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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.

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User Comments (34)

GearsOfWarU

#1

GearsOfWarU said:

Happy Birthday Nintendo (Home Video Game Console)... Got My Nintendo Entertainment System Christmas 1986 with Super Mario Bros ... I've been a Videogame fan ever since ... Thank You Miyamoto & Friends ... Let's Go Nintendo Wii U can't wait to play all your exciting games this Fall ... Pikmin 3, Wonderful 101, Rayman Legends,Sonic Lost World, Batman Arkham Origins , Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag, Wii Party U, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze & Super Mario 3D World ;-)

JGMR

#2

JGMR said:

Almost everything made today falls short in comparison to the NES games. Sad to consider myself almost a complete retro-gamer, I wish it wasn't that way. And believe me, it isn't -just- sentimentality. Games were genuinely better than today's trash generally speaking. You couldn't save in most games, so you were forced to play the game all over again. It forced you to develop a relationship with the game. It also made you develop your imagination about the "world of the game", since graphics didn't give that all away, unlike today where everything is explicitly "known", "seen". Limitations were better for videogames as it forced both developers and gamers to think creatively. Hence why the older games were far more creative than now. Sorry if it offends you, but it is my opinion.

AlexSays

#3

AlexSays said:

Using the lack of a save feature as a reason why games were better..

hahaha

JGMR

#4

JGMR said:

There's tons of reasons AlexSays, things you will never understand.

EarthboundBenjy

#5

EarthboundBenjy said:

I like being able to save. Castlevania 1 was originally a Disk System game with save files. Metroid, Kid Icarus, Zelda, Kirby, Mega Man 2 through 6, they all have saves or passwords.
I don't think lack of saving is a 'feature' of the NES more than it was a cost limitation.

AlexSays

#6

AlexSays said:

You are right, I will likely never understand things from a perspective of a self-identified 'hardcore gamer'.

I play games to have fun, not because I take them super seriously and worry about impressing my friends with my elite skills. lol

EarthboundBenjy

#7

EarthboundBenjy said:

I, on the other hand, DO like impressing people with skills (i'm a huge showoff), but that doesn't mean I get to just completely disregard some of gaming's finest creations. The GameCube is my favourite gaming device, because it was the point where 3d stopped being laughably "old 3D game-looking" like the early PS1 games were, and started being able to support amazing creative visions. Metroid Prime to name one of them. :D

Yanchamaru

#8

Yanchamaru said:

Although I started on the Atari 2600 and Apple II, the NES is what turned me into a gamer. Happy Birthday old friend!

JGMR

#9

JGMR said:

@AlexSays I don't have to impress anybody, since I know I am a good player, others just confirmed that...Envious?

I am not planning to feed the trolling people, so. Have fun discussing this classic console!

AlexSays

#10

AlexSays said:

Of all people, why would I be envious? lol

I admitted in your thread that I sometimes play games on easy just to finish them. I am hardly concerned about my 'gamer skill'. In fact I don't think I've ever claimed to be really great at any game, because I really don't care to be.

But continue thinking everyone looks up to you because you have these self-proclaimed 'elite skills'. I'm sure your friends and people on this site really care as much as you think they do.

Kirk

#11

Kirk said:

Super Mario Bros.
The Legend of Zelda
Mega Man
Castlevania
Super Mario Bros. 3

The thing about all of those great games you listed on NES was that they were pretty much revolutionary, cutting edge, stunning, truly brilliant for their time, in so many areas, such as the graphics, gameplay or even introducing new features and ideas like an internal battery for proper cartridge based saving for the first time (Zelda) etc.

This is what the Wii U is desperately lacking and why it's having so much less impact that it really should have; there's no games on the Wii U that when you look at or play them you are literally blown away by what they are doing and how well they are doing it.

There's good games but not games that actually set the standard for years to come, games that we'll look back on in 20 years time as true masterpieces that defined a generation and influenced the very future or gaming (think about how many games there were that genuinely fit that description on NES, SNES and even N64...), and I think Wii U needs a couple of games like that.

Unfortunately, because the system is greatly under powered compared to the next-gen competition there's almost zero chance of that happening in the area of graphics, that's for sure.

Can a new gameplay idea alone be enough to make people genuinely go Wow! again in this day and age?

I don't know, probably if it's truly great, but either way I think Wii U needs that kind of game, some way, some how, if it's ever going to live up to the legacy of a truly great classic Nintendo console like the NES.

Anyway, back on topic.

The NES is, was and always will be something very special.

