Nintendo Entertainment System: Now you are playing with power.
It’s very likely that had Nintendo not created the NES, you wouldn’t be playing games today. See, the games industry crashed spectacularly in 1983, largely because companies released a slew of rubbish games – such as ET on the Atari 2600 which was so bad that all the unsold copies were buried under concrete in a desert (no, really) – and subsequently went bankrupt. No one bought games because there was nothing good to buy, and videogaming was about to be dismissed as a passing fad.
The future of videogames looked bleak. The catastrophic crash of 1984 had wiped out or severely weakened all the major home videogame companies, and home computers were becoming more and more popular. It seemed as if the home videogame system would become a thing of the past.
After the crash, only two companies were making any serious effort at selling videogames. INTV (the company that owned the rights to the Intellivision) and a Japanese company named Nintendo. Nintendo started out in 1889 as a playing card company and started getting into videogames in the early ’80s, producing hits like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. Their Famicom (FAMIly COMputer) videogame system had done pretty well in Japan, selling 2.5 million systems in 1984. After negotiations with Atari to sell the Famicom in the U.S. fell through, Nintendo decided to release the system in the States on their own in 1985, ignoring the weak videogame market and the recent crash.
It was all looking grim for our favorite pastime until Nintendo’s Masayuki Uemura designed the Nintendo Family Computer (or Famicom for short), an 8-bit console that played cartridge-based games. The Famicom, released on 15 July 1983 in Japan, ended up selling over 2.5 million units by the end of 1984. It was, to put it mildly, a success.
Selling the system to American retailers wasn’t easy. Most were hesitant to buy videogame systems after the crash of the entire market just a year ago, and didn’t want to get burned. So Nintendo took steps to make the system seem less like a videogame system and more like a computer or a VCR. They called the U.S. version of the Famicom the Nintendo Entertainment System, and designed it to look less like a videogame console and more like something that would fit in with other home entertainment appliances. Nintendo even agreed to buy back all unsold inventory in order to get retailers to take a chance on them. The system was originally targeted for release in spring ’85, but the release date was pushed back. After test-marketing in the New York City area in late fall, the system was released nationwide in February, 1986.
In all, the NES sold over 60 million units worldwide – an unbelievable number when you consider it means that one in every 100 people in the world bought one. Let that sink in…
The NES’s main competitors were two other 8-bit consoles. The first was the Sega Master System. Released in the U.S. in 1986, it was a superior gaming experience with a higher processor that allowed for better graphics and sound. While it sold in the United States and Japan, the Sega Master System’s only real success was in European markets. Nintendo’s other competitor was Atari. The company had originally reached out to Atari with the interest of reviving the video game industry together. However, Atari did not comply and released its own console to compete with Nintendo. Atari’s 7800 intended to right the company’s prior failure with their 5200 console. However, the console was first released during the video game crash. It was re-released in 1986, but the NES was so popular by this point that it stole all of Atari’s sales. There seemed to be no place for Atari’s system. Both the Atari 7800 and the NES were built with a chip (Nintendo’s was called the 10NES) that prevented unauthorized software from being played on their consoles.
Nintendo had learned from the mistakes of its predecessors, and instituted a very strict licensing system for third-party game developers (see below). This helped prevent the over-saturation of the software market which had brought about the ’84 crash.
Ironically (if you’re familiar with the Nintendo 64), Nintendo promised a disk drive add-on for the NES in time for Christmas 1986. It was never released in the States. The Famicom version of the drive did come out in Japan, but it never gained much of a following.
Throughout the late ’80s, the NES enjoyed tremendous popularity, blowing all the other systems away and playing a prominent role in the lives of many American and Japanese adolescents. Nintendo ruled over its empire with an iron fist, heavily controlling advertising, distribution, production, and pricing. Retailers that sold unlicensed games or charged lower prices were threatened or had their shipments withheld. Their tactics led to many lawsuits and investigations by the Federal Trade Commission.
As the 1990s began, Nintendo found itself threatened by next-generation 16-bit consoles like the TurboGrafx-16 and the Genesis, but the NES was still the best selling system on the market. Regardless, the NES was beginning to show its age, so in 1991 Nintendo announced that the Super NES would be released that September. Unfortunately, the SNES would not be compatible with the NES and NES owners began to wonder how much support their system would receive after the SNES was released. Fortunately, Nintendo didn’t drop support for the 8-bit system completely, which was a smart move considering the SNES’s slow start.
