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15th November 2016

The dawn of the NES

In Japan, a small consumer electronics company called Nintendo was having lots of success with their console the Famicom. Wanting to garner international success, they locked their sights on the USA

In Japan, a small consumer electronics company called Nintendo (you may have heard of them) was having lots of success with their console the Famicom. Only slightly set back by hardware issues at launch (it had a tendency to freeze), it quickly went on to become the best selling games console of its time in Japan.

The Famicom was a weird beast: it had a microphone port in the second controller, sported a red and cream paint scheme, and had an expansion port built in which allowed modems and keyboards to be plugged in. Wanting to garner international success, they locked their sights on the USA.

The North American video game crash of 1983 did a number of things on the games industry in the USA to say the least; sales of video games were at an all time low and retailer confidence was non-existent. They would not touch anything video game related, even with a ten-foot barge pole.

Nintendo, in their blissful optimism, tweaked the Famicom a little bit so it would appeal to American sensibilities and came up with the Advanced Video System Home Computer, a grey keyboard with a myriad of wireless peripherals. They called it a ‘home computer’ so potential retailers would not be as scared of it. It was a rather advanced piece of kit for the time; sporting wireless controllers, a light-gun, cassette deck and, for reasons unbeknownst to us, a musical keyboard. However it was ostensibly a video game console. So nobody ordered any. Back to square one.

After their first thinly veiled attempt at smuggling a video game console onto the market failed, Nintendo tried again. The keyboard and cassette deck were removed, in favour of a sleeker, more boxy approach. The top loading port of the Famicom was moved to the front and covered so cartridges were out of view.

The whole aesthetic was styled to be as far removed from video game consoles such as the Atari 2600 and the Colecovision that still haunted retailers. Nintendo’s plan was to market it as more of a toy than a console, an ‘entertainment system’ if you will. Cartridges were out in favour of game paks that you put in your control deck, not console. They wanted to shake off the stigma that Atari had left behind.

The final pieces of the puzzle, to cement the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as a toy instead of a console, were two peripherals: a light-gun called the zapper and R.O.B, a toy robot that could be controlled by flashing images on-screen. R.O.B did a very good job of garnering the attention of the public in the product, even if in actuality he was a bit rubbish. More importantly, however, he allowed Nintendo to go to the retailers and say “This isn’t a games console, it’s more than that.”

Even after gaining attention for the NES through R.O.B., retailers were still unwilling to take the plunge and buy it. They were once bitten, twice shy. Nintendo had to take a risk. They went to retailers in New York with a proposition. For a test period, Nintendo offered not only to handle store set up and marketing, but also to accept returns of unsold inventory, give 90 days credit, and asked for no money upfront from stores. They had to make it so there were no risks on the stores part. It was a bold move, but the idea was if you could make it in New York, you could make it anywhere.

The rest, as they say, is history. The NES sold like hotcakes, the test period in New York was a huge success and the NES was quickly rolled out across the rest of North America. One of the main factors behind its success was the stifling level of quality control Nintendo had for third-party developers. After watching Atari run itself into the ground thanks to a deluge of unregulated third party tat for the Atari 2600 just a few years prior, Nintendo introduced licensing for the NES. You had to pay them for the privilege of developing for the system and stringent quality assurance took place.

While commonplace now, this rocked the video game industry at the time, even getting Nintendo embroiled in a few lawsuits because of it. But ultimately you had less ‘Cheetahmen’ and more ‘Legend of Zelda’. It was also good value for money; the deluxe set, which came with the console, two gamepads, a zapper, ‘Gyromite’, ‘Duck Hunt’ and R.O.B. was only $299. A bargain compared to the Atari 2600 which was still retailing at $199 and only came with 2 controllers and the infamously bad ‘Pac-Man’ port. The NES also had ‘Super Mario Bros’ as a release title which probably helped…

The NES managed to single-handedly revive the massive, dead, North American video game market, going on to sell 60-million units worldwide. It has remained a well loved icon into the present day and is considered one of the best consoles of all time. It also showcased Nintendo’s innovative and sometimes oddball strategies with regards to products.

So when you look at the Nintendo Switch and think Nintendo has lost the plot, just remember how close the Nintendo Entertainment System was to coming with a musical keyboard and ended up with a toy robot instead.

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