Pixel Plumbers: Gaming GoodNES from Japan

The 1983 Video Game Crash had plugged up the North American console industry, and it would take a pair of Italian plumbers to unclog the pipes and let the sales flow once again... Mamma Mia!

During 1983 a home console revolution started in Japan with the release of the Nintendo Famicom. Short for Family Computer, this new console was designed to take video games beyond the giant pixels and beeper sounds that they were known for at the time. To match the hardware, Nintendo brought over some of their best game designers to work on the project. Shigeru Miyamoto was one designer assigned to the Famicom, and it is here that he would create the games that would make him a household name.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at this time, was a man who got what he wanted, and what he wanted was to replicate the Famicom’s success in the West. He approached Atari, the current leader in the video game market, to strike up a deal. The agreement stipulated that the system would be labelled as an ‘Atari’ console in the US, and they would become the distributors, while Nintendo would create the hardware. Atari were also granted exclusive home publishing rights over the Nintendo library of games to go along with the hardware. The deal was all ready and was to be finalised at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show.

The CES of 1983 saw a number of future failures, including the Odyssey Command Centre and the Coleco Adam computer. It was this latter system that upset Atari, as the computer was shown demonstrating a port of Donkey Kong. The Coleco Adam was capable of playing Colecovision games, but while that port featured a cut down version of Donkey Kong, containing only 3 levels, this new version of the game was alleged to be complete. Negotiations with Atari had hit a wall, but they were still talking to Nintendo.

Later that year Ray Kassar, the CEO of Atari was forced to resign over allegations of insider trading. James J Morgan became his successor, and under his tenure with the company Atari was split up and sold off, with the consumer division being sold to former Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel in 1984. In a move they would ultimately regret, Atari closed negotiations with Nintendo. Some commentators have noted that Atari were confident that their new 5200 console would repeat the success of the earlier 2600, but the video game market was starting to look a little shaky in the US. Eventually it would crash, and the video game industry was all but dead.

Unperturbed, Yamauchi continued with his plan, ordering his developers to redesign the system for the US audience. Video games had a bad reputation, but the home computer market was still successful. Nintendo were already working on a Famicom keyboard and BASIC programming language with Sharp and Hudsonsoft. All they had to do was to combine these elements and they would have a home computer.

Nintendo debuted their ‘Advanced Video System’ at the 1985 CES. Like other computers of this era the keyboard housed all of the main components. The system was shown with a tape drive, light gun and two controllers. While commentators at the time appeared to be intrigued, the overall reception towards the computer was poor. Commodore, Atari and Apple were the leaders in the home computing world at the time, and this small player from Japan would be hard pressed to make a dent in their sales.

American department store chains were not interested in selling video games and there was clearly no place for Nintendo in the home computer market, so Yamauchi had to consider his next move carefully. Department stores didn’t want to sell video games, but they were more than happy to sell toys, and Nintendo had previously been successful in this area. Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s most successful toy designer, was tasked with creating a Famicom accessory in the guise of a toy.

Yokoi developed the Robotic Operating Buddy, known as R.O.B. This plastic pal was able to play games with children, but only through the Nintendo AVS. R.O.B. was Yamauchi’s ticket into US department stores, and he was so confident that he shipped one hundred thousand units to New Jersey to be distributed to retailers. As well as being sold with a new accessory, the AVS had undergone a few more changes. Now known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, this American version of the Famicom was designed to look less like a computer or video game system and more like a VHS or Betamax player. Even with these changes retailers were dubious.

At the time Yamauchi’s son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, was in charge of the American arm of Nintendo, and he was already in a difficult position. Having felt responsible for the earlier failures to break the Famicom in the West, he went behind his father in law’s back and assured retailers that they would be able to return any unsold NES systems and receive a full refund. There was no way they could lose. Yamauchi was incensed, but the strategy worked, and after successful sales in New York, Nintendo branched out into other markets. Success continued and the Nintendo Entertainment System was released nationally in 1986. 

