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A Brief History of the Nintendo Entertainment System

Here’s a little known fact…the Nintendo Company is actually much older than the NES/FAMICOM that brought the world’s attention to Japan. It actually started in 1889 as a playing card company. Before Nintendo went into the video game industry in the mid-1970s, they had also been in the taxi industry, and has run “love hotels” (which are exactly what they sound like and make the family friendly Wii pretty damn ironic). In the 1960s, they turned themselves into a toy company, (after visiting the States they cut a deal to exclusively license Disney characters on playing cards for Japan) and they eventually saw the future of video games on the horizon. They started into video games making light gun games (arcade style shooters) and grabbed exclusive distribution rights for Magnavox’s response to the Atari.

Around this time, they hired a dude named Shigeru Miyomoto—a student who was interested in video games. We’ll talk about him a bunch later (he designed pretty much every good Nintendo game. Ever—he’s earned his own entry) but his first major success was 1981’s Donkey Kong. Originally an arcade cabinet, Nintendo brought in HUGE profits by porting the game to all of the systems that were on the market at the time. It was the best selling game on multiple platforms. In a day where there were actually multiple platforms…not the 4 or so that exist today.

This money allowed Nintendo the opportunity to branch out into producing physical consoles, not just the games themselves. They started with a series of single-game micro-consoles in a series called Game and Watch. Some of the games were ports, some were created for the system. While not exactly noteworthy as a concept (having to buy a new handset for every game didn’t work out well, their console for Donkey Kong gave us the 2 Axis D-pad that is a standard for ALL video game controllers today.

After realizing that single-game consoles limited the market because of the high cost of constantly repurchasing the hardware, Nintendo spent 1981-82 on their own exclusive system. The end result was the FAMICOM.


Check out that sweet color scheme!

While it looks sorta-similar to the grey toaster we are all familiar with, there are some pretty nifty differences. First, check out that paint job…there’s some serious character in there. Additionally, the controllers were hard-wired to the system…which probably kept you from losing them. Finally, unlike the NES, the games were top loaded, like the Atari before it.

It sold well in Japan, but after the disaster that was glut of shitty Atari games (see E.T. as the classic, horrendous example) Nintendo worried about ANYTHING that looked like a 2600. So before they moved into the US market, Nintendo made some changes. Like a grey box that is an “Entertainment System” using “Game Paks” inserted into a “control deck.”

If I had spent half as much time on ANYTHING as i did on this, I could be world famous.

Ah, the view of my childhood

Basically, it’s a video game system that doesn’t look like a video game system. It ‘s a computer—it’s not a toy. There’s even a robot

8 bits of power. Skynet it isn't.

Robotic Operating Buddy, R.O.B., or a huge waste of cash.

I honestly have no idea what the point of the robot was. Maybe I’ll figure it out some day. Nobody I knew who had it (all 3 of them) could ever get it to work. You didn’t really need it. But hey! It’s a Robot!

Anyway. We’re not here to talk about robots. Nintendo launched the NES in October 1985. And it was a heck of a launch. Nintendo had a solid 17 game roster…sports games like 10 Yard Fight (first decent US Football game) Soccer (football to the rest of the world) Tennis, Golf, Baseball, platformers in Ice Climbers, Wrecking Crew, Donkey Kong Jr. Math (seriously), a fighting game in Kung-Fu, 2 racing games in Excitebike and Mach Rider, a Lightgun Game in Wild Gunman, 2 robot games in Gyromite and Stackup, classic Pinball, whatever the hell you would call Clu Clu Land, and the 2 games that came with the NES itself, Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt (depending on which package you bought).

All of this, plus the peripherals in the robot (R.O.B. or Robotic Operating Buddy) and the lightgun, which still is an amazing chunk of Tech that I’ll write about and regularly bitch about the fact it won’t work on new hi-def TVs (it’s a refresh rate issue).

A great game system, an acceptable zapper, and a really fancy paperweight

And now the gang’s all together

If you look at the list of cool stuff above, you’ll see it wasn’t actually much of a launch. Nintendo didn’t hit their stride until 1987 or so…with the exception of SMB and Excitebike, none of the original games make any of the top 100 games. The only 2 ROB games ever released came out on launch day (and ROB would disappear quickly when it because obvious that there wouldn’t be any more games to use with him. At a cost of around 75 bucks in 1985 money.) and

But 1987 is in the future. My next post will be a quick review of the original 18 games, minus Stackup, which you can’t play without a ROB…and between the game and the robot, that’d be about 250 bucks on ebay. (I’m not that dedicated to the blog to spend that kind of cash on a 30 minute project).

Until next time, thanks for reading.

Categories: NES NES History