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  • CHILLS

  • 5.

  • Have you heard the story of the secret NES game Ladder to Oblivion by Max Shephard?

  • The internet says there are 91 unlicensed NES games, but I know that's not true.

  • There's one more, and I've seen it.

  • It's real.

  • At the end of this story, I'll show you a picture of it.

  • By then, you'll understand why I will NEVER play it.

  • But first, the backstory.

  • As you probably know, when the Nintendo released its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in

  • North America in 1986 it created a worldwide phenomenon.

  • It had already sold over 2.5 million units in Japan and the success of the system in

  • America single-handedly revitalized the struggling video game industry.

  • By 1990, 30% of American households owned the NES, beating the percentage that owned

  • personal computers by 7%.

  • Mine was one of those households.

  • I remember my Dad bringing the NES home for the first time, beaming with pride.

  • I was in complete awe.

  • I remember sitting in our sunken living room and playing Super Mario Bros. for hours upon

  • hours, never sitting too close to the television for fear that my eyes would be damaged.

  • That's what my mom said, at least.

  • What I didn't know then that making games for the NES was big business.

  • Part of the reason the NES was so successful is because Nintendo actively courted third

  • party developers for its fledgling system.

  • And because it possessed a near monopoly on the video game market, it was able to enforce

  • its standards and policies with an iron fist.

  • So much so that the United States Department of Justice actually started looking into Nintendo's

  • business practices.

  • When the FTC got involved, Nintendo changed some of the strict terms of its agreements.

  • By Nintendo's count, there are 671 licensed games for the NES.

  • That list grows to 677 if you include the three Tengen games that were only temporarily

  • licensed, plus the several others like Miracle Piano which were left off of Nintendo's

  • list.

  • To enforce its licensing standards, Nintendo created the 10NES authentication chip.

  • When the chip in the system detected the chip in the game pak, the game would be playable.

  • Otherwise, no dice.

  • As you can imagine, many companies either didn't want to pay the licensing fee or

  • were rejected as officially licensed partners by Nintendo based on the quality of their

  • games.

  • Hence the 91 unlicensed games.

  • You can see the list of them here.

  • To skirt the protection of the 10NES chip, some companies configured their hardware to

  • create a several millisecond voltage spike thatshort-circuitedthe authentication

  • chip for just a moment and allowed the game to be played.

  • Interesting stuff, right?

  • I thought so.

  • And so did my Dad.

  • He worked for Nintendo in their development and icensing department during the late eighties

  • and early nineties and got to experience all of this as it happened.

  • But the story of Ladder to Oblivion does not begin with my Dad; it begins with Rob, the

  • founder and original President of LTO, LLC, and his idea for a new video game.

  • Rob was in his senior year at West Lafayettle High School in Indiana when Mario Bros was

  • released for the NES.

  • Like thousands of other kids around the country, he became obsessed pretty quickly.

  • When Rob graduated, he decided to attend Purdue University to study Computer Science.

  • He wanted to make video games.

  • Purdue's Computer Sciences department moved into a newly renovated building in the fall

  • of 1985 and Rob took full advantage of it when he started college the next year.

  • Four years later he graduated at the top of his class.

  • With honors.

  • My Dad told me rob was one of the smartest people he'd ever met.

  • Even so, Rob dealt with some personal demons.

  • His mother raised him alone after his father was murdered in a home invasion when he was

  • young.

  • His mother was home when it happened, but her life was spared.

  • The resulting trauma sent her careening through years of alcoholism and depression.

  • Rob was neglected, as you can imagine, and eventually went into the custody of Child

  • Protective Services.

  • He acted out at first, but eventually rose above the shitty hand he'd been dealt.

  • When Mario Bros came out his senior year, he found it to be the escape he'd been seeking.

  • My Dad has told me the story about the day he first met Rob a dozen times.

  • It was May 25, 1992.

  • He remembered the date because the Friday prior was Johnny Carson's final Tonight

  • Show and Jay Leno was announced as the new host that Monday.

  • Johnny wanted Letterman to replace him,” he said every time.

  • Not that Leno fella.”

  • That Monday, he was sitting at his desk when the phone rang.

