In December 2010, eBay seller “bidoncoolstuff” placed a few Nintendo Entertainment System prototypes up for auction: Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesDuck Hunt/Super Mario Bros./World Class Track Meet (multi-game), and Super Mario Bros. 2. It was advertised that all three cartridges came from a former Nintendo of America employee.

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Always cautious of unsubstantiated provenance claims, I reached out to the seller and learned that they were a company called Seattle Estates LLC (a.k.a. Liquidate Your Estate LLC a.k.a. Le Appraisal Service) located in Kent, Washington that specializes in, you guessed it, appraisals and estate liquidations. (The distance between Kent and Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond is roughly 20 miles.)

The seller revealed to me that the unnamed ex-employee worked at Nintendo between 1987 to 2007 until he left to become a consultant to video game publishers on launching new titles.

Convinced of their authenticity after seeing photos of the insides and doing some additional research, I decided to watch the auctions. Unfortunately, since Christmas was just around the corner, I did not have nearly enough funds and lost out on the two first-party Nintendo prototypes (the Mario multi-game went for $338, and Mario 2, for $470.17). I did manage to secure TMNT for almost the same amount that the multi-game fetched, $332, but soon discovered after dumping the game that its data matched the retail version.

Still curious of the mysterious source, I contacted the seller again afterwards to try to find out more. The company had this to say:

“I was kinda thrown off on asking about my source only because none of the buyers asked or seemed concerned. It was made quite clear to me by the seller of the games that I not give out his information as he is still very much part of the industry and did not want to be bothered by what he called ‘gamer geeks’ (his words not mine) or have a lawsuit brought against him as those games where never meant for the public. We have made plans to meet up after Christmas as I offered to help him clean out his storage facility and he is going to pay me in Nintendo stuff. I appreciate your understanding as I really do not wanna screw up a good thing with this guy.”

That would be the last reply that this “gamer geek” would ever receive. No other prototypes materialized.

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In 2012, I learned that the winner of the Mario 2 auction was none other than well-known American collector/dealer Jason Wilson. He informed me of another copy with the same label that was picked up a few miles away from Nintendo of America in Seattle in the late 1990s and subsequently sold to a collector in England, Paul Hogger, for around $400.

I started thinking if two copies of this game exist, then there might be even more.

That’s when the real search started.


My Subcon searching led me to a Michigan man named Nate and a forum post that he wrote back in 2009:

“So I’m home for the week, and I was at a buddy’s house and I was looking through all his old games to see what he had. I stumbled across an NES cartridge that said ‘Super Mario Bros. 2 Sample’ on it. It was printed on a plain white sticker in black text, and the sticker did not cover the whole area where a usual NES sticker would be. There was also no sticker on the back, where there is usually like a production number or whatever. It doesn’t look like there ever was a sticker on there either, making me think this might be a prototype cart or something. (Sorry I don’t have a picture, he couldn’t find his camera and I don’t have one.) He also does not have a working NES, and mine is up at school, so we looked up pictures of the prototype Mario 2 and the regular Mario 2, and from his recollection, the game looks more like the regular Mario 2. But I was just wondering if anyone knew anything about a game ‘sample’ like this?

“He said he had an aunt who did art for Nintendo way back in the day, and she used to get games like this and huge discounts for them, so that is how he would get those games. It was the only game like it in his whole collection, and I asked him if I could get his aunt’s e-mail, and I’m going to ask her a whole bunch of questions if she’ll answer them for me. I believe Julie Backman is her name. I can’t find much about her on the internet, and he’s pretty sure she doesn’t work for Nintendo anymore, and according to him she did art for like the Official Nintendo Guides and a few instruction booklets, not any work on the games themselves. She lives in Washington and we are both in Michigan, so he doesn’t see her too often, and therefore his memory is pretty foggy though so he’s not sure on a lot of this stuff.

“Sorry I’m so vague about all this. I’ll try to find a camera and get a picture of this game before I head back up to school and post it here. And maybe it’s nothing, but I’m kinda fascinated at this point.”

Others responding to him at the time blew off the game as being nothing special. One guessed that it might have been used in a store kiosk. No one knew that this cartridge was in fact a Mario 2 sample straight from Nintendo of America.

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No one knew that his friend’s aunt, Julie Backman, had designed the front cover of the very first Nintendo Power (July/August 1988). The big game featured in that issue? Super Mario Bros. 2.

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Nate was initially concerned that I would keep the prototype all to myself, but through our conversations about game preservation, he eventually saw that I was just a very passionate player like himself wishing to save some classic gaming history with the world.

He talked to his friend in an effort to strike up a deal with the understanding that I would publicly dump the game. His friend was not interested in loaning the game out for me to back up the data because I was upfront about how that would devalue the cartridge; he understandably wanted to be compensated.

I shared some guides with Nate and his friend, including the site’s own Intro to Protos feature. Once they confirmed that Mario 2 did, indeed, contain EPROM chips, his friend’s eyes filled with dollar signs.

