How Nintendo brought the NES to America — and avoided repeating Atari’s mistakes

19 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

7 things I learned from the designer of the NES.

Exactly 30 years — and 42 million consoles sold — after its debut on American shores, it seems like the Nintendo Entertainment System was destined to be a success. The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) turns 30 today, as it was officially launched in North American on October 18th, 1985 to a limited portion of the US.Late last week, eight floors above a Five Guys in a common space of a completely mistakable building, the man who created the most famous game console spoke to a crowd of maybe 100 people.If it helped define yours, you might find it a punch in the gut that the NES is three decades old, having been introduced in the North American market on October 18, 1985.

What you see above is the NES that dropped on American and Canadian shores in 1985, but the console had actually gotten its first release in Japan back in the summer of 1983, where it was known as the Family Computer, or Famicom. After the ET debacle arguably sent the video game space crashing down in one fell swoop, the industry needed a savior, and that savior might as well have been the NES.

Nintendo was worried about the viability of home consoles; it wasn’t sure how to escape the fate of other U.S. game-makers, who were crippled when market saturation led to a crash in 1983, which in turn left very little demand for home gaming consoles. (Things got so bad that thousands of game cartridges were sent be buried in a New Mexico landfill.) The NES had been released in Japan two years earlier as the Famicom, a condensing of “Family Computer.” On that side of the world, it wasn’t a success out of the gate, selling just 440,000 consoles. According to Masayuki Uemura, main architect of the NES hardware, the American version of the console was almost called the “Entertainment Learning System” — which doesn’t exactly seem to jibe with how much Super Mario Bros. you played as a kid. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the console’s US release, he was taking part in NYU’s Game Center Lecture Series at Brooklyn’s MetroTech center. “This story took place about 30 years ago, so some of you may not have been born,” Uemura laughed as he started up his PowerPoint presentation. “Maybe 30 years from now somebody in this place will come up here and do a similar talk.” Speaking through a translator, Uemura presented to an anxious crowd of NYU students and faculty, many of whom were sneaking photos or taking notes when they weren’t completely wrapped up in the designer’s lecture. These games included instant classics such as Mario Bros., though there were other, less memorable titles that even the most hardcore gamer of my generation would be hard-pressed to remember. The company may be far behind Sony and Microsoft these days in the console space, but for gamers like us who are quickly creeping up on our fourth decade, that big white box (or the Japanese-run Famicom) hits us right in the feels.

As Uemura told Mashable, the name was part of a plan to differentiate Nintendo’s new product from less successful consoles: “Entertainment” had an attractive, dynamic ring to it, he explained. And while the story of Nintendo’s first console isn’t a new one, Uemura shared some unique insights and anecdotes about his experience designing the NES. That’s when Nintendo’s distributors, already burned by Atari’s collapse and bankruptcy that unpurchased stock on the shelves, tried to frantically warn the company off. Plus, in prototyping the console for America, Nintendo had created all sorts of add-ons, including a keyboard and a tape recorder — presumably to add some educational benefit to the product. A few of the other games rolled out with the NES at launch in North America included classic Nintendo titles like Duck Hunt, Golf, Excitebike, Inball, and Kung Fu; as well as a few not-too-memorable games such as Hogan’s Alley (not the wrestler) and Stack Up.

But the education idea didn’t stick, namely because Nintendo was wary of being lumped in with the Atari, the Commodore 64 and the ColecoVision — all of which similarly included keyboards and promised to be “more than a toy.” “At the time, we were coming to the end of these naming deliberations and Mr. Video game (American) football might have exploded around the popularity of Tecmo Bowl, but 10-Yard Fight was there at the NES launch to give pigskin fans their fix. If you owned an NES, you can probably remember blowing the bottom of cartridges – called Game Paks – for each of the aforementioned games before trying to load them. Uemura also sent these cells to the various Japanese companies that were licensing Sharp’s technologies. “And then I ended up sending myself to Nintendo,” he laughed.

Sort of. 10-Yard Fight resembles football in the sense that there’s a 100-yard field and a ball that one player either runs with or throws to other players. Comparable perhaps to only the Atari 2600 in popularity and historical significance, who can’t look back and rattle off game after game that they remember playing on the NES?

