Talking Point: The Famicom Was the Beginning of the Modern Gaming Era
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Solid building blocks
We recently shared the landmark news that the Famicom has celebrated its 30th Anniversary, having launched in Japan on 15th July 1983, over two years before the NES made its way West. The latter version is that best known and most commonly cited, yet it was the original model's release — Nintendo's first dalliance with a home console — that laid the groundwork for a new business to expand beyond portable games and Arcade cabinets. After the so-called video game crash in the early '80s, it was the success of the Famicom in Japan that drove Nintendo to boldly move into the worldwide market with a redesigned system.
The original system is iconic for its dark red colouring, while the hardwired controllers were thankfully limited to the first generation of design. A cartridge based system may have been seen as a risk after the troubles in the market, but the Famicom's licensing system and, perhaps more importantly, the franchises and games it delivered clearly caught a nerve with a public still willing to purchase and indulge in home video games.
The early days of the Famicom were, unsurprisingly, full of arcade ports, which with their level of quality were surely a revelation to gamers at the time. As we'll detail in our upcoming History of the Famicom, the system became the pre-eminent force in Japan in its early days, with a strength seemingly being the simplicity of it as a format. By implementing a licensing system Nintendo forged trust with consumers, and the early success of the console brought third-parties to the console in a big way, further strengthening its position. Nintendo pursued the add-on Famicom Disk system, but it was the original cartridge-based system that continued to thrive.
We'll cover that in detail in our history article this week, but what can we say about the Famicom's role in the industry, retrospectively, and where does it stand today? For one thing it was, perhaps, one of the first systems that defined the importance of exclusive content that pushed gaming boundaries. During the '70s and '80s there were plenty of gaming systems, and often they'd share variations of the same game — including ports of the arcade Donkey Kong no less — and in some cases even be cross-compatible. Publication of cartridges was also open-season, something Nintendo actively worked against with its licencing business model.
Yet early success in Japan was reinforced by a worldwide release and the arrival of iconic games such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, to name just two high-profile examples. These were games only available on Nintendo's systems, but were also impressive in their depth. The debut Zelda title was, by the day's standards, a sprawling adventure, while Super Mario Bros. brought the world its most famous gaming icon through brilliantly designed platforming levels beyond what had been experienced before. Other developers produced outstanding titles, with franchises such as Mega Man and Castlevania enrapturing audiences. As for Super Mario Bros. 3, when compared alongside the debut title in the franchise, it's clear just how far the 8-bit system could go.
The modern impact of the Famicom and NES is felt in various ways, with various franchises and genres still going strong. The 2D platformer has survived the ages in a literal sense, with the basic concept of running and jumping on a 2D plane still being a potent product for Nintendo in the modern day, while fan reactions to Mega Man 9 in 2008 showed how loved that gameplay experience was. Even beyond obvious examples where the foundations can be directly linked to the mid-late '80s, the ground established by various 8-bit games must surely inspire facets of modern development. Today's developers were, in some cases, children hunched over an NES controller when it was in its pomp, and the games they played would have forged ideas and basic structures in their young minds. Just look at the number of developers that name-drop Shigeru Miyamoto as a source of inspiration.
Perhaps also tellingly, the Famicom's original design brings to mind Nintendo's recent business approach to its systems. It was originally conceived as a 16-bit powerhouse with a keyboard, but was scaled back to focus on being an affordable product. Come forward to the Wii and, to an extent, the Wii U, and the focus again is on content and affordability over competing in a technological arms race. One of the original Famicom controllers even had a microphone — subsequently left out of later designs — that is perhaps a primitive initial precursor to the approach seen in the Wii Remote and Wii U GamePad, controllers packed to the gills with toy-like features to shake up how a game is played.
Of course, inspiration from the Famicom in the modern market needs to be taken with a degree of caution, as the industry has transformed a great deal since then. Nintendo is still licensing, still producing products exclusive to its own hardware, and still striving to provide memorable games that do things not previously possible. Some would perhaps argue that, as a company, it's been too slow to modernise to various current trends, with the legacy of the 8-bit era and beyond drifting along for too long.
Yet Nintendo is gradually modernising, while the Famicom and NES legacy shouldn't be entirely forgotten or left behind. It brought franchises to the industry that are still major influences and multi-million sellers, while the Virtual Console services keep the games library alive. And what a games library it is. Some titles are undoubtedly long in the tooth and borderline incomprehensible to modern tastes, but there are others that are not just playable but enormous fun. It'll surely define modern systems if, 25-30 years from now, their best games are still purchased and enjoyed by gamers as the Famicom / NES library is today.
The original Famicom, as Nintendo's first home console, wasn't perfect and was reshaped and improved in subsequent models both in Japan and the West. Yet it's the ultimate foundation, laying the groundwork for Nintendo to leave the arcades and go into gamer's living rooms. Perhaps this week we should all pick our favourite NES game and give it a playthrough, because it's a part of modern video game history that shouldn't be forgotten.
This topic is also the subject of this week's Your View community article. We've setup a dedicated forum thread where we'd like you to share your views on the legacy of the Famicom / NES, and how its games stand up to scrutiny in the modern day. Head on over to the forum for the chance to appear in the weekend article, and as always we'd love to read your views in the comments below.