PS. Super Mario Bros 3 is, very predictably, my favorite NES games.

jtgillia

#12

jtgillia said:

The classic Famicom masterpieces will never be bettered by our modern games. Think about it, people still purchase these games 30 years later because they want to own them and replay them. But the modern gaming mentality is to sell off the latest games when you're done with them to get the latest release. With the great famicom games, they will always be worth revisiting.

Relias

#13

Relias said:

Retro Gaming is way more awesome... I have several old systems including the original Nintendo.. and I love it.. and I have to admit.. the last great consoles.. were the PS2 era ones.. these new ones.. just are not impressive.. the games were better.. but I do agree.. Nintendo.. forced you to play hard.. and good.. honing your skills to get past that one last boss.. at the threat of you have to replay the entire game.. that was part of the charm... actually... now in days.. even on my favorite systems.. it seems the game holds your hand.. and allows you just to save anywhere.. so all you have to do is load a file.. it kind of sucks.. because you don't actually have to play the game now.. you just hit save... and load.. get lucky.. hit save again... blah... in addition like everything in gaming.. the quality of games has been diluted.. back then if you paid 60 bucks for a game.. it was a good game.. with a crapload of challenge and gameplay that made you want to play it again.. now you pay 60 bucks and get games that you only want to play through once.. back then it.. was all about gameplay.. now it's all about flashy graphics and hardware... it was a far better time to be a gamer back then... heck it was a better time being a gamer in the PS2 era... anywho.. Happy Birthday to one of the greatest systems of all time..

Moshugan

#14

Moshugan said:

Nintendo got my heart with the NES, although the first console I owned was SNES.
How would the industry (and I disdain to use the term) turned out without Nintendo and it's Famicom? Who would have stepped up? Sega? It would sure be interesting to take a peek in an alternate universe. ;)

ricklongo

#16

ricklongo said:

"During the '70s and '80s there were plenty of gaming systems, and often they'd share variations of the same game"

AKA the grandfathers to the PS3 and the Xbox 360.

ricklongo

#17

ricklongo said:

@AlexSays I don't necessarily agree with what @JGRM said in his first post, but I can certainly understand some of his feelings. It's not that not-saving is better than saving or anything like that, since even in the NES era I enjoyed plenty of games on either side. It's just that there's something kind of Magical about the game over screen, and newer games seem to have forgotten about that.

For example: one of my favorite NES games was Yo! Noid. It was a very hard 2D platformer, and I can't tell you how many times I had to play the game in order to finally beat its 14 stages (in fact, I believe the N64 was already out by the time I finally beat it). That way, it was a game that forced you to keep coming back to it, again and again - but here's the catch, you only did so because the game was genuinely good.

Nowadays, take as an example a title like Gunman Clive, which was released for the 3DS e-shop. Its general structure is similar to Yo! Noid, since it's also a very hard 2D platformer. Except you have infinite lives and a saving feature. I beat Gunman Clive an hour after I downloaded it, and never came back to it again - even though, like Yo! Noid, it's a genuinely good game. This means that Gunman Clive will never have the chance to mean to me what Yo! Noid means, even adjusting for the obvious difference in my gaming background.

Of course, there are lots of games that pretty much require saving to work, but then again this was also the case back in the day. When it comes to these straightforward, relatively short 2D platformers, though, people really could learn something by looking back.

hydeks

#18

hydeks said:

Got my NES iin September 1988, it was awesome and I've been a Nintendo/video game fan ever since. My two favourite companies are still the ones I grew up with: Nintendo and Sega. I'm happy there working together (sorta) now-a-days :)

Dogpigfish

#19

Dogpigfish said:

Donkey Kong was played on a black system, can't remember what it was though. Looked like a Nintendo, but Nintendo use to develop for it. Later Sega Master came out and blew this console out of the water with Rambo. I'm not sure famicom was the first Nintendo since Miyamoto made most of his characters in 81 during the gaming crash. Lots of junkie systems that have been long forgotten.

unrandomsam

#20

unrandomsam said:

Never really liked the NES. (Other than the odd game - Super Mario Bros / Lost Levels / 3 - Castlevania III / Crisis Force (Never had the opportunity to buy it yet) be perfect as a 3D Classic / Zelda 2 / Crystalis (Remake is better) / Duck Tales. Arcade ports I never want to play the NES version.

The Famicom could do more than the NES. (Why Castlevania III - Famicom version has better music).

(More annoyed about it in hindsight due to the fact that the TG16 never got decent support in the west.)

Most of the classic Konami/Capcom stuff was better on MSX / X68000 depending on the time.