Aside from the wildly popular Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s cabinets were unique in that some featured two screens that allowed a pair of players to compete head to head. Forget VR, forget AR, the original Nintendo’s gameplay just…grabbed you: I can beat the first level with my eyes closed, that’s how many times I’ve played it. But those kind of things happen over time.” Even though the company did end up releasing a few amazing educational games, we think Nintendo made the right call.

To help generate more revenue, Nintendo of America even set up the cabinets so each side could play a separate game, including Pinball, Pole Position and Excitebike. Some of Nintendo’s earliest video game consoles were TV Game 6 and TV Game 15, which Uemura called a “virtual imitation of Pong.” Another game called Block Kuzushi was modeled after Breakout. “This was how we learned how to create video games,” he said. These arcade cabinets became so popular that an early 1980s gaming publication called Play Meter ranked them as some of the most popular in the country.

That’s when Uemura said that Nintendo began to reconsider bringing the Famicom to America. “We discovered the distributors that stood in between the game creators, which were us, and the players were an unnecessary piece. Uemura said it was “through these products we were able to learn what kinds of issues and what problems the customer will face” when buying a gaming system.

I can remember so many of them, but here’s one that might give you the feels: Plus, all of the quirks that came along with the aging system didn’t matter. Much like other early video games based on professional sports, Baseball is a rough approximation of the real thing that doesn’t quite pull it off, mostly due to the hardware and processing limitations of the time. Much like 10-Yard Fight, Baseball catered to a specific niche at a time when the growing community of video game fans didn’t have much to choose from. Nintendo thought it could position the NES in a similar way: as companion technology to the television. “That’s one of the reasons you saw the front-loading in the NES originally — because that’s how you put video tapes into a VCR. It’s also something Atari didn’t do; consoles produced by Nintendo’s rival were top-loading, just like the Japanese Famicom. (There were also concerns that in parts of the U.S. with dry climates, static electricity from the user’s hand could short-circuit the NES when they were inserting and removing games.) The Atari factor was also why, despite much deliberation, Nintendo decided to keep the plus-shaped directional pad on its controllers when it brought them to the U.S.

Uemura said separating the two was “really revolutionary.” Game & Watch handheld consoles were a hit, but they also had lasting effects on the Famicom’s design. The D-pad and button layout was basically ported directly over to the Famicom’s controller, and this, coupled with the knowledge that kids would feel comfortable using it while looking up at a television, helped push the Famicom’s development forward. The only people who clued in on this were a few arcade owners who realized they could change the games inside the cabinets, eliminating the need to order new ones — a move Uemura didn’t seem too pleased with. Uemura is shocked to see that three decades later, fans’ passion for the console is stronger than ever. “I was so surprised to find that in Japan and, America as well, that over these 30 years, the interest in the history hasn’t disappeared,” he said. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Atari had run an infamous ad for its 2600 console with big block lettering that read: “This is not a toy,” and eventually the company started calling its systems “home computers.” Coleco started marketing the ColecoVision as a “family computer system” — a phrase that Uemura says rankled Nintendo executives.

One or two players run and jump around Kong-style maps, collecting numbers and arithmetical operations to reach a number total displayed at the top of the screen. Duck Hunt was the first NES game to utilize the Zapper light gun, with players shooting down flocks of ducks as a jerkass dog laughed at their failures. Uemura showed a (very amusing) photo from the Japanese news of an American man pinching the buttons with his right hand while gripping the D-pad with his left, holding the thing almost like an Atari joystick. “It’s kind of different, but I guess it’s okay,” he laughed.

Players guided Professor Hector and Professor Vector through a dynamite-filled lab, defusing the explosives while avoiding an army of lizard creatures, called Smicks. The game is ostensibly about cooperative play, but you could really mess with the second player by climbing too quickly and forcing them off the screen.

And like so many story-driven games from that time, your goal is to rescue your lady love, Sylvia, after she’s kidnapped by an evil martial arts masters. There’s no mascot more visible or widely renowned than the red-and-blue-clad mustachioed plumber who stomped sentient mushrooms and spit hot fire on his quest to rescue a kidnapped princess. The “damsel-in-distress” trope may be tired and overused in this day and age, but is there any video game fan that doesn’t feel a twinge of nostalgia at the sight of the words “Your princess is in another castle”?

The single player game is about what you’d expect: you and an AI-controlled opponent hit the ball back and forth over a net until someone scores enough points to win.

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