Following a series of arcade game successes in the early 1980s, Nintendo made plans to create a cartridge-based console called the Famicom, which is short for Family Computer. Masayuki Uemura designed the system. Original plans called for an advanced 16-bit system which would function as a full-fledged computer with a keyboard and floppy disk drive, but Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi rejected this and instead decided to go for a cheaper, more conventional cartridge-based game console as he believed that features such as keyboards and disks were intimidating to non-technophiles. A test model was constructed in October 1982 to verify the functionality of the hardware, after which work began on programming tools. Because 65xx CPUs had not been manufactured or sold in Japan up to that time, no cross-development software was available and it had to be produced from scratch. Early Famicom games were written on a system that ran on an NEC PC-8001 computer and LEDs on a grid were used with a digitizer to design graphics as no software design tools for this purpose existed at that time.
The code name for the project was "GameCom", but Masayuki Uemura's wife proposed the name "Famicom", arguing that "In Japan, 'pasokon' is used to mean a personal computer, but it is neither a home or personal computer. Perhaps we could say it is a family computer." Meanwhile, Hiroshi Yamauchi decided that the console should use a red and white theme after seeing a billboard for DX Antenna which used those colors.
During the creation of the Famicom, the ColecoVision, a video game console made by Coleco to compete against Atari's Atari 2600 Game system in The United States, was a huge influence. Takao Sawano, chief manager of the project, brought a ColecoVision home to his family, who were impressed by the system’s capability to produce smooth graphics at the time, which contrasted with the flickering and slowdown commonly seen on Atari 2600 games. Uemura, head of Famicom development, stated that the ColecoVision set the bar that influenced how he would approach the creation of the Famicom.
Original plans called for the Famicom's cartridges to be the size of a cassette tape, but ultimately they ended up being twice as big. Careful design attention was paid to the cartridge connectors since loose and faulty connections often plagued arcade machines. As it necessitated taking 60 connection lines for the memory and expansion, Nintendo decided to produce their own connectors in-house rather than use ones from an outside supplier.
The controllers were hard-wired to the console with no connectors for cost reasons. The game pad controllers were more-or-less copied directly from the Game & Watch machines, although the Famicom design team originally wanted to use arcade-style joysticks, even taking apart ones from American game consoles to see how they worked. There were concerns regarding the durability of the joystick design and that children might step on joysticks left on the floor. Katsuyah Nakawaka attached a Game & Watch D-pad to the Famicom prototype and found that it was easy to use and caused no discomfort. Ultimately though, they installed a 15-pin expansion port on the front of the console so that an optional arcade-style joystick could be used.
Uemura added an eject lever to the cartridge slot which was not really necessary, but he believed that children could be entertained by pressing it. He also added a microphone to the second controller with the idea that it could be used to make players' voices sound through the TV speaker.
The console was released on July 15, 1983 as the Family Computer (or Famicom for short) for ¥14,800 (equivalent to ¥17,500 in 2013) alongside three ports of Nintendo's successful arcade games Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye. The Famicom was slow to gather momentum; a bad chip set caused the initial release of the system to crash. Following a product recall and a reissue with a new motherboard, the Famicom’s popularity soared, becoming the best-selling game console in Japan by the end of 1984.
Encouraged by this success, Nintendo turned its attention to the North American market, entering into negotiations with Atari to release the Famicom under Atari’s name as the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System. The deal was set to be finalized and signed at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June 1983. However, Atari discovered at that show that its competitor Coleco was illegally demonstrating its Coleco Adam computer with Nintendo's Donkey Kong game. This violation of Atari's exclusive license with Nintendo to publish the game for its own computer systems delayed the implementation of Nintendo's game console marketing contract with Atari. Atari's CEO Ray Kassar was fired the next month, so the deal went nowhere, and Nintendo decided to market its system on its own.g[›]
The proposed Advanced Video System
bundle, including cassette drive and wireless accessories.
Subsequent plans to market a Famicom console in North America featuring a keyboard, cassette data recorder, wireless joystick controller and a special BASIC cartridge under the name "Nintendo Advanced Video System" likewise never materialized. By the beginning of 1985, more than 2.5 million Famicom units had been sold in Japan, and Nintendo soon announced plans to release it in North America as the Advanced Video Entertainment System (AVS) that same year. The American video game press was skeptical that the console could have any success in the region, as the industry was still recovering from the video game crash of 1983. The March 1985 issue of Electronic Games magazine stating that "the videogame market in America has virtually disappeared" and that "this could be a miscalculation on Nintendo's part."