Crisis Force is absolutely outstanding though. I want to be able to buy that on a modern system as soon as possible.

antonvaltaz

#22

antonvaltaz said:

Hmmm... from a British perspective this doesn't really ring true. I mean I did have friends who had a NES back in the day, but they were few and far between... more had a Master System, and far more still had 8-bit or 16-bit computers for their gaming fix.

But then I suppose the British/European industry more or less collapsed in the mid-90s, and I guess the modern worldwide gaming industry owes much more to Japan and the US. Sniff...

ajcismo

#23

ajcismo said:

I remember when the NES came out and all the kids in school had to have one. Most of us had a 2600 or Colecovision, but seeing and playing SMB blew all of us away. I gotta hand it to Nintendo, they created a culture from the very beginning. Congrats on 30 years, I hope we see at least 30 more.

Dormouse

#24

Dormouse said:

I remember the NES being the video game syatem I played next to Atari. I hated Atari after i got a taste of Super Mario Bros. Duck Hunt and Donkey Kong Jr., Speluker. Then we got Sega genesis and wow that was cool but Snes was just as good if not better. But the console that really blew my mind was Nintendo 64. I don't think there will ever be something that groundbreaking again... Oh wait the 3DS sure is making an awesome case. Anyway this old kid is a ramblin n' Rollin. Can't wait for the next 30yrs of Nintendo.

GreatPlayer

#25

GreatPlayer said:

The console brought back my memory. The game I liked most was Hudson's Soft's Adventure Island (which was the same as Wonderboy in SMS). Sorry, I did not like Super Mario Bros or Zelda back then. I did not know Metriod exists (not like it when I play it now anyway). The first Mario game (still my most favourite Mario game) was Super Mario World in SNES, but I was grown up with Adventure Island and Sonic.

Can't believe that Nintendo consoles have turned from everyone's favourite system to something that only fans will buy and enjoy.

@Relias I agree that retro gaming is probably better because 3D games do not have intuitive control as in 2D games. Super Mario World is better than Super Mario Galaxy. My super mario galaxy is lying around without being completed because of the unrelenting camera angles and complicated control, just like old 3D sonic series such as Sonic Heros... uh... I do not get the feeling of old Mario games in the 3D Mario series - they are just two separate genre of games to me.

Savino

#26

Savino said:

Nothing will beat the 8/16 bit era.... ever!

Everything else is and will be a imperfect copy of that time!
Me and people who truly lived that time know what I am talking about!

RantingThespian

#27

RantingThespian said:

The only thing I dislike about the Japanese Famicon are the colors, terrible choice. I am glad that the NES got a completely different design.

Also, SMB 3 is still the greatest game ever made. I prefer the NES version to the Super Mario All Stars SNES version.

@Savino What about the N64 era? I think that the N64 may be the best system Nintendo ever made.

SparkOfSpirit

#28

SparkOfSpirit said:

The NES is my favorite console behind the SNES and Genesis.

It was when games solidified as ideas and companies like Konami, Sunsoft, Capcom, Technos, and Hudson really came into their own. Not to mention small companies like Compile and Enterbrain that put out some really obscure gems.

The NES is the one console where I'm still discovering little known classics that I've never played before decades after its original release. Few things can compare with the 8-bit and 16-bit era of gaming- especially when you put arcades and Neo Geo into the picture!

Zombie_Barioth

#29

Zombie_Barioth said:

Didn't get to spend as much time with the NES as I'd probably have liked cause my folks got rid of it when they lost the adapter, but I still had a blast with it none the less. I think it says a lot about the classic consoles when people are still buying, selling, and of course playing them and their games to this day. Even a lot of indie games have been going the retro/classic route.

dumedum

#30

dumedum said:

@JGMR so true. I gamed mostly on DOS, but this all applies there too. Games were creative, difficult, you had to imagine a lot. It was pretty good.

Ducutzu

#31

Ducutzu said:

Very enjoyable read. Thomas, you do have a talent for finding the essence of things...

GearsOfWarU

#33

GearsOfWarU said:

My Favorite NES Games ... Super Mario Bros , Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Bros 3 , Kid Icarus, Metroid , Ghost N Goblins , Mega Man 2 , Mega Man 3 , Mega Man 4 , Castlevania , Simons Quest , Castlevania 3, Contra , Super C , Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the Arcade Game , Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 , Abodox , Metal Storm , Bucky O Hare, Rad Racer , Mike Tyson's Punch Out, Pro Wrestling & Duck Hunt : )

JGMR

#34

JGMR said:

Completed Low G Man at my best friend's home tonight. Been a while. Remains one of my favorite NES games of all-time.

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