There's no denying that the NES – or Famicom as it was known in its native Japan – is one of the most important pieces of video game hardware ever made. Not only did it turn Nintendo from an outsider player to industry leader, it laid down the foundations of an industry which continues to thrive to this very day.
The Famicom was the brainchild of Nintendo engineer Masayuki Uemura, who joined the company from Sharp in 1972 at a time when it was tentatively exploring the possibilities of electronic entertainment. He rose to the position of manager of Nintendo R&D2, which would not only produce the Famicom but also its equally-beloved successor, the SNES / Super Famicom. Uemura retired from Nintendo in 2004 and is now a professor at the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
Nintendo Life: The Famicom was a revolutionary product for Nintendo. What was the biggest challenge you encountered while designing the system?
Masayuki Uemura: Cost reduction was the major challenge.
What compromises did you have to make while producing the console?
The one thing you have to compromise a lot [with] was the exterior design. Because we didn’t want to compromise [with] the [internal] specifications of the Famicom.
Did you have a strict budget for the bill of materials for the system that you had to adhere to?
The mission was the basic entire cost for the device itself should be around five thousand yen. That was the objective. The retail price would be fifteen thousand yen. That was almost impossible to do.
You are looking at five thousand yen for everything inside the system?
Everything inside the system, yes.
After the Famicom had been released, at what point did you realise that the console had become a success – not only domestically in Japan, but internationally as well?
Back then, it took about half a year to be able to actually get the reports on how many units we sold and stuff like that. So when it was sold [in America] at the end of 1985, not many reports [were] coming from Nintendo of America. During the summer of 1986, we had a report from Nintendo of America that they were doing well. Until March of 1986, they didn’t think it was doing well.
What was your feeling when you realised that, after it had been released in all those territories, it was indeed a success?
Honestly, I didn’t have time to think about success, because I was so busy taking [care] of a lot of issues and technical problems faced by Nintendo at the time.
Are you able to give examples of what those might be?
Our issue was the failure of the controller. There is the tendency that kids want to push a button many times, the A button [mainly]. So the A button tends to fail a lot. The other one was the LSI chip heating up quickly and then burning out.
We know that the Famicom has a very iconic design in Japan, but that design was changed for the overseas models. Did you have any say in what the overseas models looked like?
I didn’t have time to think about success, because I was so busy taking [care] of a lot of issues and technical problems faced by Nintendo at the time
All the final decisions needed to be done by myself, but I could never say, “Hey, you’ve got to sell this,” or something like that. That was not possible, because I anticipated that all the people who are in charge of American markets, they understand what the market is, and I wanted to make sure that they wanted to sell the product that they felt they were comfortable with.
The cartridge design of the Famicom is very different to the cartridge design that we saw internationally; there’s quite a large size difference between the two. What was the understanding behind that?
When they created the Japanese version of Famicom, they aimed at [having] almost [the] same size [cartridges] as audio cassettes. Because there were a lot of audio cassettes and the audio cassette player was really popular in Japan.
So that made the cost of producing the smaller cartridges cheaper for you, then?
Yes, [and] a lot easier. For the Famicom version, the Japanese version, the top is where you stick the cartridge. So this will directly connect the chip inside of the cartridge to the chip inside of the hardware. Where the static happens, in this type of device, it will short circuit. Bang! It will break. Japan has a high humidity, so there’s not much static. However, if you go to America, particularly a place like Texas, it is very dry, so it has a lot of static. So we wanted to make sure that the kids did not touch the connecting ports. That is why you have to make it like a front loader for the NES. That is how the cartridge also became bigger, because that is how you have to design the product.
So you wanted to place the connectors deep inside the console covered?
For the Famicom, what was the most unlikely request you had when it came to designing the Famicom?
There were a lot of requests from a lot of people, and then the one thing that they said was to remove the connection between the controllers to the device and make it wireless.
Oh really? So that is something that you weren’t able to implement into the console itself?
No, it was not possible.
I can imagine that it would have been too expensive at the time to produce, right?
Yes, there wasn’t anything like that available at that time. But a lot of people requested it; it was crazy back then.
