The History of Video Games #17: Nintendo Famicom and NES

Updated: Jun 13


The Famicom


In the previous article, we took a deep-dive into Donkey Kong. To say Donkey Kong was an important title for Nintendo would be an understatement, as it was simultaneously Nintendo’s first truly successful arcade game, the first true ‘platform’ game to include jumping, Nintendo’s first major success in the Western market and the introduction of the characters Donkey Kong and Mario.


In this, we will investigate the device that truly broke America and made Nintendo a household name synonymous with video gaming, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).


But before we do that let's investigate how not to conduct a lawsuit. Why? Because the example I’m about to share is both funny and has had a lasting impact on the video games industry.


In 1982 MCA Universal attempted to sue Nintendo for copyright infringement, claiming Donkey Kong was an imitation of King Kong.


Nintendo won since it turned out that MCA didn’t own the rights to King Kong anyway. Indeed, Universal had itself proven that King Kong was in the public domain when RKO Pictures had previously attempted to sue them for copyright infringement. Oops.

This ‘own goal’ resulted in MCA having to pay Nintendo 1.8 million dollars. It is perhaps due to this legal victory that Nintendo has been notoriously litigious ever since.


Famicom

Western audiences could be forgiven for thinking that the 1985 NES was Nintendo’s first 8-bit home console since it was their first 8-bit console released in the West. However, in Nintendo’s native Japan it had been preceded in 1983 by the Famicom.



The Famicom. Note the microphone on the right controller

The Famicom’s internal hardware was broadly similar to that of the NES, however, its external hardware and form factor was quite different. Two of its external differences were of particular importance. Firstly, the joypads were non-detachable and hard-wired to the Famicom unit. Therefore, if the joypad or its cable broke, there was no way to replace it. Worse, the whole Famicom console might be rendered useless. This was a curious design choice considering the Atari 2600 had already set the standard for detachable controllers several years earlier.


The other major external change was the joypad microphone - visible in the image above - which was deleted for the NES. Presumably, this was intended for voice control of some sort.*


However, considering how unreliable voice control was on even the OG Xbox, I doubt the 8-bit Famicom would have handled it well. I posit that it was an idea ahead of its time, as the necessary supporting technology simply wasn’t ready yet. I suspect that Nintendo’s (probably wise) decision to delete it was an admission of this fact.


That said, controller microphones would return in more recent Nintendo devices, including the Wii’s Wiimotes and the microphone on the DS handheld - often used for blowing into to move on-screen sailboats, inflate on-screen balloons, etc.


*EDIT - I have since learnt that it may have been intended that the player’s voice could be heard over the TV’s speakers.


Allegedly, there was a hardware fault with some of the early production Famicom models. Nintendo recalled all units and replaced them at their expense - a move that no doubt garnered considerable goodwill from Japanese players. The Famicom was very successful, selling roughly 19.35 million units in Japan.



Nintendo Entertainment System



Nintendo Entertainment System

Nintendo knew that convincing the US market would be an uphill struggle. The so-called Great Video Game Crash of 1983 - which really should have been called ‘The fall of Atari in the US’ since it didn’t affect other gaming systems in the rest of the world - had left many American retailers reluctant to stock any video game consoles.


Nintendo was able to overcome this reticence by distancing themselves and the NES from the video game companies and consoles that had come before. Nintendo did so by employing several cunning methods;


First was the decision to call it the Nintendo Entertainment System, as opposed to a ‘Nintendo Gaming System’.


Secondly, the console itself was never referred to as a console. Instead, it was referred to as the Control Deck.


Thirdly, both its external form factor and the method of inserting its Game Packs (which were never referred to as ‘video game cartridges’) were designed to resemble a VCR player.



R.O.B. - Robotic Operating Buddy



R.O.B. - Robotic Operating Buddy


To further distance the NES from the Atari and other 2nd generation consoles Nintendo developed R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), which Nintendo marketed heavily as the world’s first interactive robot. It was claimed that R.O.B. would bridge the gap between the player and the game. This, combined with the Zapper Light Gun and Nintendo’s marketing, positioned the NES as a high-tech interactive toy.


This was a wise move because the North American toy market was doing particularly well after the Video Games Crash of ’83. Many gamers had traded playing games on-screen for playing with He-Man action figures and interactive electronic toys such as the Big Trak.



Big Trak

Although R.O.B’s mechanisms were frustratingly slow and only supported two games - Gyromite and Stack-Up - it fulfilled its role. It helped the NES to become a success. R.O.B. was quietly discontinued not long afterwards.


Nintendo of America decided to pilot the NES for 90 days in a single city to reduce risk and keep production costs low. New York was chosen as the pilot. Nintendo pulled out all the stops to ensure the pilot would be a success.


Firstly, the NES was priced at $140 to undercut the Commodore C64, which Nintendo saw as its main competitor*.


*Both Nintendo and Commodore knew that their respective devices would end up being used mostly for gaming by children and teenagers, even if their parents had purchased the systems for ‘educational’ or ‘business’ purposes.


(Did anyone who owned an 8-bit micro in the 80’s ever use it to do ‘homework’? If so, feel free to share your stories in the comments section.)


To further incentivise retailers to stock the NES Nintendo offered to charge the stores for only the units that were sold, and to remove any unsold stock at the end of the pilot at Nintendo’s expense. This ensured there was no financial risk to the retailer.


Nintendo also created in-store displays and presentations which were run by Nintendo staff - again, at no extra cost to the retailers. Combined, these measures meant that retailers didn’t have to do anything other than stock the NES on their shelves and sell them at their tills. Allegedly, these displays would go on to win a ‘point-of-sale’ award.


(I’m not clear on which year this was awarded or who the awarding body was. If you know, feel free to show off your knowledge in the comments section.)


To further sweeten the deal, Nintendo hired celebrities and athletes to promote the NES in store - this helped to get the NES stocked in the otherwise ‘difficult to get into’ mall stores.


This near too-good-to-be-true offer worked. By the conclusion of the pilot, some 50,000 of the initial production run of 100,000 NES units had been sold. Similar pilots were trialed in other US cities with similar results. Before long the NES was being sold nation-wide, and would eventually sell 34 million units in the US.


The NES was here to stay. Nintendo had ‘broken America’, and in so doing had revitalised the US video game market. In the next episode will look at the audio-visual chops of the NES, its many accessories and the now-iconic games and franchises that are still going strong to this day. See you all there.

Did you learn something new today? I know I did when researching this. Have you seen a Famicom ‘in-the-flesh’ (or should that be 'in-the-plastic'?) If so, what were your experiences of it? Did you use the controller microphone? Were you aware that Nintendo had such an up-hill-battle to get the NES into stores? Were you there at the launch? Did you see any of these in-store demonstrations? If so, feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below, we would love to hear them.