In 1984, the Japanese company Nintendo, which had achieved tremendous success in the arcades with Donkey Kong (1981), approached Atari about distributing the American version of their popular Famicom system in the United States. For a variety of reasons (which Steven L. Kent details in his indispensable The Ultimate History of Video Games), the prospective deal with Atari failed, and Nintendo took it upon itself to test market their Americanized Fami- com (dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment Sys- tem) in New York City in 1985, leading to a na- tionwide release in 1986.
Initially, due to the fabled Great Video Game Crash of 1983/1984, U.S. retailers were wary of carrying a new video game system. Wisely, Nintendo marketed their brainchild as more than just a simple game console, packag- ing the deluxe version of the NES with a me- chanical Robot Operating Buddy (R.O.B. for short) and a Zapper light gun (for use with Duck Hunt and other target games). They called their video game console an “entertain- ment system” and referred to its cartridges as “game paks.”
The aforementioned marketing ploy was useful in getting the Nintendo NES on to store shelves, but the true success of the system, at least initially, can be attributed to a little side- scrolling platformer called Super Mario Bros., which astonished grizzled gamers and video virgins alike with its rich colors and sounds, cartoonish graphics, lengthy levels, freedom of movement, and hidden secrets and surprises. Those who grew up on comparatively primi- tive previous consoles, such as the Atari 2600 and the ColecoVision, were truly mesmerized by Super Mario Bros.’ epic nature and expansive game play.
Scores of other landmark Nintendo-brand NES games followed in the wake of Super Mario Bros., including Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, and the company began publishing the long-running Nintendo Power magazine in 1988. The NES hit its zenith in 1990 with the introduction of Super Mario Bros. 3. Released in conjunction with the feature film The Wizard (1989), which was more or less an extended commercial for the game, Super Mario Bros. 3 sold more than 18 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling video game cartridge of all time. The Wizard also showcased the technically advanced Power Glove controller, a black and gray gauntlet that looked really cool and created a lot of buzz, but was extremely inefficient and lacking in precision of move- ment when it came to actually playing games.
Numerous third-party companies, such as Capcom, Jaleco, and Data East, got in on the NES act as well. In fact, Konami’s Contra and Castlevania are two of the most fondly remem- bered games ever released for the system. In a marginally successful attempt to keep third- parties from cranking out lousy and/or unli- censed games, Nintendo had built a lockout chip into the console and forced third-party companies to pay substantial licensing fees in order to produce games for the console. In ad- dition, third-party companies could only pro- duce five games per year, a rule that certain companies circumvented by forming sister companies. Other companies, like Tengen and Sachen, bypassed Nintendo altogether by pro- ducing unlicensed games. Authorized game cartridges have an official Nintendo seal of ap- proval (or seal of quality) on the packaging, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great game (as owners of the dreadful Hydlide will attest).
During its lifespan, the two-tone gray, boxy looking NES was a staple in homes across America, selling tens of millions of units be- fore its official demise in 1995 (the last Nin- tendo-brand NES game, Wario’s Woods, was released in 1994). One of the best, most endur- ing things about the system is its sturdy, user- friendly controllers, which are rectangular in shape and feature an eight-way directional pad on the left, a select and a start button in the middle, and a pair of action buttons on the right. This design, which was patterned after Nintendo’s Game & Watch series of handheld games, is vastly superior to controllers for pre- vious systems, all of which have at least one overriding flaw. Also cool are the two multi- player adapters released for the console: the NES Satellite and the NES Four Score.
No game system is perfect, and the Nin- tendo NES does have one notable setback: The console lacks durability. Dusty or heavily used cartridges can render the system unreliable by gumming up or otherwise making the intake port less than reliable in loading games. In ad- dition, frequent usage can loosen the connec- tor pins in the intake port, resulting in the loss of connectivity between the cartridge and the console. Finding a used system that works per- fectly can be difficult. Nintendo remedied this design flaw in 1993 with the release of a top- loading version of the console, but it was pro- duced in small quantities and is therefore very hard to find, often commanding $100 or more in today’s collector’s market.
Along with the Atari 2600 and Sony’s original PlayStation, the Nintendo NES is one of the most important, most influential video game systems evertonishing number of revolutionary, genre- defining titles, and it popularized and expanded upon such concepts as beating levels, saving progress (via passwords or battery backup), and exploring vast, lavishly illustrated worlds. Most importantly, it revived (make that resur- rected) the American home video game indus- try.
Today, the NES remains a popular system among hardcore collectors and casual fans alike. For those who don’t want to bother with getting an original NES system and a bunch of cartridges, select NES titles are available for download via the Nintendo Wii Virtual Con- sole, which is a phenomenon that has helped introduce a new generation of gamers to the distinct pleasures of retro gaming.