  • The voice on the other side hesitated for a moment.

  • How'd you like to be rich?”, the man said.

  • My Dad had heard a version of that question a hundred times and typically hung the phone

  • up immediately when he heard it.

  • This time was different.

  • Something in the man's voice intrigued him.

  • “I'd love to,” he joked.

  • Do you have a secret to winning the lottery?”

  • The man didn't laugh.

  • “I've got something much better,” he said.

  • And what's that?”

  • my Dad shot back.

  • “A new type of game.

  • One the world has never seen before.”

  • “I'm listening, “ my Dad continued.

  • Rob introduced himself as the President of LTO, LLC, a game company.

  • At the time, my Dad had no idea Rob was the only member.

  • Rob went on to describe the game he was working on.

  • It was a platform game where the main character moved across the screen from left to right,

  • collected items and power-ups, and fought enemies.

  • At the end of each level there would be a boss, with an ultimate boss at the end of

  • the game.

  • My Dad explained that Nintendo already had a game like that.

  • It was called Mario Bros.

  • My Dad said Rob told him thedifferences were in the details.”

  • The game would start with a young man who finds a strange wooden ladder protruding out

  • of the ground.

  • When he climbs down the ladder, he realizes he can't go back up again.

  • The only way is forward.

  • At the end of each level, the young man must fight a demon who appears in the form of someone

  • from his past.

  • It could be a teacher, a parent, or a friend, but the player would find out it was always

  • someone who had harmed the main character in the past.

  • After defeating the demon, the player climbs down to the next level.

  • There would be nine levels total.

  • In each, the screen would become darker and the enemies more powerful.

  • By the ninth level, Rob explained, the player would barely be able to see his way through

  • the darkness.

  • At the very end, the ultimate boss appears.

  • The player finally learns who he's been fighting to reach the entire time: a mirror

  • image of himself.

  • Defeating the boss reveals a new ladder that leads back up to the surface.

  • What happens when the player fails?”

  • my Dad asked.

  • You don't want to know,” Rob said cryptically.

  • Can you tell me what it's called?”

  • Ladder to Oblivion,” Rob almost whispered.

  • Eventually, Rob convinced my Dad to meet with him in order to show him the game.

  • It wasn't quite finished yet, but the first seven levels were playable.

  • “I was mesmerized,” my Dad told me.

  • The game made me feel like no game ever had before.

  • The bosses at the end of the levels – I started seeing them as the people in my life

  • who had wronged me.

  • A teacher in fourth grade who humiliated me in front of the class.

  • An old high school friend that had stolen my girlfriend.

  • It almost felt like that game….changed, depending on who was playing it.”

  • When my Dad brought the game to Nintendo, they refused to approve LTO, LLC as an officially

  • licensed developer.

  • Nintendo had very strict rules about the type of content that their partners could include

  • in their games.

  • No nudity, no gore, no cursing, and no religious symbols, among others.

  • Ladder to Oblivion's theme and content didn't fall under the recognized restrictions, but

  • it was rejected anyway.

  • It's too dark,” was the only explanation given.

  • Rob was crushed, my Dad said.

  • Understandably so.

  • He'd worked on Ladder to Oblivion for the better part of three years.

  • My Dad told me the day of the final rejection was the last time he'd ever spoken to Rob.

  • He never saw him again.

  • I begged him several times to try and get in touch with Rob.

  • Maybe he still had a copy of the game and we could play it together.

  • Maybe,” he'd say, averting his eyes, “I'll see if I can dig up his number.”

  • I believed my Dad all these years.

  • For all I knew, the story of Ladder to Oblivion, the NES game that never was, ended the day

  • my dad said it did.

  • Yesterday I found out I was wrong.

  • It's hard to even type this, but yesterday my Dad committed suicide.

  • It was a shock to my entire family.

  • He seemed happy and never acted like he was depressed.

  • My mother found him in the woods behind our house, the shotgun he'd used several inches

  • from his outstretched hand.

  • I was devastated.

  • Still am.

  • Last night, I went to the one place where I felt closest to my Dad: his study.

  • We'd spent hours in there together playing old NES games and reliving his days at Nintendo.

