The Nintendo Entertainment System, known as the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan, is one of the most well loved and enduring game consoles in history. It single handedly rescued the video game industry from the jaws of death after the infamous video game crash of 1983, and ushered in the modern video game era. Introduced in Japan in 1983, with a North American release to follow in 1985, the NES brought arcade quality games to the home and introduced gamers to an entire stable of characters and genres that persist on to this day.
Nintendo originally began life as a manufacturer of playing cards in 1889, venturing into toys by the 1960’s and light gun games in the 1970s. Their introduction to the video games industry was as the Japanese distributer of Magnavox’s Odyssey video game console. They eventually moved on to their own early consoles (the Color TV-Game and the portable Game & Watch series), and then into software development for many of the popular consoles of the late 1970’s and early 1980s after the development of the wildly successful Donkey Kong arcade game. The name Nintendo roughly translates to “leave luck to heaven” from Japanese.
The Japanese release was marred initially by chip set quality issues, despite having ports of the wildly popular Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye arcade games. A recall was issued, and eventually newly modified Famicom systems became a top seller by 1985. Later that year, Nintendo introduced its Nintendo Entertainment System at the summer Consumer Electronics Show, with limited North American test market introductions later in the fall. This was followed by a full system release in 1986. Interestingly enough, three years prior Nintendo had begun negotiations to collaborate with Atari on a North American system release, but this deal eventually fizzled.
Initial sales began to climb, and by 1988 Nintendo game sales eclipsed home computer software sales. Seven million NES consoles had been sold in 1988 alone, and by 1990 30% of all American households owned one.
Several package variations were released initially, including a $199 Deluxe Set that contained the console (called a Control Deck, apparently for marketing purposes), two controllers, the famous light gun (the NES Zapper), R.O.B. (see below), and two game cartridges (called Game Paks): Gyromite and Duck Hunt. The Basic Set contained the Control Deck, controllers, and Super Mario Bros. for $99.99. An $89.99 version released without a game. Later releases included the Action Set that contained the Control Deck, controllers, Zapper, and the well known dual Game Pak with Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt for $149.99. A Power Set and Sports Set came later, along with several other variation and eventually a system redesign with a different controller shape and a top loading cartridge slot. The system was eventually discontinued in 1995.
Nintendo was well known for changing the gaming landscape, and enacting policies that would reverse the game quality issues seen in the prior Atari generation that led to the industry decline. These included first party box artwork that closely approximated the actual game graphics, as opposed to the outlandish and inaccurate art of Atari game packaging, requirements for full third-party developer licensing in order to reduce poor quality game releases (with authentication chips that must match one in the Control Deck), as well as a golden “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality” that sought to assure consumers of the quality of the game. In North America, censorship policies were also introduced to allow for marketing to children, and profanity, sexual content, religious content, and political content were scrubbed from the games.
Nintendo also sought to demonstrate sophistication and novelty compared to prior game systems, and one early attempt to do this came in the form of the Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.). This robot-like toy acted essentially as another controller, and functioned with only two games, Gyromite and Stack-Up. Essentially, these games play using controller-guided movement of R.O.B. as well as stacking or object placement with it’s hands via controller instruction input. Other peripherals included the aforementioned Zapper light gun, “turbo” controllers with rapid fire features, multi-tap connector peripherals, a Power Pad in which players had to step on buttons laid out across a floor pad to control the game (most prominently used with a running game), as well as the Power Glove. This was a poorly received and difficult to use glove-based controller that contained buttons and also measured hand gestures via the help of ultrasonic receivers positioned around the TV monitor. While the Power Glove had only two games designed specifically for it (Super Glove Ball and Bad Street Brawler), it became forever cemented into gaming history with its prominent inclusion in the movie The Wizard. This movie, released in 1989 and considered a ‘full-length commercial’ for Nintendo by critics, was an adventure comedy—drama starring Fred Savage and Luke Edwards following a boy with a mental disorder escaping to California with his brother, who takes a side trip to a video game tournament after learning of his natural video game skills. It does enjoy cult status to this date.
The games introduced by Nintendo during the NES era rank as some of the most well known and favored games of all time, spawning franchises that remain to this day, as well as games that only remained on the NES. Below are a few highlights of the vast NES collection:
Super Mario Bros. 1,2,3
The Legend of Zelda
Techmo Super Bowl
RC Pro Am
(Notice how strange the initial Mega Man artwork depicts the character?)
TMNT 2 the Arcade Game
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
My brother and I received our NES as a Christmas present from our father. At the time we were still slugging through our Atari 2600 library well beyond the days of the video game industry crash, which we were blissfully unaware of outside of games going on clearance by the hundreds in all the toy stores. We knew of the NES but had never played it. After firing it up, the arcade-quality graphics blew us away, and instantly shelved our 2600. I recall being completely satisfied with the packed-in Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt dual game cartridge, and playing these two games for months. My brother far excelled me in Mario, and most any other game we had in our collection. He nearly beat every game I attempted to finish but could not, including my favorite game of that era, Blaster Master. He would spend hours playing Legend of Zelda, and leave the NES running in pause through dinner so he could continue after he was done eating and we were excused from the table, in a similar vein to how I play an Elder Scrolls game now. He was the ruler of our NES. So, did he take these skills and enjoy a long, fruitful life of playing video games as a hobby?
Nope, he hasn’t touched one since then. Gave up on games and never looked back.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll convince him to take up the controller again and reclaim his rightful place as a video game prince. Or at least, like a wise sage well beyond his years, he will pass his skills on to his sons who may find part of their uncle’s game room a veritable Library of Alexandria of ancient games long lost.
I’m sure many of you have fond memories of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of you owned one, some of you were passed down one from older siblings or even your parents. Either way, share in the comments below your stories and favorite games. Did you try to shoot that damn laughing dog in Duck Hunt? Did Battletoads leave you with controllers broken out of frustration? Why does blowing into the cartridge (sorry, Game Pak) actually work? Did any of you actually own and play with R.O.B.? I’d love to hear about your NES memories, and will happily share more of mine below.