The History of Video Games #18: - Nintendo NES Hardware, Graphics, and Sound

Updated: Jun 13

The Nintendo Entertainment System

In the previous article, we saw how Nintendo pulled out all the stops to bring the NES to the US market. Now that it has arrived, we will look at the hardware that made it tick.

The Exterior

As we saw in the previous article, Nintendo went to great lengths to distance themselves from the gaming consoles that had crashed and burned in the US several years earlier, and the form factor of the NES ‘Control Deck’ reflects this.

It was deliberately made to resemble a VCR player, with a utilitarian slab-sided appearance. The NES’s game cartridges - or ‘Game Paks’ as they were euphemistically called at the time - were inserted from the front via a distinctly ‘VCResque’ mechanism.

This mechanism was marketed as requiring Zero Insertion Force, another nod to VCR players. This claim was perhaps a little economical with the truth since although the Game Pak could be placed into the feeding mechanism with little force, the mechanism would then need to be pressed down, which did require force.

This was the NES’s biggest literal weakness as the mechanism was prone to breaking and wearing out over time. The connectors on the Game Paks and control deck were susceptible to bending and to corrosion if they came into contact with water vapor. This meant the popular remedy of blowing into a cartridge if it failed to connect was probably making the situation worse. The simple act of removing the cartridge and re-inserting it was what fixed the connection problem.

The US NTSC - National Television System Committee - versions of the NES ran at 60HZ, whilst the European PAL - Phase Alternating Line - versions ran at 50HZ. Due to this some games ran at different speeds depending on location.

The NES possessed two outputs, the A/V-out and the RF out. RF-out was a carry-over from the Famicom. It was retained in the NES since not everyone at the time possessed a TV with dedicated A/V-in ports. Only channels with the correct RF frequency could display the feed from the NES (and other home systems) and these channels had to be fine-tuned in the same way as TV stations.

A/V-out was the preferable method with TVs that supported it, as it granted superior image quality and sound. The NES’s audio was monoaural as it only featured the red audio out connector. The lack of stereo sound output was a cost-cutting measure.

Top 100 NES Music Tracks

Sometimes limited hardware creates the catchiest tunes

Internal Hardware

The NES was tied with the little-known SEGA SG-1000 for the title of the first 3rd generation console. It was in its internal hardware where the NES really shone compared to the 2nd gen consoles and most of the 8-Bit home micros.

The NES featured two 8-Bit CPUs. Why? Allegedly, because it was less expensive to use two 8-Bit CPUs than it was to use a single 16-Bit CPU.

The two chips were used for different processing tasks and were named accordingly. The CPU ran programs and generated sound. The PPU - Picture Processing Unit handled graphics.

The NTSC and PAL CPUs ran at slightly different clock speeds, with the NTSC clocking in at 1.789 MHz and the PAL CPU clocking in just under it at 1.77 MHz

The NES also featured 2KB of VRAM, 2KB RAM, 32K ROM, and 5 sound channels - which allowed for rudimentary digitized speech.

Digitized Speech in NES Games - NintendoComplete

I did say ‘rudimentary’ remember...


Although the NES sounded only marginally better than the 8-bit micros, its visuals were far in advance of them. The PPU made a world of difference and allowed for far smoother scrolling. This was particularly apparent when rendering faux 3D games such as 3D Worldrunner. It also enabled the NES to cope with a larger number of fast-moving sprites, which games such as Summer Carnival ’92: Recca put to good use. Both games are featured in the video below.

5 graphically impressive NES + Famicom Games

These impressive graphics were made possible - in part - due to the console’s 64-colour palette. This was significantly greater than the 16 and 27 colour palettes of the 8-bit Microcomputers.

NES 64 colour palette

25 of these colors could be displayed on-screen at any one time at a resolution of 256x240, which also compared favorably to the 8-Bit micros.