At June 1985's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Nintendo unveiled the American version of its Famicom, with a new case redesigned by Lance Barr and featuring a "zero insertion force" cartridge slot. The change from a top-loader in the Famicon to a front-loader was to make the new console more like a video cassette recorder, which had grown in popularity by 1985, and differentiate the unit from past video game consoles. This is the system which would eventually be officially deployed as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or the colloquial "NES". Nintendo seeded these first systems to limited American test markets starting in New York City on October 18, 1985, and following up with a full-fledged North American release in February of the following year. The nationwide release was in September 1986. Nintendo released 17 launch titles: 10-Yard Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Golf, Gyromite, Hogan’s Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, Pinball, Soccer, Stack-Up, Tennis, Wild Gunman, Wrecking Crew, and Super Mario Bros.h[›] Some varieties of these launch games contain Famicom chips with an adapter inside the cartridge so they play on North American consoles, which is why the title screens of Gyromite and Stack-Up have the Famicom titles "Robot Gyro" and "Robot Block", respectively.
(Robotic Operating Buddy), an accessory for the NES's 1985 launch. Although it ended up having a short product lifespan, R.O.B. was initially used to market the NES as novel and sophisticated compared to previous game consoles.
The system's launch represented not only a new product, but also a reframing of the severely damaged home video game market. The 1983 video game crash had occurred in large part due to a lack of consumer and retailer confidence in video games, which had been partially due to confusion and misrepresentation in video game marketing. Prior to the NES, the packaging of many video games presented bombastic artwork which exaggerated the graphics of the actual game. In terms of product identity, a single game such as Pac-Man would appear in many versions on many different game consoles and computers, with large variations in graphics, sound, and general quality between the versions. In stark contrast, Nintendo's marketing strategy aimed to regain consumer and retailer confidence by delivering a singular platform whose technology was not in need of exaggeration and whose qualities were clearly defined.
To differentiate Nintendo's new home platform from the perception of a troubled and shallow video game market, the company freshened its product nomenclature and established a strict product approval and licensing policy. The overall system was referred to as an "Entertainment System" instead of a "video game system", which was centered upon a machine called a "Control Deck" instead of a "console", and which featured software cartridges called "Game Paks" instead of "video games". This allowed Nintendo to gain more traction in selling the system in toy stores. To deter production of games which had not been licensed by Nintendo, and to prevent copying, the 10NES lockout chip system acted as a lock-and-key coupling of each Game Pak and Control Deck. The packaging of the launch lineup of NES games bore pictures of close representations of actual onscreen graphics. To reduce consumer confusion, symbols on the games' packaging clearly indicated the genre of the game. A 'seal of quality' was printed on all licensed game and accessory packaging. The initial seal stated, "This seal is your assurance that Nintendo has approved and guaranteed the quality of this product". This text was later changed to "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality".
Unlike with the Famicom, Nintendo of America marketed the console primarily to children, instituting a strict policy of censoring profanity, sexual, religious, or political content. The most famous example was Lucasfilm's attempts to port the comedy-horror game Maniac Mansion to the NES, which Nintendo insisted be considerably watered down. Nintendo of America continued their censorship policy until 1994 with the advent of the Entertainment Software Rating Board system, coinciding with criticism stemming from the cuts made to the Super NES port of Mortal Kombat compared to the Sega Genesis'.
The optional Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B., was part of a marketing plan to portray the NES's technology as being novel and sophisticated when compared to previous game consoles, and to portray its position as being within reach of the better established toy market. While at first, the American public exhibited limited excitement for the console itself, peripherals such as the light gun and R.O.B. attracted extensive attention.
In Europe, Oceania and Canada, the system was released to two separate marketing regions. The first consisted of mainland Europe (excluding Italy) where distribution was handled by a number of different companies, with Nintendo responsible for most cartridge releases. Most of this region saw a 1986 release. The release in the Netherlands was in Q4 of 1987, where it was distributed by Bandai BV. In 1987 Mattel handled distribution for the second region, consisting of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. Not until the 1990s did Nintendo's newly created European branch direct distribution throughout Europe.
In Brazil, the console was released late in 1993 by Playtronic, even after the SNES. But the Brazilian market had been dominated by unlicensed NES clones — both locally made, and smuggled from China and Taiwan. One of the most successful local clones is the Phantom System, manufactured by Gradiente, which would end up licensing Nintendo products in the country for the following decade. The sales of officially licensed products were low, due to the cloning, the quite late official launch, and the high prices of Nintendo's licensed products.
The Nintendo Entertainment System's Control Deck
For its complete North American release, the Nintendo Entertainment System was progressively released over the ensuing years in four different bundles: the Deluxe Set, the Control Deck, the Action Set and the Power Set. The Deluxe Set, retailing at US$179.99 (equivalent to $443 in 2017), included R.O.B., a light gun called the NES Zapper, two controllers, and two Game Paks: Gyromite, and Duck Hunt. The Basic Set retailed at US$89.99 with no game, and US$99.99 bundled with the Super Mario Bros. cartridge. The Action Set, retailing in November 1988 for US$149.99, came with the Control Deck, two game controllers, an NES Zapper, and a dual Game Pak containing both Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. In 1989, the Power Set included the console, two game controllers, an NES Zapper, a Power Pad, and a triple Game Pak containing Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, and World Class Track Meet.
In 1990, a Sports Set bundle was released, including the console, an NES Satellite infrared wireless multitap adapter, four game controllers, and a dual Game Pak containing Super Spike V'Ball and Nintendo World Cup.