Nate’s friend was no longer interested in parting with the game; he now wished to “sit on it” to see if its value would rise in the future like the Nintendo World Championships competition cartridges. I tried explaining how the two weren’t even in the same category of game collecting, but his mind had already been made up.

More than a little disappointed, I turned to the English owner of the other known Mario 2 sample cartridge, Paul Hogger, to see if he could provide any further information.

(Image source: Simply NES, Paul Hogger’s former Nintendo Entertainment System fansite)

Paul reported years ago that the Bonus Chance sprites are different in his sample copy.


On the left is the U.S. version played with NTSC emulation, on the right, the same U.S. version but with PAL emulation turned on.

Turns out, however, that was caused by playing the NTSC cartridge on his European PAL system. There’s an odd glitch that makes the Bonus Chance background and sprites disappear. When inserted into an NTSC Nintendo Entertainment System, all of the graphics reappear.

(Image source: Johan)

This is unlike the unique Super Mario Bros. 2 prototype that Johan, a Swedish collector, purchased from eBay in 2005 for $350. That cartridge does not have a proper label on the front and the board inside is an NES-SNROM-02.

(Image source: Johan)

Johan’s game shows an entirely different Bonus Chance screen and other remnants from when Doki Doki Panic transformed into Super Mario Bros. 2 on its westward journey.

Paul told me that he did a thorough playthrough of his sample and could not find any actual non-glitch in-game changes at all.

The cartridge was never dumped, however, so that doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being hidden content within the game code, but it did not sound to me like his sample was a “true” prototype if the game, itself, looks and plays the same as the final version.

(Image source: Simply NES, Paul Hogger’s former Nintendo Entertainment System fansite)

Paul’s sample appears to match the one from eBay, with both EPROMs containing silver stickers and the same markings on a modified NES-TSROM-01 board. The only difference is that his has a piece of tape securing some of the wiring.

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As I stated earlier, the third sample from the Kent seller went to a venerable prototype kingpin by the name of Jason Wilson. I contacted him again, and he said that he couldn’t confirm any differences. Someone else had already bought his copy.

I was completely out of leads. Then I thought of someone else who might know.

O Captain! My Captain!

Randy Studdard, affectionately known as “Captain” for having created the iconic Captain Nintendo character, is a close friend of the site. In 2005, I published his memoirs about working as an editor for Nintendo Power. One especially emotional story that he told was when he convinced the corporate suit types at Nintendo to allow him to gift a pre-release copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 to a young boy battling terminal cancer. You see, the boy’s mother and his doctors feared that he might pass away before the much-anticipated sequel’s street date. Don’t worry, though. The story has a happy ending.

I reached out to Captain, first showing him a photo of the Turtles prototype that was allegedly used at Nintendo Power to review the game, and asked if he remembered a “Ronnie.” I also inquired about Julie Backman.

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“There may have been a Ronnie back then, but I do not remember that individual without a picture,” Captain said. “Julie doesn’t ring a bell either. All of the artists in the Nintendo Art House (who were tasked with all of the artwork for the magazine) were Japanese, all of whom were good friends of mine. Julie may have been an independent contributor, but she did not work out of the Art House and I don’t recall meeting her. Again, 25 years ago.”

I presented Captain with a photo of the Mario 2 sample from eBay next, hoping that he might recognize the style from the one in his touching story.

“I’m trying to remember back 25 years now,” he said. “The cart I secured for the boy was a plain gray cart. No label; no magic marker. I’m pretty sure it was a forerunner to the ones in your pictures. The game in the pre-release copies was only slightly different than the one that was released for public consumption (which was slightly easier; it didn’t play differently, but there might have been an extra enemy or two in certain places). I think. No, that’s right.”

Yet another Super Mario Bros. 2 prototype? Well, gang, it looks like we have another mystery on our hands!

(Image source: Sean McGee)

UPDATE: In August 2013, indie game maker Sean McGee pulled up to a garage sale in Pflugerville, a city in the Greater Austin area. The neighborhood surrounded an industrial part of the Texan suburb. The people running the sale appeared to be former resellers looking to liquidate everything.

“Most things had Goodwill stickers on them dated 2006,” he said.

Sean was drawn to a large box of Super Nintendo items that had a Chrono Trigger sitting on top. He purchased its contents for $45 and took the package home. When he began removing the items, he uncovered more games and four Nintendo Entertainment System consoles at the bottom. He noticed that one of the systems had the words “need pins” written in marker. Opening its flip top door, he found a game cartridge inserted inside with a strange white Super Mario Bros. 2 label on the front.

(Image source: Sean McGee)

Unsure of what he had stumbled upon, Sean logged on to the subreddit at r/gamecollecting to look for answers (link). He posted a link to this very page, which he had found using Google.

I later checked my site stat trackbacks and clicked on the discussion. I registered for an account on Reddit, and messaged him.

“I can only wildly speculate at this point, but this has likely traveled a lot,” he replied to my inquiry.

Indeed, all of the other Super Mario Bros. 2 samples that have been dug up before were found in the vicinity of Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. By sheer coincidence, Sean had recently just moved from Seattle.

