Genesis and the SNES at the time under their own labels without the need for something like Ultra.
Ultra’s legacy also went a bit beyond Konami’s quest to get around Nintendo’s draconian policies at the time. In tapping into a vibrant PC games market and sharing a bit of that creativity with those that may never had owned a computer in the first place, it demonstrated the versatility of the NES to bridge together two disparate audiences. And that was something that Yamauchi, with his Trojan Horse hopes for the Famicom and its expansion port, might have even smiled at.