Two more bundle packages were later released using the original model NES console. The Challenge Set of 1992 included the console, two controllers, and a Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Pak for a retail price of US$89.99. The Basic Set, first released in 1987, was repackaged for a retail US$89.99. It included only the console and two controllers, and no longer was bundled with a cartridge. Instead, it contained a book called the Official Nintendo Player's Guide, which contained detailed information for every NES game made up to that point.
Finally, the console was redesigned for both the North American and Japanese markets as part of the final Nintendo-released bundle package. The package included the new style NES-101 console, and one redesigned "dogbone" game controller. Released in October 1993 in North America, this final bundle retailed for US$49.99 and remained in production until the discontinuation of the NES in 1995.
By 1988, industry observers stated that the NES's popularity had grown so quickly that the market for Nintendo cartridges was larger than that for all home computer software. Compute! reported in 1989 that Nintendo had sold seven million NES systems in 1988 alone, almost as many as the number of Commodore 64s sold in its first five years. "Computer game makers [are] scared stiff", the magazine said, stating that Nintendo's popularity caused most competitors to have poor sales during the previous Christmas and resulted in serious financial problems for some.
Comparison of NES from different regions. From top: Japanese Famicom, European NES and American NES
In June 1989, Nintendo of America's vice president of marketing Peter Main, said that the Famicom was present in 37% of Japan's households. By 1990, 30% of American households owned the NES, compared to 23% for all personal computers. By 1990, the NES had outsold all previously released consoles worldwide. The slogan for this brand was It can't be beaten. In Europe and South America, the NES was outsold by Sega's Master System, while the Nintendo Entertainment System was not available in the Soviet Union.
As the 1990s dawned, gamers predicted that competition from technologically superior systems such as the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive/Genesis would mean the immediate end of the NES’s dominance. Instead, during the first year of Nintendo's successor console the Super Famicom (named Super Nintendo Entertainment System outside Japan), the Famicom remained the second highest-selling video game console in Japan, outselling the newer and more powerful NEC PC Engine and Sega Mega Drive by a wide margin. The console remained popular in Japan and North America until late 1993, when the demand for new NES software abruptly plummeted. The final Famicom game released in Japan is Takahashi Meijin no Bōken Jima IV (Adventure Island IV), while in North America, Wario's Woods is the final licensed game. The last game to be released in Europe was The Lion King in 1995. In the wake of ever decreasing sales and the lack of new software titles, Nintendo of America officially discontinued the NES by 1995. Nintendo kept producing new Famicom units in Japan until September 25, 2003, and continued to repair Famicom consoles until October 31, 2007, attributing the discontinuation of support to insufficient supplies of parts.
The NES was released after the "video game crash" of the early 1980s, when many retailers and adults regarded electronic games as a passing fad, so many believed at first that the NES would soon fade. Before the NES/Famicom, Nintendo was known as a moderately successful Japanese toy and playing card manufacturer, but the popularity of the NES/Famicom helped the company grow into an internationally recognized name almost synonymous with video games as Atari had been, and set the stage for Japanese dominance of the video game industry. With the NES, Nintendo also changed the relationship between console manufacturers and third-party software developers by restricting developers from publishing and distributing software without licensed approval. This led to higher quality software titles, which helped change the attitude of a public that had grown weary from poorly produced titles for earlier game systems.
The NES hardware was also very influential. Nintendo chose the name "Nintendo Entertainment System" for the US market and redesigned the system so it would not give the appearance of a child's toy. The front-loading cartridge input allowed it to be used more easily in a TV stand with other entertainment devices, such as a videocassette recorder.
The system's hardware limitations led to design principles that still influence the development of modern video games. Many prominent game franchises originated on the NES, including Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, Capcom's Mega Man franchise, Konami's Castlevania franchise, Square's Final Fantasy, and Enix's Dragon Quest franchises.
NES imagery, especially its controller, has become a popular motif for a variety of products, including Nintendo's own Game Boy Advance. Clothing, accessories, and food items adorned with NES-themed imagery are still produced and sold in stores.
On July 14, 2016, Nintendo announced the November 2016 launch of a miniature replica of the NES, titled Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition in the United States and Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System in Europe and Australia. The console includes 30 permanently inbuilt games from the vintage NES library, including the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda series. The system features HDMI display output and a new replica controller, which can also connect to the Wii Remote for use with Virtual Console games. It was discontinued in North America on April 13, 2017, and worldwide on April 15, 2017. However, Nintendo announced in September 2017 that the NES Classic Mini would return to production on June 29, 2018. In 2018, Nintendo will add 20 NES games to be playable on the Nintendo Switch via its Nintendo Switch Online service. The games will feature online gaming capabilities.
On August 14, 1995, Nintendo discontinued the Nintendo Entertainment System in both North America and Europe.
The Famicom was officially discontinued in September 2003. Nintendo offered repair service for the Famicom in Japan until 2007.