Round Table: Let's Talk About the Famicom / NES
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Oh, the memories
This week we've written some features and re-published some select reviews to celebrate the Famicom's 30th Anniversary, this particular landmark reflecting the Japanese release of the iconic original design. Naturally, not many of us in the Nintendo Life team have played that original system, but we have all indulged in the NES in some form or another. And so the only logical thing to do, in order to acknowledge the occasion properly, was to have a good natter about it.
Joining features editor Tom Whitehead for this chat are editor-at-large Jon Wahlgren, US reviewers / contributors Dave Letcavage, Morgan Sleeper and Stephen Kelly, and last but not least our resident Nintendo 64 expert Martin Watts. We talk over various aspects of the famous old 8-bit machine, while occasionally diving off on silly tangents. Enjoy!
Thomas Whitehead: To start us off, please introduce yourselves to the readers.
Jonathan Wahlgren: I'm Jon Wahlgren, motion-controlled Editor At Large.
Dave Letcavage: I'm Dave, US Reviewer and platforming enthusiast.
Martin Watts: Hi, I'm Martin Watts, Retro Reviewer and N64 addict.
Morgan Sleeper: Hey everybody! I'm Morgan, and I can't stop dreaming about SMTIV demons. It's been an interesting week.
Tom: And I'm Tom Whitehead, the features editor with the misfortune of editing these round tables. Right, so talk (briefly) about your first experience of the NES.
Martin: I can't remember exactly when my first experience with the NES was, but I was quite a young child and recall playing Super Mario Bros and Ghostbusters II. It wasn't my own system, unfortunately, as it belonged to my cousins!
Jon: First? Well, I dunno about that. As far as I know, our family always had one. I definitely predated it in my household and vividly remember having a bucketload of great and crappy games, like the Super Mario Bros. trilogy and Dick Tracy.
Dave: I honestly can't remember my first experience with the NES either, but many memories of late nights playing the original Super Mario Bros with my Grandma always come to mind.
Morgan: I've never owned an NES, so my first experience was picking up Controller 2 on a friend's system with Bubble Bobble (I guess making me Bob?) - it was well after I'd already experienced the wonder of the Super Nintendo, but it still blew me away, and I didn't want to stop playing!
Jon: A lot of my friends owned one when I was little too so a lot of games, like Zelda, got the most playtime with a group of us gathered 'round the warm glow of the TV.
I also distinctly remember my brother cheating at multiplayer games. Somehow.
Tom: Well my first Nintendo home console experience was a cousin’s SNES. Honestly, I never saw a NES growing up, as the distribution wasn’t great (as I recall) in the UK. So for me, the first NES game I owned was on the Wii VC.
Morgan: Me too, Tom! As soon as I found out about it, I went straight to the Wii Shop Channel and bought Bubble Bobble. Still one of my most played VC games!
Tom: Technically I don't even own those VC games, they're leased digitally! Hello, can of worms…
Jon: Bubble Bobble! All-time classic and one of my favourites on the console.
I anticipate me repeating game titles excitedly today.
Morgan: That theme tune still gets stuck in my head from time to time!
Tom: I don't know how old we all are here, but did the NES have a wow factor when you played it as a youngster, or was it more "cool" than amazing?
At this stage we’re joined by Stephen Kelly, one of our U.S. contributors and reviewers.
Dave: It was my first home console, and I was mighty young, so I'd say it certainly "wowed" me. Especially Duck Hunt. I couldn't comprehend how that darn blaster could interact with my TV!
Jon: Let's say I'm as old as Link. The NES was sort of the baseline, the standard-bearer, for me. I didn't have an Atari or Commodore prior to an NES so I didn't know how else games could look. The 16-bit generation is when "wow" kicked in.
Morgan: I'll mark myself out as Youngster Morgan by saying that the NES has always felt retro for me. That was a lot of the appeal though - I remember thinking the two-button pad felt so simple compared to the SNES pad I'd grown up coveting, and I liked it!
Tom: I imagine the NES would have wowed me, as in those years I had a ZX Spectrum; the NES would have been quite a leap, especially those platformers.
Stephen: The NES is older than I am and I never purchased one for myself until the mid-2000s. It was purely a historical dig for me, but I had a blast unearthing all those old classics.
Martin: Same here for me, Stephen!
Dave: You guys are making me feel old...
Tom: What do you think made the NES so definitive in the 8-bit era, considering it had competition such as the Master System etc that got nowhere?
By which I mean the Master System didn't sell 60 million+ units...
Dave: Mario. Do I need to say more?
Jon: Well, there's Zelda.
Martin: I think Nintendo's iron grip over the industry was perhaps the defining feature of it all. It was smart to approach third-party developers in the way that it did, even if it was perhaps a bit restrictive/controlling by today's standards.
It ultimately resulted in far better releases in terms of quality.
Stephen: Business-wise they were smart, agreed — but the NES created characters and worlds. Simple as they were, they left an impression. I think that was a real factor!
Dave: Obviously not the only reason, but I still remember the older folks talking about the NES like it only played Mario games.
Morgan: Yeah, I think you guys are right. I love me some SEGA (I'm literally wearing Sonic boxers right now) but the NES witnessed the birth (or early entries) of a ridiculously wonderful group of characters and worlds. Mario, Link & Zelda, Kirby, Pit, Samus...
Jon: I don't know how much influence Nintendo's grip had on the quality of third-party software but with Nintendo's own catalogue literally defining genres, it wouldn't do to put out garbage. Not like people didn't.