Comparison with the home Micros in terms of CPU speed, RAM, etc. are difficult to make due to the radically different ways the home computers and the NES operated.

One very significant difference was that the Game Paks could possess additional chips in them which could offload some of the strain on the Control Deck’s resources. This enabled the NES to run games which the hardware of the Control Deck would not have coped with on its own. The tapes and discs used by the home micros were simple data storage media and were thus incapable of this.

One notorious feature of NES games was the dreaded ‘flicker’, which would result in sprites flickering out and becoming invisible. This was due to hardware limitations. The NES could only support a limited number of sprites on any given horizontal line. If that number was exceeded the sprites on that line would flicker. As such, games with lots of fast-moving sprites tended to suffer from flicker more than games with fewer and slower sprites.

Hardware Revision and the Lock-Out Security Chip

There were at least 8 revisions of the NES release throughout its retail lifespan. Although there appears to be no official word as to what these revisions relate to, it is suspected they indicate updates to the Lock-Out Security Chip.

Unscrupulous unlicensed developers and pirates were constantly trying to get around the Lockout chip to sell pirated or unlicensed games on the black market. Updating the lockout chip made this more difficult, but eventually, the opposition would find a way to circumvent it, thus prompting Nintendo to make a further revision. This could be thought of as the hardware equivalent of the arms race between viruses and anti-virus software.

Redesigned Form Factors

In 1993 Nintendo created updated versions of the NES and its controller named the Model NES-101 and NES-039 game controller respectively. Its more colloquial name was the NES Top-Loader.

The redesigned form factor served several purposes;

Firstly, it was a cost-cutting measure as its simpler design, smaller overall size and reduced weight made it easier to manufacture.

Secondly, Nintendo sought to rectify some of the original NES’s ergonomic faults.

Lastly, Nintendo wanted to update the NES’s aesthetics to bring it into line with the recently released SNES.

The reduced production cost allowed Nintendo to retail it for $49.99 USD. This provided an economy entertainment system to complement the newer, more advanced but more expensive 16-Bit SNES.

The redesigned NES 101 ‘Toploader’

Functionally its largest divergence from the original NES was the removal of the complicated and fragile front-loading mechanism. Instead, the Top Loader NES used a more straightforward top-loading system reminiscent of the original Famicom.

The Top Loader NES also lacked the Lockout chip, which enabled it to play games from a wide range of regions, unlicensed games, and bootlegs. Many games were released exclusively in Japan, and these were unplayable on the NES due to the lockout chip. The Top Loader NES could play them without issue.

It remained compatible with the peripherals for the original NES, such as the Zapper, although the redesigned controller did not fit into R.O.B.’s controller slot.

One less popular redesign feature was the deletion of the A/V-out port, thus restricting players to using RF-out. This resulted in a drop in visual quality.

AV Famicom, with AV port visible

Nintendo also released a heavily updated version of the Famicom, named the HVC 101, often referred to as the AV Famicom. This was essentially the Top Loader NES 101 but with an A/V-out port, which allowed for superior graphics and sound.

The AV Famicom solved many of the original Famicom’s short-comings. First off, it had the A/V out port, which the original Famicom lacked. Secondly, it used the same ‘dog bone’ detachable controllers as the Top Loader NES 101, which was a significant step up in safety compared to the Famicom’s hard-wired controllers.

The slight downside of this was that neither of the new controllers featured a microphone. Therefore, games that were reliant on the Famicom’s microphone enabled second controller were not always fully playable. The AV Famicom is arguably the best and most advanced version of the NES - if you can find one that is, working examples are very rare in the west.

That concludes our look at the audio-visual chops of the NES and the hardware that enabled them. In the next article, we will investigate the games that became household names and the various gadgets gamers used to play them with. See you all there.

What was your thought on the hardware of the NES? Do you have any stories to share? Did you blow into the carts back in the day? What were your favorite NES OSTs, and which NES games had the most impressive graphics? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.