July 15, 1983. The day the world changed for home video games. That’s the day that Nintendo released the gorgeous, red and brown FAMICOM for the grand price of ¥14,800 (about 65 bucks US.) It launched with 3 games (Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, and Popeye), and didn’t have a hot start…The main chipset used in the original FAMICOMs failed regularly, and the system would crash. Often. But after a recall and re-launch, the FAMICOM hit the streets and hit them running. By the end of 1984, it was the best-selling game console in Japan, which had a hot market for games. The US, on the other hand, video gaming was on the wane, after a glut of games that were rushed to production in an effort to capitalize on the originally growing market. (see E.T., a game so bad that Atari simply buried a large quantity of the games instead of selling them. Seriously. You can buy one. I really, really want one. They aren’t cheap.)
Following the FAMICOM’s success in Japan, Nintendo signed a deal with Atari at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show to sell the system in the U.S. The deal was for the “Atari Advanced Nintendo Entertainment System,” with the original console plus peripherals including a keyboard, a tape deck (for saving games) and wireless controllers. This deal, however, fell apart after, at the same CES in 1983 where the deal was signed, Atari found their rival Coleco advertising their newest system, ColecoVision, using an unlicensed port of Donkey Kong. This violated Atari’s contract with Nintendo for exclusive use of Nintendo’s games, and in the ensuing delay while Atari and Coleco fought over the rights to Donkey Kong and other games, Atari’s CEO Ray Kassar was fired. The deal with Nintendo fell through, and Nintendo decided to pursue their own, independent release. By the time the 1985 CES took place, Nintendo had sold more than 2.5 million FAMICOMs in Japan, so they were comfortable with the launch of the newly revamped Nintendo Entertainment system. Enter the boxy grey NES we all know. It (very intentionally) looked more like a VCR than a gaming system, and much less like the Atari 2600 that was a failing system.
(quick side note…this reinvention, while a clever marketing idea, actually hurt the NES overall. There’s a reason that every future NES system using carts was a top-loader. The games simply seat better. The downside of the indirect delivery system of the NES was that occasionally, and more and more over time, the games didn’t line up perfectly with the pin connector that read the data on the cartridges. The end result is the infamous flashing screen, either a plain blue screen or a half a second of the loading screen for the game in question. What did 8 year olds across the country do when faced with the blinking screen? Because somebody somewhere did it once, they pulled the cart out, blew on it, and put it back in, and boom, the game worked. The sad thing is that it wasn’t dust on the cartridge that was blown off, it was a simple reseating of the game that solved the issue 99% of the time. The end result? People blew spit all over the games for no reason. Over time, this corroded the connections and forced players to repeat the process, which increased corrosion, which forced them to pull the cart out and blow on it…ad finitum. But the redesign sold games, so I guess it’s a win.)
So, on October 18th, 1985, the NES debuted in a limited rollout in New York City, then into a full rollout by September of 1986. There was a variety of packages sold, from a Deluxe set that included the console, two controllers, a light gun, the ROB, and Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt in a single cartridge, to a basic set that only included the console and two controllers. As more peripherals were released, there were additional sets: the Power Set included a power mat and a 3 game cart adding Track and Field, as well as a set that included wireless controllers. Over time, the game bundled with the console switched as well, as the Challenge Set, which included Super Mario Brothers 3 in 1992. The final release was the New-Style NES of 1993, which combined the FAMICOM and the NES into a single system sold both in Japan and in North America…it was a top loading system like the FAMICOM, was painted in red and white, and included an updated controller, which looks like the SNES controllers, with rounded “dogbone” edges.
Strangely, this system was released AFTER the release of the Super Nintendo in 1990 (Japan) and 1991 (North America), which may explain the SNES elements. This system was sold until August 1995, when Nintendo finally retired the NES after a 12 year run. Amazingly, in Japan, they continued support for the FAMICON until 2003, and offered repair on the system until 2007, when parts for repairs were exhausted. That’s a 24 year life cycle, for games that were created as early as 1979.
All told, Nintendo sold more than 61 million units of both the FAMICOM and the NES, including nearly 20 million consoles in Japan and 34 million in the United States. While numbers for total games sold are harder to quantify, more than 75 of the NES games released sold more than a million copies. The best selling game of them all is, of course, the first Super Mario Brothers, which sold more than 40 million units over the lifetime of the game (most of those are bundled with the console.) Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario Bros 2 and the Legend of Zelda round out the top 5. 4 of the top 10 games were original releases on the North American release date: Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, ExciteBike and Golf.
Which is an excellent segue into the next couple of entries here—the original 17 games.
In an effort to break the list down into something more manageable, I’m going to clump the original games into categories…Sports games (Golf/Baseball/Tennis/Soccer/10-Yard Fight), Gun games (Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, Wild Gunman), Robot Games (Gyromite and Stack Up), Adventure Games (Ice Climber, Wrecking Crew, Kung Fu), “Other Games” (ExciteBike, Clu Clu Land, Pinball), and the granddaddy of them all, Super Mario Brothers ( which gets it’s own entry.)
Up first, Sports Games.