Retrospective: The Nintendo Entertainment System

20 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

7 things I learned from the designer of the NES.

Super Mario Maker has already sold 500,000 copies in the U.S. since its September 11 debut, according to the publisher. 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. That is a big number for Nintendo’s premiere 2015 release, and it shows the strength Mario has even when the publisher is selling to a tiny customer base.

Undeterred, the Japanese firm struck a deal to distribute the console in the United States and gained an important foothold that’s kept it in the market ever since. 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.

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. Software sells hardware, and no one sells hardware like Mario.” While that is sign that Mario is something of a system-seller, that August-to-September comparison is all the info Nintendo would give about how its system performed.

In historian David Sheff’s excellent book, “Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World” he writes that, at one point, surveys showed that Nintendo’s Mario was “more recognized by American children than Mickey Mouse.” The stunning thing about Nintendo’s strategy is that the company wasn’t only seen as a competitor for gaming companies. 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. 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. For one, Nintendo included lots of hidden features in the NES, such as a phone jack, which made computing firms nervous that it had an eye on the PC market.

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. 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. That plan that hasn’t always served it well — the firm often gets criticized for not supporting more non-Nintendo titles on its devices — but has proven an excellent model for companies such as Apple.

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. The company failed to follow-up on the blockbuster success of the Wii with its Wii U, finding it difficult to compete with Sony, Microsoft and the rise of casual gaming on smartphones. 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. Meanwhile, it’s gearing up to what could be a critical launch for its next console, codenamed the NX, which is expected to hit store shelves sometime in 2016. 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.

And, the report said, it will have more functions, with “both a console and at least one mobile unit that could either be used in conjunction with the console or taken on the road for separate use.” Meanwhile, Nintendo has also taken new steps to embrace the changes in the industry, striking deals with mobile game companies to bring some of its beloved characters to the smartphone. 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. 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. That button formation is now ubiquitous for gamers. “Atari was famous for their joystick,” Uemura said. “We were a little worried if it would be a success or not, but we knew it was different from Atari — and we knew when people saw it they could see that difference immediately.” Formatting the controller like this wasn’t just a way to look different.

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. In his eyes, bundling the Light Gun with the NES was a big reason why Americans fell in love with the machine. “America loves guns,” he said, to which the room responded with the loudest laughter of the night. 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.

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