We are family (computer)

Nintendo may be a company with a history that stretches back over a hundred years, but it has only enjoyed its current level of fame for the past thirty or so — and that’s largely thanks to a remarkable 8-bit console which launched in its native Japan three decades ago this week. The Family Computer — or Famicom for short — was a revolutionary product; born out of Nintendo’s desire to capitalize on its successful arcade business, it would go on to achieve the kind of domination that is rarely seen in this business. During its height, the Famicom was the Japanese console industry; almost every house in the country that contained children had Nintendo's console under the TV, and developers were so desperate to make games for it that they would gladly forego any chance to publish on rival formats; if it didn’t have the name “Nintendo” on the casing, it didn’t matter.

The Famicom began life as the “GameCom” before system designer Masayuki Uemura’s wife suggested the moniker we know and love today. During development several ideas were bandied about, including the concept of creating a powerful home computer complete with a keyboard and disk drive, but ultimately the console became the diminutive red-and-white wonder that has become so iconic over the years; the colour scheme was apparently chosen by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi after he spotted a billboard advertisement which used the same hues.

Despite a desire to create a product which could be manufactured as cheaply as possible — thus maximising profitability — Nintendo’s designers were incredibly picky when it came to components. One of the system's two controllers (both of which were hard-wired to the machine, again to save costs) contained a microphone which could be used to influence gameplay. The company even created the Famicom’s cartridge connectors internally to ensure quality, and the inclusion of an “eject” button — a totally superfluous element — was down to Uemura’s belief that children would find the mechanism enjoyable to use even when they weren’t playing on the system.

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The designer of the console may have underestimated the addictive qualities of the Famicom, because fiddling with the eject button was the last thing on the mind of most young players. Although an early manufacturing setback forced a full-scale recall (instigated by Yamauchi, who was keen to protect his company’s good name), the console would become Japan’s best-selling domestic gaming system by the end of 1984. Backed by arcade conversions of the company's most popular titles — such as Donkey Kong and Popeye — the Famicom was a sensation, but it was Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. in 1985 which asserted the format’s dominance — by the time it reached the market, the Famicom had sold in excess of 2.5 million units in Japan, a success which triggered Nintendo’s move to launch the console in North America, where the industry was still reeling from the 1983 video game crash.

Ironically, Super Mario Bros. was pitched internally as something of a swansong for the Famicom, as Nintendo was about to release the Famicom Disk System, a bolt-on device which would enable developers to make cheaper games and allow players to re-use the disks thanks to the rewritable nature or the media. Despite a huge development push (The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Kid Icarus all began life as Famicom Disk System exclusives) the peripheral was not the runaway success Nintendo had envisaged; it was plagued by reliability issues and after a few years the benefits offered — more storage space and cheaper games — effectively ceased to exist as memory prices dropped and cartridges subsequently became larger and less costly. Therefore, the stand-alone Famicom once again became Nintendo’s primary focus, and 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 3 — arguably the biggest title on the format — was only available on cartridge.

Such was the utter dominance of the Famicom in its home territory that third-party developers like Square, Namco, Capcom and Konami were more than happy to sign away their freedom in order to get their games onto Nintendo’s hardware. All would agree to stipulations which prevented them from producing software for Nintendo’s rivals, a shady move which effectively ended Sega’s chances of challenging the Famicom’s rule with its SG-1000 and Mark III consoles. Nintendo’s vice-like grip on the Japanese games industry was so absolute that many third party publishers saw their profits expand dramatically almost overnight, almost entirely down to the fact that they had games on the Famicom — and this only served to strengthen their loyalty.

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Not all publishers were happy with this situation, despite the obvious benefits Nintendo gave them. Namco founder Masaya Nakamura publicly voiced his discontent at the amount of power and control that Nintendo had, prompting an equally public dismissal from Yamauchi himself. Facing the prospect of losing the bumper profits generated from the relationship with Nintendo, Nakamura and Namco sheepishly re-signed the agreement, although the company would be one of the first to lend its support to rival systems in later years, such as the PC Engine and Sega Mega Drive.

Following the North American launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System — the western version of the Famicom — in 1985, Nintendo’s stature grew even more. The NES enjoyed the same kind of success state-side as its Japanese counterpart had done in its homeland; developers were once again locked-down with agreements which forbade them from releasing their games on other formats, and Nintendo of America even went as far as to introduce the NES10 chip, ostensibly to curb the danger of unlicensed software watering down the pool of quality games available on the market, but also to make doubly sure that no publisher could create cartridges without paying Nintendo first.

By the time the 16-bit war started, the Famicom and NES could be found in around 60 million homes worldwide — a remarkable achievement for the time, given the small size of the industry compared to where it stands now. Its legacy simply cannot be understated; many of Nintendo’s most significant franchises were born on the console, and it laid down the foundations of a third-party publishing model which remains in place even to this day — although it could be argued that download services such as the iTunes App Store and Google Play market are slowly but surely pulling the system apart, empowering developers rather than hardware manufacturers. Even so, the video game industry would not have gotten to its current size and stature without the Famicom, or Nintendo.

Main image courtesy of the National Media Museum.