It’s anyone’s guess how this one wound up traveling to the Southwest, but Sean commented how he didn’t think the sellers were aware of the hidden cartridge’s existence.

To break from the story for a moment, although this site hosts a hundred or so pages that reflect many hours of writing and research, the truth is I spend far more time working behind the scenes than I do generating new updates. I scour forums, comments sections, auctions, and so on for potential prototype leads with the prowess of a mountain lion, the passion of a crazed Tiffany stalker. When I do find one that’s in dire need of saving, particularly if it’s an undumped first-party title or a wholly unreleased game, I attempt to contact the owner under the guise of an exuberant cheerleader pompomming for preservation.

In truth, however, this cold call approach typically results in being a rather demeaning exercise in futility.

To phrase that in another way, it hardly ever fucking works.

If I receive a response back at all, it’s usually standoffish and suspicious. That’s when I deliver unto my untrusting audience soaring rhetoric on the Holy Sacrament of creating digital back-ups, and preach against the eternal damnation of bitrot.

At times, I swear I can hear the crickets coming from my Logitech speakers.

I then step away from the pulpit and talk about more earthly things–namely, money. To be forthright and honest, I make sure to disclose that public dumps have been shown to decrease the monetary value of prototypes. That’s generally when the conversation ends, or sometimes when the high-stakes haggling begins.

(Image source: Sean McGee)

The Super Mario Bros. 2 samples presented an exceptional amount of frustration, even by usual prototype standards. For over 13 years, they have been known to exist–and that’s essentially the extent of it in terms of information. Only one owner I talked to expressed an interest in selling his copy–for four figures–until a collector stepped in and the cartridge hopped onto another shadowy shelf. I had never been denied so many times by so many different people (repressed memories of high school dances notwithstanding). Let me be clear: These denials weren’t only about allowing strangers to have access to the binary file; they were refusals to even keep the data privately safe on their personal computers. The more I pushed, the harder they resisted.

My past failures still fresh in mind, it was I who was initially skeptical when Sean’s cartridge appeared and he expressed a desire to preserve it.

“That’s crazy that people are so resistant to dumping the ROM,” he told me. “I totally understand the feeling of finding prototype builds of games. I was hugely into the Sonic 2 prototype scene when all of those builds kept finding their way into the wild. I’m happy to help any way I can.”

His apparent willingness–his being “happy to help”—well, that whole business made me uneasy. What was his angle? His deal?

I thought I would save both of us my homily and skip straight to the collection plate–to the dollars aspect. I shared with Sean how much other copies had sold for, and made it clear that dumping his to the unwashed masses would cost him.

“That’s pretty crazy that collectors are willing to pay that much for these cartridges,” he said.

(Image source: Sean McGee)

I could handle being told no. I could even handle being ignored. But his meekness, his humility, his shocking nonchalance–I was not prepared to handle any of that. Forget my penchant for preaching. This was  a real religious experience I was having, an epiphany not unlike the one that the narrator has at the end of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” A Redditor reached out through the computer screen and made me feel.

Now it was time to dump.

For well over a decade, CopyNES remained the only preferred method to copy Nintendo and Family Computer game data, but the hardware was costly at $75, difficult to find in-stock, and required additional manual installation. In order for Sean to back up his sample in the past, he would have needed to either borrow a CopyNES-installed Nintendo system or send the game through the mail and risk the wrath of the United States Postal Service.

Fortunately, there was now another, more affordable way with a $20 device called the Kazoo cartridge “INL Retro” Dumper-Programmer (link). I had previously read positive reviews of the Kazoo dumper on the NESDev forums, a community of tech-savvy classic game fans and homebrewers, and so I suggested that he try that route. I also forwarded him a thorough step-by-step guide that demonstrated how a NeoGAF forum member had dumped a Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge that used the same mapper as Super Mario Bros. 2, and encouraged him to call on me if he ran into any problems (link). I would have probably flown to the Lone Star State, myself, at this point if he had insisted. I hear the bluebonnets are in bloom.

After a slight delay in shipping out the order, the dumper finally arrived.

“It’s super easy to use,” he reported to me on, of all days, Good Friday. “I thoroughly cleaned the contacts before dumping it, then took it out, cleaned it again, and re-dumped it.”

I appreciated how Sean had made multiple copies. The two ROM images that he enclosed were identical, confirming their integrity. I felt as if a great oversized turnip had been lifted off my shoulders.

Using a hex editor, it took me no time to compare the verified sample binary to the binary of the original U.S. retail Super Mario Bros. 2.

The result: only one byte was different. That byte, located in the first line in a section called the header, has no bearing on the actual game. These curious samples are actually the same as the American release that you can pick up on eBay for a few bucks.

“But you know what? I’m not disappointed. I’m relieved that this mystery has finally been solved,” I told Sean. “And you shouldn’t be disappointed, either, as I know Nintendo collectors will still pay hundreds for the physical cartridge because of its uniqueness.”

And that’s not a bad return for a $45 garage sale find.

Let this be a lesson to the other prototype holdouts out there: Don’t ever mess with Texas.