Around the time that the Famicom was being developed at Nintendo, there were a lot of rival companies starting to pop up. How did the products from those rival companies influence what you were doing at Nintendo?
In Japan, the only competitor that we had back then was Sega. Other designers that I knew created software for Nintendo, that would have been more successful than taking the risk of creating hardware.
There were a lot of requests from a lot of people, and then the one thing that they said was to remove the connection between the controllers to the device and make it wireless
I see. So I guess for the local company looking into creating hardware, you convinced them to almost develop software instead of developing hardware, right?
Right; well, they came up with their own decision.
The Famicom controller is a very iconic controller; what did it look like during the different stages of development, and what other controller prototypes might you have made that have never seen the light of day?
I started with the famous joystick type. We developed a lot, all kinds. One of the crucial points that we realised is that after kids might step on the joystick, then the knob will break. I tried to use a material which is not breakable, and that is very expensive.
Is that the reason why you used the directional pad on the controller?
One of the reasons we could get into the directional pad like a Game & Watch was because the Game & Watch division was right next to us, so it was easy to have them bring over the device and then check it. For a while, we worked on a joystick type of controller, but it didn’t work. But we only had this pad type of design for the Game & Watch, so we just put it onto our device just as a test, and it worked well, so we decided to use it.
At the time a lot of different games and arcade games were using more than just two buttons. Is there any reason for the Famicom only to utilise two action buttons?
The most important aspect was cost.
With the Super Famicom, you had six buttons. Did it become cheaper to produce?
Back then, we didn’t know if the Famicom was going to sell well, domestically or globally. So we had to make sure that it was going to be the cheapest option available.
So were you more confident about the Super Famicom?
Yes. From the software developer’s perspective, just having two buttons is not enough for creating all kinds of games, so that is how they end up having more buttons.
What is your fondest memory of your time at Nintendo?
The best time that I remember was when we completed developing [the] Famicom. Back then, we didn’t know if it was going to be popular or not, but the fact that we are able to complete the product was very satisfactory. That was the first mission; to make sure to complete developing the device and I did it, so I was happy.
You have created this now-legendary device, and people are still playing it even today. How do you feel about these systems still being in people’s minds?
I realise it’s the longevity of software that matters because it’s the software that people play on the console. I’m really surprised by that
I realise it’s the longevity of software that matters because it’s the software that people play on the console. I’m really surprised by that.
You’ve mentioned wireless controllers already, but were there any other features that you wanted to include in the Famicom but weren’t able to at the time?
The next thing I wanted to do was to remove the connector between the TV and the device itself.
So, have the audio and video signal wirelessly transmit?
Yes, wirelessly. When a company called Epoch created a TV game called TV Tennis, they had wireless transmissions. But with the Famicom, we had to reduce the cost. So of course, if you connect with a cable, that is a lot cheaper.
How does it feel now to look at the new wave of ‘Classic Edition’ micro-consoles produced by Nintendo?
Why make it mini? I think they could still develop a regular Famicom and people would still buy it.
I agree. I think, for a lot of people, the Famicom Mini might be the first time they are playing or experiencing using that system. You are saying that you would want it to be the original experience again?
The issue was [that] the controller was smaller. But then I remember the NES Classic got the same size controller [as] the regular NES, so it’s better.
If you sat down to design the Famicom today, what is the first thing that you would change?
If you look at it, the controller was actually connected with a cable. They didn’t use a connector. We [changed it] for the next console, the Super Famicom.
From everything that you have created and done in your career – not just restricted to the Nintendo – what is the single thing that you are most proud of?
I am proud of the fact that I was assigned to be in charge of the birth and development of a games console.
When you look at console games today, do you see that much has changed? What would you want to see in the future?
I think we have accomplished all the things we could accomplish with console games. I think there are a lot of things we could do, but when we designed Super Famicom, I think that [we] got all of the basics that we need for the console games.
So that was almost like the blueprint for everything else that came afterwards then?
Definitely. I think that’s sufficient; [it has] all the capacities sufficient for console game experience.
We'd like to thank Masayuki Uemura for his time, and for Iain Simons at The National Video Game Museum for making this interview possible.