  • On a whim, I ended up grabbing Marios Bros. ouf of its case.

  • I was going to play a final game in honor of my Dad.

  • When I flipped the door open, I found there was already a game inside.

  • My Dad NEVER left games inside the console.

  • He said it made them wear out quicker.

  • It was Ladder to Oblivion.

  • The art was just how I'd pictured it all those years.

  • An 8-bit image of a ladder descending into a raging fire.

  • A note was taped to the back.

  • The note contained the real story of Ladder to Oblivionthe NES game that did come

  • to be.

  • I considered transcribing the entire thing, but realized that would be disrespectful towards

  • my Dad.

  • The note was addressed directly to me; he'd meant the words within for my eyes only.

  • Plus, the words are dark.

  • They aren't a proper representation of my Dad at all.

  • I hope you don't mind that I paraphrase.

  • The day of the rejection, my Dad went and saw Rob.

  • He was already obsessed with Ladder to Oblivion.

  • After a lengthy discussion, Rob asked my Dad to join LTO, LLC as a partner.

  • It was Rob's plan all along and was the reason he'd asked my Dad at the beginning

  • if he wanted to be rich.

  • Together they'd complete Ladder to Oblivion and release it as an unlicensed game.

  • My Dad knew all about Nintendo's authentication chip and how to work around it.

  • They both understood that many of the companies that produced unlicensed games, like Tengen,

  • Atari's software branch, and Color Dreams/Bunch Games/Wisdom Tree (they changed their name

  • every so often so people would forget about how crappy their previous games were) actually

  • did very well in the market.

  • They knew the riskthat Nintendo could come up with a solution that would lock Ladder

  • to Oblivion out of the NES foreverbut were willing to take it.

  • Of course, my Dad would be a silent partner.

  • He still needed his job at Nintendo.

  • It's what paid the bills, after all.

  • In seven months, Rob finished Ladder to Oblivion.

  • The two were ecstatic, but their joy would be short-lived.

  • The night Rob completed the game, he called my Dad and told him it was finally finished.

  • My Dad was excited beyond measure.

  • The next day, my Dad had the game loaded onto two pre-production cartridges.

  • He had a friend in the art department whip up a label, complete with Nintendo's Seal

  • of Quality.

  • That way, they'd think he was working on something for the company.

  • Once they were ready for a large production run, he'd have them made off-site.

  • He didn't want to take any chances.

  • Rob told him not to play the game yet - he still needed to do a complete play through

  • from start to finish.

  • To catch any remaining bugs.

  • My Dad reluctantly agreed.

  • Rob agreed to call him when he'd finished so he could meet my Dad and do a play-through

  • with him.

  • Five days later, my Dad showed up at Rob's house unannounced.

  • He hadn't talked to Rob since the phone call and in his paranoia was worried that

  • Rob had decided to release the game on his own and cut my Dad out of the profits.

  • What he found was much worse.

  • Rob was dead.

  • I assume by suicide, but the note is unclear.

  • There's a lot of rambling at this part about God and the Devil and a lot of sentences have

  • been scribbled over so heavily, the words are mostly illegible.

  • It looks like Rob left a note.

  • The only words wereNever climb the ladder.”

  • More scribbled out words.

  • At the end of that page, my Dad writes, “He finally faced himself.”

  • My Dad moved on undeterred.

  • He was terribly upset at Rob's death, but the game had taken control of his life.

  • Ever since he'd played it that first time, he said, he'd been battling a secret depression.

  • The only thing he believed would make him happy again was to release Ladder to the public.

  • The very next day, my Dad brought on a new partner: a friend from Purdue named Eddie

  • who was always looking for business opportunities.

  • That night, they got together to play the game.

  • My Dad started, but ended up leaving after the 7th level to grab some pizza.

  • When he returned, he found Eddie dead, “Game Overflashing on the screen.

  • Eddie had taken a kitchen knife and slashed both of his wrists.

  • The note gets harder and harder to read, but I think he carved something into his arm.

  • UXXy inXXXe.”

  • I'm not sure what that means.

  • He says at that point, he was convinced the game was responsible for both Rob and Eddie's