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

Updated: Aug 7


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




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




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




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

Mega Man NES




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




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




Castlevania NES




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




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




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




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




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.



Left: NES Game Pak Right: Famicom Cartridge


Physical Media


Both NES and Famicom games came on cartridges or ‘carts’ - few outside of Nintendo called them ‘Game Paks’. These offered some advantages over the cassettes and floppy discs used by the 8-bit Micros. Firstly, they loaded much faster than cassettes and may have been somewhat faster than discs too. They were also far more durable than the relatively fragile tape used in cassettes and the flimsy plastic discs inside floppy discs. But perhaps the greatest advantage carts had over both tapes and discs are that carts were not merely passive media.


As we saw in the previous ‘episode,’ cartridges - which featured their own internal chipsets - could play an active role in running a game, thus offloading some of the strain on the control deck’s hardware. This enabled games with sounds, graphics, and gameplay that the control deck would have been incapable of running by itself.


The downside is that the manufacturing of carts was considerably more expensive, which is one of the reasons NES games were significantly more expensive than games on the 8-bit micros. According to IGN, NES games cost an average of $50 / £40 each upon release. Compared to the roughly £15 price point for games on disc and the under £10 price point for games on tape this was a significant premium.



Box Art and Cart labels



Many NES games featured simplistic box art showing in-game graphics. This may have been done to further distance NES games from those on the Atari 2600. Many Atari 2600 games featured amazing box art, which looked incredible. However, the box art was not representative of what the games looked like on screen, which may have mislead some customers. By prominently showing in-game graphics on the box art Nintendo was being honest and upfront about what the game would actually look like on screen.



Metroid box art

That said, not all NES box art was as honest as Metroid's. Indeed, some were every bit as misleading as those on the Atari 2600.



Input Devices


Something that further separated the NES from the Atari 2600 and the 8-bit home micros was its control interface. Instead of one button joysticks, the NES used two-button joypads. These featured the same patented cross-shaped D-Pad as the Donkey Kong Game & Watch. Allegedly, Nintendo was concerned that joysticks might break too easily or would be a trip hazard if left out on the floor. The low-profile gamepad solved both of these problems.



NES Controller

Featuring two separate action buttons allowed for greater flexibility than that provided by the one-button joysticks. For a start, very few games on the NES used ‘up-for-jump’ - Street Fighter 2 is one of the few exceptions. This likely made converting most coin-op arcade games easier.


Light Gun


The Nintendo 'Action Set Bundle' for the NES shipped with a light gun accessory - the NES Zapper. Nintendo had considerable experience with light guns in the arcade setting, so they were well placed to introduce them to the home environment.



NES Zapper Light Gun

The Action Set Bundle shipped with the game Duck Hunt which proved extremely popular. Wild Gunman, an adaptation of Nintendo’s 1974 arcade game, was another prominent launch title. The NES Zapper was supported by just under 20 licenced titles. Light guns have been released for many systems over the years, and we will encounter them again several times when investigating other consoles. However, light guns have never gained mass appeal and were generally perceived as novelty items.


A redesigned orange NES Zapper was released in 1989 in response to the US 1988 Federal Toy Gun Law which required toy guns to be visually distinct from reel firearms, including their colouration.



Redesigned NES Zapper Light Gun

Incidentally, the era of the light gun came to an abrupt halt when flatscreen Plasma and LCD TVs became mainstream. The Display Lag inherent in these systems prevented light guns from working correctly with them.


How the Gun on the Original Duck Hunt Worked




It appears there are workarounds for this, however.



Ways to play NES Light Gun Games on a Modern TV




As with most systems, The NES had a range of other largely less successful peripherals. One peripheral that is worthy of mention, however, was the Hands-Free, a device designed to enable disabled players to play NES games. It was allegedly inspired by the control interfaces used on some electric wheelchairs - in particular, that used by Professor Stephen Hawking.


Magazines



As you would expect, the NES had a dedicated magazine - Nintendo Power. Where Nintendo Power differed from the likes of Your Sinclair and Amstrad Action was that Nintendo Power was 1st party - i.e. made by Nintendo themselves. It has been suggested this may have caused some controversy, as some developers allegedly made accusations of favouritism i.e. Nintendo Power giving greater attention to 1st Party Nintendo games*.


*NB - I have no first-hand experience of this, and I have been unable to find any corroborating evidence to substantiate this claim. If you can shed light on this feel free to do so in the comments section.


Due to the high manufacturing cost of cartridges, Nintendo Power did not feature an analogue of the cover tapes found on most other platform-specific gaming magazines of the era. Instead, it ran a promotion where every new subscriber was sent a free copy of Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior. Dragon Quest had underperformed commercially, leaving Nintendo with a significant number of unsold cartridges. This promotion enabled Nintendo to unload its unsold stock whilst gaining thousands of new subscribers.


Legacy - a Success in Japan and America...


The NES was a critical and cultural phenomenon in the US, and the Famicom was huge in its native Japan. Many have claimed that the NES saved the video gaming industry in the US after the crash of '83.


According to Nintendo’s figures, 61.91 million NES and Famicom systems were sold globally. According to Wikipedia, 19.35 million of these were in Japan, 34.00 million were in the US with the remaining 8.56 million being distributed across the rest of the world.



... But a Failure in Europe and the UK



There were however at least two markets where the NES struggled to gain traction - The UK and Europe. In the UK and European markets, the NES was relegated to the position of ‘also ran’. This was due to several factors;


  • The Great Video Game Crash of ’83 didn’t affect the UK and European markets, therefore there was no vacuum for the NES to fill.

  • The UK and European markets were already saturated due to the success of the mostly home-grown 8-bit Microcomputers and the thousands of games developed for them.

  • The NES itself and its games were significantly more expensive than their microcomputer counterparts.

  • The UK and European markets had their own software developers which both catered for and helped shape the tastes of UK and European gamers.

  • The lack of a cover tape analogue on the UK and European Nintendo magazines.

  • Relative lack of publicity by Nintendo in these regions.

  • General lack of awareness or interest in Nintendo as a company, its devices or it’s games.

Due to the above, the NES was relegated to fourth place in Europe, where it was outsold by both the Amstrad CPC 464 and Commodore C64. In the UK it was in fifth place due to also being outsold by the ZX Spectrum line.



Conclusion


If you ‘do the math(s)’ this means there must have been another player in the market which also out-competed the NES. This was a console, and it was created by a company that would become Nintendo’s nemesis - SEGA. That console was the SEGA Master System, which will be the topic of a future episode. But before that, there is one last member of the Nintendo Famicom family we need to pay a visit - the Famicom Disk System. See you all there.


Did you own an NES back in the day, or knew someone who did? If you were in the UK or Europe how aware were you of the NES, Nintendo, Mario, etc? If you were in a region beside the US, Japan, the UK, or Europe, how popular was the NES with the people you knew? Feel free to share your answers - or anything else you would like to share in the comments section below.



Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com

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