Strangely, the SNES and the NES had only a $10 price difference throughout 1992. This encouraged people to buy the SNES, since it was only $10 more.
Nintendo released the NES 2 in 1993. It was a smaller, cheaper version of the original NES in a more SNESish case with a standard cartridge slot (instead of the “zero insertion force” slot in the original NES which was very dirt-prone and easy to break). Nintendo pushed the system for the upcoming Christmas season for $49.
Support for the NES dwindled as the SNES’s popularity grew. Nintendo officially discontinued the NES in 1995.
In the end, the NES had sold over 62 million systems and over 500 million games, making it the most popular videogame system in history, up to that time.
Today, the NES lives on as many of its games are available over the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console service.
The NES had some really great games: the Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Contra, Dragon Warrior,Final Fantasy, Mega Man and Castlevania series… Metroid, Punch-Out!!, River City Ransom… the list goes on and on.
Although Nintendo supposedly had a strict licensing policy (only games with the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” could be sold legally), many games were merely mediocre clones or crappy licensed games. Nintendo’s “Seal of Quality” wasn’t a measure of how good the game was, the seal just meant that the company had paid a licensing fee and that the game didn’t contain adult content. Nintendo censored all U.S. releases, removing questionable words or adultish content. While this protected Nintendo’s image, it effectively alienated its over-13 market. Nintendo also had strict third-party programming policies for many years: if you programmed for Nintendo, you only programmed for Nintendo. This policy helped kill off most of the NES’s early competitors, like the SMS. Companies were also limited to releasing two games a year, and Nintendo manufactured all NES cartridges themselves to control production (this hurt them greatly during the 1988 chip shortage, and the practice was discontinued in 1990). Those types of policies were later changed due to government pressure.
Getting around Nintendo’s strict policies was tough, but the pirate NES market overseas was huge. Pirates usually sold “multicarts,” cartridges with many games on one cartridge, but some pirates made completely new games (like Somari) and even ports of popular arcade games (such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat). In America, it was much harder to distribute unlicensed NES software, but Tengen, a subsidiary of Atari Games and former Nintendo licensee, announced in 1988 that it had bypassed Nintendo’s “lockout chip” and planned to manufacture and distribute its games independently. The lockout chip was Nintendo’s method of controlling what NES-compatible games were manufactured. A microchip inside the NES prevented all cartridges from functioning unless they contained a similar chip. Since this “authenticating processor” was a Nintendo patent, only Nintendo could legally provide the component to companies who wished to produce NES-compatible cartridges. After Tengen’s announcement, Nintendo sued Atari Games for copyright infringement, claiming that Tengen had illegally copied the lockout chip technology. The case wasn’t settled until 1991, when the courts decided in favor of Nintendo. In the meantime, Tengen released several decent NES games, including Toobin’, Gauntlet, and Pac-Man.
Another company called Color Dreams figured out how to bypass Nintendo’s lockout chip in 1989. Due to a legal loophole (by bypassing the chip, they didn’t infringe on any copyrights), Color Games was free to make NES games and sell them at a lower cost (because they didn’t have to pay high licensing fees to Nintendo). Unlike Tengen, Color Dreams’ games really sucked and not many retailers would carry them because of threats from Nintendo. So Color Dreams looked to God for help… literally. The company changed their name to Wisdom Tree and focused on producing religion-themed games such as Sunday Funday, Bible Buffet,Spiritual Warfare, and Bible Adventures. These games sucked… well, biblically.
There are hundreds of NES games (perhaps over a thousand counting pirates and overseas titles). There are tons of great games, and tons of games that are alarmingly bad. Besides the legendary series almost everybody knows, gamers should check out R.C. Pro-Am, theNinja Gaiden series, Blaster Master, Rygar… we could go on and on. Most games by Konami, Capcom, and Codemasters are good for hours of fun. Meanwhile, try to avoid games by Color Dreams, T*HQ, and Action Hi-Tech (unless you’d like a good laugh).