But, yeah, games. It had the best ones by a good country mile.
Martin: There were still duds, as with every console, however, the quality was far better than on previous systems prior to the 1983 crash.
Dave: I think Stephen summed it up the best, Nintendo created some phenomenal worlds and characters that were alluring to a broad range of people.
Tom: Jon makes a good point. Before we get all rose-tinted and generous, there was a load of old doody on the system, right?
Heck, the VC on Wii has plenty of them.
Jon: I went to a retro expo this past weekend and spent a good amount of time rummaging through bins of NES games. Most of them were garbage.
Morgan: Urban Champion, amirite?
Stephen: I suppose the real treasures rose to the top. Word of mouth and stupid TV ads sold games, and those games have become legends of a sort.
Jon: And shows! And comics!
Tom: Was part of the NES' power that it was pre-internet, so some products essentially suckered kids in? Marketing was so vital then, and Nintendo seemed to nail it in the US.
Stephen: Well, Nintendo Power, for example. That was a huge factor in the lives of youngsters back in the day. Nintendo could more or less use those magazines as coordinates for their guided missile customers!
Morgan: Oh man, Nintendo Power. I didn't start getting it until the N64 days, but I think it's fair to say I wouldn't have bought half the games I did if it weren't for NP's features. I can imagine it did the same thing for NES kids!
Jon: Nintendo was pretty inescapable, no? Between the games, the breakfast cereals, the cartoons, comics and magazines, they really had the marketing muscle in full flex.
Tom: Again, I'll give some UK balance and say the NES wasn’t as big a deal here, I think there were two different suppliers and it cost an arm and a leg.
Dave: That's wild to hear, Tom. I always assumed that the NES had a similar impact in the UK as it did in the US.
Tom: Not to my knowledge!
Morgan: UK was Master System turf, right?
Tom: I think Mega Drive was dominant here too, SEGA bossed it for a good while in old Blighty.
I did have a friend or two with Master Systems Morgan!
Stephen: I feel like this could lead into an argument about the American vs. European Sonic CD soundtrack... and I'm okay with that.
Morgan: Toot Toot Sonic Warrior!
Jon: Nintendo controlled their message pretty hardcore in the US and when you control the message you can get pretty much whatever you want across. If Nintendo said Kung Fu was a good game then Kung Fu was a good game.
Tom: One thing that's interesting about the NES is the accessories. The Wii got teased for useless hunks of plastic, but did any of you sample the various NES delights?
Martin: Is there anyone out there that hasn’t used the Zapper?
Jon: We had the Zapper, which I'd press up against the TV to shoot ducks without mercy.
Stephen: CLANG CLANG CLANG (playing Duck Hunt) CLANG CLANG!
Tom: JON'S A CHEATER!
Actually, yeah, haha, when it came to those peripherals I totally was.
Like, whenever I'd play Track and Field with the Power Mat at a friend's house I'd get down on my knees and slap the **** out of those buttons to go faster.
Whenever I'd play Track and Field with the Power Mat at a friend's house I'd get down on my knees and slap the **** out of those buttons to go faster.
Morgan: John, that's the spiritual precursor to shaking the Wii Remote on the couch to win Wii Fit!
Jon: Yeah, except without the pretense of "losing weight"
Tom: Anyone have anything more extravagant than the Zapper?
Martin: I've always wanted a R.O.B.
Morgan: Haha! Martin, I'm ashamed to admit I've never used The Zapper. I did spend an entire afternoon trying to help my friend figure out how to use R.O.B.
Dave: The Zapper was probably the only peripheral that I had exposure to. I can confidently say that I've never been in the presence of a Power Glove. That's a good thing, right?
OH, R.O.B! I had ROB and Gyromite. Never understood what R.O.B did, though. Futuristic DJ or something?
Tom: DAVE HAD R.O.B!
Jon: DAVE IS NOW KNOWN AS BEAST DAVE…
Tom: So how was Rob?
At this point Martin had to leave us, but a big thanks to our N64 expert for joining us. Apparently his Power Glove lit up and he had to run off into the night…
BEAST DAVE: Haha. I really never understood what R.O.B's functionality was! Eventually he met his demise when I decided it would be a good idea to "dissect" him. Curiosity is why you don't give young kids nice things.
Morgan: Haha! Poor R.O.B!
Stephen: I did that with a Power Ranger once.
BEAST DAVE: I regret that decision SO much these days. I'd love to have a R.O.B sitting in my office. I'd never use him, but he'd make a fantastic decoration.
Jon: We had a "talking" Snoopy that my brother and I tied a sock around its snout to see if it would still talk. Needless to say, it broke.
Stephen: Oh, for sure. I'm re-designing my whole game room for a "new" retro setup, and I would kill for a fancy-pants R.O.B chilling on the shelf.
Tom: So R.O.B is a great decoration, but a rubbish gaming controller.
People will be saying this stuff about the Balance Board in 20 years.
Jon: That's generous.
Tom: Yeah, I realise that now!
Stephen: At least R.O.B made it into Super Smash Bros. Nothing about the Balance Board will ever... um... ever...
BEAST DAVE: What's the balance board? (nudge nudge wink wink)
And R.O.B showed up in F-Zero GX, didn't he?
Jon: It's a thing that you get down on your knees and slap the **** out of to win at Wii Fit.
Click on through to page two to read our thoughts on how NES games stack up today, their influence on modern titles and our personal favourites.