The History of Video Games #19: Gaming on the NES

Updated: Feb 26


The Official Nintendo Seal of Quality
The Official Nintendo Seal of Quality

In the last article, we looked at the impressive (for the time) audio-visual capabilities of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo and other developers used these capabilities to create some of the most iconic games of the 8-bit era. This is their story.

Full disclosure: My first-hand experience of the NES is extremely limited due to its relative obscurity in the UK at the time (more on that later). I have recently played some of the standout titles via in-browser emulation but this experience is also limited. Therefore, everything covered here is based on public domain information and the experiences of others. Any inaccuracies are unintentional. Feel free to correct anything I get wrong in the comments section. With that out of the way, let's dive in.


Nintendo Seal of Approval



As we saw earlier, Nintendo went to great lengths to distance themselves from the Atari 2600 console, and this applied to the NES’s games as well. The Atari 2600 was largely brought down by the market becoming flooded with shoddy shovelware. To prevent this from happening with the NES Nintendo created the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality. Games could not be sold on the NES without being vetted by Nintendo first. The lockout chip discussed previously ensured this by preventing unlicensed games from running.


Nintendo wanted third party developers to concentrate on quality over quantity. To ensure compliance, Nintendo limited the number of games a developer could release per year. Allegedly, Nintendo also charged 50% licencing fees. Combined, these measures would have made creating a substandard game for the NES a very risky proposition on the part of the developer, as it would;


  • Cost them money.


  • Would use up some of their yearly quota of games.


  • Might not pass inspection, meaning it couldn’t be released.


Conscious that the NES was primarily aimed at children, Nintendo set very strict rules prohibiting adult content from appearing on the NES. Ports from arcade games and other systems were often heavily censored and altered for the NES release. Blood, gore, violence, nudity, drug use, profanity etc. were all heavily toned down or removed completely. This is a trend that would continue well into at least the 16-bit era, with many games on the SNES being similarly toned down.


Licencing



Nintendo often demanded exclusivity deals from third-party developers. This ensured that many NES games were not available on other platforms. Allegedly, many Western devs were put off by Nintendo’s heavy-handed approach, possibly because they were already catering for the lucrative 8-bit microcomputer market. Prominent Japanese companies such as Konami and Squaresoft were interested, however.


Although somewhat restrictive, this combination of policies worked. The NES boasted a library of high-quality games that was distinct from the other systems. If you wanted to play these games, you had to purchase an NES first.



Iconic Franchises



This distinct library of games included the first outings of what would become iconic and long-running franchises. Most notable of course was Super Mario Bros. It is hard to overstate just how influential Super Mario Bros was. For a start, it was one of the earliest side-scrolling platform games. Although it wasn’t the first - both Bug Jump and Pac-Land predate it by several years - it was the first scrolling platformer that was a major commercial success.


Many of the tropes common to most platform games i.e. jumping on enemies to defeat them, secret levels, destroyable blocks containing power-ups, etc. either started with Super Mario Bros or was popularised by it. Indeed, so ingrained have these tropes become that we are surprised when a cutesy platformer doesn’t include them.



Super Mario Bros NES


Video by World of Longplays



Funny example, my then nine-year-old daughter tried to play Magic Pockets last year via WinUAE/Amiga Forever. She couldn’t work out why she kept dying when jumping on the enemies. It hadn’t occurred to her that jumping on them wasn’t an option since it had been in every other platform game she had played - all of which had been Nintendo games. Granted, fishing tornadoes out of one’s pockets and throwing them underarm at enemies isn’t something that would occur to most people either.


The JRPG genre was also born on the NES / Famicom with the first Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the US) and Final Fantasy games débuting on the console. The North American versions were the first console games to feature a save system - the game's data was saved on the game cartridge’s battery back-up. The Famicom version relied on the far less user-friendly password system.

Final Fantasy


Video by Heroes of Xanadu - Sloth



The iconic ‘Zelda’ franchise also started on the NES with the Legend of Zelda. It too benefited greatly from featuring a save system.



The Legend of Zelda NES


Video by YTSunny


The popular Mega Man series of platform run and gun games also started on the NES.

Mega Man NES


Video by NintendoComplete



Racing Games



The NES also had a range of driving games with a range of viewpoints. The NES could handle the pseudo-3D of games such as Rad Racer well, with gameplay that was both faster and smoother than similar games on the 8-bit micros.



Top 10 best NES racing games


Video by CheesestringXX



Metroidvanias



The Castlevania and Metroid franchises both debuted on the NES too. Their exploration-based gameplay would be aped by many games that came later. This sub-genre of games would go on to be called ‘Metroidvanias’.



Metroid NES


Video by naswinger



Castlevania NES


Video by MysticGamer



Arcade Conversions



In addition to these NES originals, the NES enjoyed many ports and re-creations from other systems, including the arcades. Super Contra is a notable example of this.



Contra (Arcade vs NES) Side by Side Comparison


Video by VCDECIDE



Due to the NES’s more powerful hardware and superior graphics, NES ports were often closer in quality to their arcade ‘parents’ than their microcomputer counterparts.



NES Vs. Arcade Comparisons #1


Video by Esoteric Arcade



3D Games - Where are They?



One type of game that was largely absent on the NES were those that used filled in 3D polygons. This was probably a wise decision since the hardware of the era couldn’t handle 3D polygons at anywhere near an acceptable frame rate - refer back to Driller on the ZX Spectrum, C64 and CPC 464 for comparison. Due to Nintendo’s high standards, developers probably felt it was better to not attempt it at all than to try to do it unsatisfactorily.


That said, the PAL NES did receive a version of the wireframe graphics Elite.



NES Elite


Video by Dugongue



Games Library



According to Wikipedia, a total of 715 known licensed game titles were released for the NES during its lifespan. 677 of these games were released in North America plus 2 championship cartridges. A further 35 titles were released in Europe or Australia, and one additional game in Hong Kong. NB - This does not include unlicensed NES games.


However, Wikipedia lists 1058 games for the Famicom. This is a significant disparity, so why is this?



Fractured Market



PAL and NTSC game packs were generally not interchangeable. This situation was compounded by the 10NES lockout chip which resulted in regional lockout. Due to this, if a game only saw a release in a certain region it was unlikely players in different regions would be able to play it - assuming they were even aware of its existence of course. This was the pre-internet age, so finding out about and then importing games from other regions was not as simple as it is now.


A notable split was between the US (NTSC)and European (PAL) regions. Some NES games only received a European release. These tended to be ports of games that were already popular on the 8-bit microcomputer market. Elite was one example, Super Turrican was another. Super Turrican was distinct from Turrican on the other platforms in that it combined elements from both Turrican and Turrican 2: The Final Fight.



Super Turrican NES


Video by NintendoComplete



However, the biggest regional split was between the West and Japan, with many Famicom games only seeing a Japanese Famicom release. Importing and playing Famicom games would have been even more problematic since the Famicom’s Game Paks were physically smaller and thus not compatible with the NES’s front-loading system.


That said, where there is a will, there is a way. Enthusiasts learnt how to bypass the 10NES lockout chip, and adaptors were created which enabled the far smaller Famicom Game Packs to be used with the NES. To find out other differences between the Famicom and NES carts please see here.



NES Game Pak and Famicom Cartridge