The Japanese Famicom

Many things were fads to be forgotten forever, others live on as icons of the generation. The Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES to its friends) is one such iconic figure, living on in the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere and securing its place in popular culture forever.

The legacy of the NES started back in 1983 when Nintendo released the Famicom games console in its native Japan, sporting a bright red-and-white colour scheme and two hardwired controllers. With the popularity of launch titles such as Donkey Kong and Popeye it went on to be a success - so much so that Nintendo's eyes were trained at the potentially lucrative North American market. This was a brave move; the video game crash of 1983 had left many companies in the gaming industry bankrupt. The market collapsed, flooded with poor quality games (the notoriously bad E.T. and Pac-Man games on the Atari 2600 being cases in point), destroying the goodwill of consumers who reacted by exercising their purchasing power, or rather, not. The blame was laid squarely at the door of companies like Atari, and videogames were a no-go zone.

The shoebox we all know and love

In light of this it probably wasn't the smartest move for Nintendo to strike up a deal with Atari to manage the American debut of the Famicom. Whilst the Atari brand was still undeniably strong, consumers were losing confidence and Atari were haemorrhaging money like profit had gone out of fashion. Upon seeing an unlawful clone of Donkey Kong on a rival Coleco system, the deal soured and Atari pulled out. Ironically, this was the best thing that could have happened to Nintendo, who responded both decisively and ingeniously to what was a major setback.

Seemingly undeterred by going it alone, Nintendo rebranded the Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System. The quirky looks were replaced with an uninspiring grey box with a front-loading slot for game cartridges, presumably to make it look less like a toy and more like a VCR in order to win acceptance with a disillusioned consumer base. Not wishing to follow in Atari's footsteps and lose favour with the public due to lousy third-party software, Nintendo took the bold step of introducing the 'Nintendo Seal of Quality' standard. Companies wishing to publish a game on Nintendo's console must have it approved by Nintendo to ensure it was of a sufficient standard. Not only this, but they were bound to exclusivity deals precluding them from developing for rivals' systems.

The Zapper & R.O.B.

There were a few more tricks up Nintendo's sleeve. Following the video game crash retailers were still cautious about videogame related products, a problem Nintendo circumvented by agreeing to buy back all unsold inventory. To further distinguish itself from other gaming machines of the day, the NES was released with R.O.B. and the Zapper light gun, ostensibly to convince toy stores that this was, in fact, a toy and not a console. It was a strategy that paid off as this helped get the NES in the shops and recognised, despite the company actually posting an initial loss. Nevertheless, the basis had been created with retailers as to the commercial viability of the NES.

R.O.B. was a robot accessory that proved to be a novelty with limited appeal. It was bundled with the NES deluxe pack and helped lure retailers and consumers when it was most important. The Zapper, a light gun, was received with much more enthusiasm because it was actually fun! Duck Hunt and Hogan's Alley were instantly appealing as you could just point the gun at the TV screen and blast away. For the second batch of consoles, Nintendo revised the hardware slightly to make it cheaper to manufacture, and re-entered the market at full force.

The NES controller was such an innovation that virtually every videogame controller designed after the NES owes something to its design. Along with a very compact design which fitted snugly in a gamers hands there were four buttons and a four way directional D-Pad, which was designed to be a superior alternative to the clunky joysticks used by Atari previously. There was no going back once gamers got used to this arrangement.

"I love the Power Glove. It's so bad"

By the late 80s Nintendo's supreme confidence in its product, combined with its not-inconsiderable business acumen had the gaming industry sewn up. It is estimated that one in three American homes owned an NES and Nintendo characters could be found on cereal boxes, Saturday morning cartoon shows and all manner of merchandising. Perhaps the most blatant marketing manoeuvre was to be found in the film 'The Wizard', featuring the kid everyone liked from the Wonder Years TV show. Cunningly released about 2 months before the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in the USA it shows how good Nintendo had become at marketing by this point. Even the woeful Power Glove peripheral got pimped.

So, with Japan and North America wrapped up you might assume that Europe was an easy nut to crack. Not so; Sega, Nintendo's arch nemesis from Japan, had struck a deal with Virgin Mastertronic to distribute the Sega Master System in the UK and other parts of Europe. It's hard to get exact European sales figures for the era but the perception is that at least for the early days from 1986 to 1990 Sega's 8-bit bag of tricks had the upper hand over the NES in Europe. Sega didn't enjoy much success with the Master System in America, having seconded the distribution rights to Tonka who made a real mess of it, securing only about 5% market share. In Europe the NES was distributed by Mattel and initially received a less than enthusiastic response.

Sega's 8-bit rival

Like many Brits, I was given a Sega Master System for Christmas one year. With classics like Wonderboy, R-Type, California Games, Phantasy Star, Alex Kidd, Psycho Fox and Shinobi, it is easy to see why it was such a huge success. In fact, all my friends at school were Sega fans so I rarely even came across the NES as a young teenager. That's not to say that the lure of the NES wasn't strong at the time; my local department store had an NES set-up with several of the best games at the time set up to play on a 3 minute timer.

Nintendo fought back hard however, engineering the release of a console bundle including Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt on one cart with a Zapper peripheral, something that proved too alluring for many to pass up. As my pocket money wouldn't stretch that far I held off until late 1990 until Nintendo released a bundle in Europe with Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja) Turtles. That was really a golden time for the NES in Europe, riding on the crest of Turtles mania, and even though the game was a stinker, it helped shift the NES in the face of the release of the Sega Megadrive/Genesis, a much more powerful console. Many of the older games could be picked up cheaply at this time and I quickly became acquainted with classics I had missed out on, such as Super Mario Bros 1 and 2, Mike Tyson's Punch Out, Mega Man, Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania - many of these picked up for very reasonable prices.

The best NES game ever?

With hot competition from the newly released Sega Genesis / Mega Drive; Nintendo really showed what the NES was capable of with Super Mario Bros 3, which steadfastly ensured the continued sales success of the platform in the face of what was a technically superior rival.

The NES enjoyed a privileged place in gaming history. Nintendo introduced key franchises such as Mario, Zelda and Metroid brands to name but a few. The Virtual Console service has ensured that newcomers to the Nintendo universe never forget their roots. The early games are still playable and loved today, as proven by Super Mario Bros being the #1 most popular game for download on the VC.

Now, more than 20 years on after a turbulent few years during the N64 and Gamecube era, it appears Nintendo is back on track. The Wii encapsulates the original spirit of the NES as a "Family Computer." - Much like all those years ago when quirky peripherals such as R.O.B., the Zapper and the Power Glove captured a sceptical consumer's attention, now the Wii is winning over hearts and minds with its motion sensing technology. Games like Duck Hunt once got non-gamers gaming; now it is the turn of Wii Sports.