A victim of the the console’s success was poor R.O.B. It was thanks to him that Nintendo were able to market their console in the US, though only two below average games were made that utilised him, and there were no plans for any more. Though the ‘Deluxe Set’ that carried R.O.B. was still made available for a while longer, Nintendo wanted to shift their focus to the Entertainment System itself. Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros had been released in Japan just prior to the launch of the NES, and though Yamauchi was far from impressed at the time the game took to develop, he was thrilled with the sales that were generated upon its release. Though the NES was selling pretty well in the US, he felt that bundling Super Mario Bros with the system could give it that final push it needed to make Nintendo a household name.

Nintendo of America were ordered to create new bundles containing two controllers, a light gun, and a cartridge containing Super Mario Bros, and Duck Hunt. Retailing at $130, this bundle went on to sell over 40 million units, and is a big part of Nintendo’s success in the US. Though the Super Mario sequels were also bundled with the NES, their sales pale in comparison to this original set.

Nintendo’s worldwide expansion saw the Nintendo Entertainment System hitting European and Australian shores. Initially interest in these countries wasn’t as high as America, as the video game crash hadn’t happened there, and it wasn’t until the age of the Internet that many gamers would even be aware that there was a crash. While the Atari 2600 was successful in these regions, gamers tended to gravitate towards computers. In the schoolyard children split their allegiances between Commodore, Sinclair, Amstrad and Apple, with many parents buying the same brand of computers that the schools had.

In 1986 the Sega Master System was released in the US, but in a country dominated by Nintendo the console didn’t reach a wide audience. The slow start Nintendo received in Europe and Australia gave Sega a better chance at success, and in several countries it outsold the NES by a considerable amount. Nintendo now had an arch nemesis, though their strict third party agreements saw many companies unable to legally create games for the Master System. On the flip side, Sega was very successful in the world of arcade games and many of these games were ported on to the Master System, but not the NES.

This birth of these console wars saw a major casualty in the form of Atari. The former video game giant struggled to keep up with Nintendo and Sega, and its 5200 and 7800 systems barely made a blip in the gaming community. The release of the Lynx in 1989 was critically acclaimed, though sales were small compared to its rival, the Nintendo Gameboy. The release of the Sega Gamegear shortly after killed the system off completely. After one final attempt at a console, the unsuccessful Jaguar, Atari owner Jack Tramiel decided to leave the industry.

Without a toy to hide behind, Nintendo was now marketing the NES as a video game system. There was nothing to hide. They had successfully manoeuvred their product onto shelves in the guise of a robot toy with accessories, now the accessories stood on their own two feet. Nintendo could do no wrong, and the release of the Gameboy in 1989 cemented this in the minds of gamers. The problem with success is that it’s finite, and Nintendo learned this in 1989, when Sega’s 16-bit Megadrive, branded as the Genesis, landed on American shores.

With technology advancing Nintendo had no choice but to release its own 16-bit console. Graphics were king, and the Megadrive could provide visuals that the NES was simply unable to. However, Nintendo had an advantage through their agreements with third party agreements developers. Though these agreements were modified as Nintendo started to lose marketshare, it still put them in a position of power. They also had plenty of goodwill from gamers who had grown up on the NES. The Nintendo name was one that gamers trusted.

The Super Famicom was released in 1990, with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System being released in 1991. Though there was a new console on the market, the original NES was still available, though it was remodelled for the 90s. Gone was the square front loading box and in its place was a rounded top loading console. The controllers were remoulded with two round ends, and an adjoining section in the middle. Affectionately known as the ‘dog bone controllers’, these new joypads are more ergonomically designed. The Famicom was also redesigned in a similar manner, though the top of the console is flatter than the NES. This redesigned Nintendo Entertainment System remained on the market until 1995 in the US, though both there Famicom and Super Famicom were discontinued in 2003 in Japan.

The Nintendo Entertainment System is arguably the most fondly remembered video game system of all time, inspiring many knock offs and imitators known as ‘Famiclones’. Nintendo have always recognised and understood the legacy of this system, re-releasing many of their NES titles on newer systems. This legacy continues to this day with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini in 2016, and new plans for a Netflix style NES service for the Nintendo Switch.

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