This has been quite a year for nostalgia. Twenty years of Microsoft Windows 95, 30 years of the Back to the Future franchise as well as the Back to the Future Day Wednesday October 21, 2015 as seen in Back to the Future Part II. Not to be overlooked is 30 years of the Nintendo Entertainment System. 2015 has been a wonderful year to look back on these milestones and contemplate the entertainment value they have provided for decades. A lot of websites are discussing the NES, it’s library, it’s launch titles, and delving into the release of the system. Since all of that material is being covered extensively elsewhere, I thought I would take a slightly different approach and reminisce about my personal experience with the classic console. That said I would like to briefly touch on the interesting history of the system.
Released in 1983 as the Famicom (short for Family Computer), the NES as we know it was the best selling video game system in Japan by the end of 1984. The Famicom was quite different than what we saw in the United States. For starters the controllers were hardwired into the back of the console for some reason and had slots to store them when not in use. Cartridges were top loaded like other video game systems and the expansion port on the bottom of the console would eventually be utilized by peripherals like the Famicom Disk System. The console also received a modem allowing users to connect to the internet to buy stocks and make bank transactions from their gaming console. Pretty high tech for the 1980’s!
Nintendo was not the industry giant in the United States that they had become in Japan and they looked to license the NES to Atari for distribution. Eventually they learned that Atari planned on buying the rights to the NES only to bury it and promote their own Atari 7800 game console instead. Enraged by this, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi made the decision to bail on the agreement with Atari and release the system in the United States themselves. Originally it was going to be called the AVS (Advanced Video System) and include accessories such as a keyboard, a BASIC cartridge, a cassette drive, and wireless controllers. All of those accessories were scrapped.
When the NES was released in 1985 it’s killer app of all the “black box” games was certainly Super Mario Bros. which was far more advanced and of a completely different scale than the other offerings. Of course that means that the Super Mario franchise is also celebrating it’s 30th anniversary this year as well which I will certainly have to cover in it’s own feature. Wow what a year! At any rate while a lot of people received Super Mario Bros. in the NES Action Set bundled with Duck Hunt, at launch that was not the case. When the NES made it’s debut in 1985 buyers received the console, two controllers, the Zapper light gun, R.O.B. the piece of crap robot, Duck Hunt, and Gyromite. Yes that means early adopters would have to buy Super Mario Bros. which most of them certainly did (over 40 million units shipped).
The console was redesigned for the US market to look more like a piece of video equipment that would be placed in an entertainment center than as a video game system. Video games were seen as a fad, or a thing of the past after the crash in 1983. As a result most retailers were leery of stocking video games. As a result the cartridge slot was reconfigured to mimic the zero insertion force (ZIF) type sockets seen on VCR’s of the era. Instead of loading the game on the top, a cartridge would be interested into the front of the console and the user would then push down. This connection also allowed the console to be used in an area with limited space. However, the front loading “toaster” style NES would eventually have issues with dust and bent pins over time. Symptoms of this would be the blinking grey or green screen, a solid grey screen, or glitches in the title screen and graphics of the game. Users would resort to blowing into the cartridge in an effort to get the system to load.
Furthermore R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) was meant to showcase the system as something more sophisticated than previous game consoles. Game cartridges didn’t exist. They were called Game Pak’s. Nintendo also instituted a strict licensing policy where approved games needed to receive the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality in an effort to reduce the glut of crap that was being pumped out for competing game systems like the Atari 2600. The strategy paid off as the NES dominated the 8-bit era in the United States. Market share for the Atari 7800 and the SEGA Master System were practically non-existent. The NES finally lost steam in the early 90’s amid competition between the SEGA Genesis and the Super Nintendo. The final game released in North America was Wario’s Woods in 1994 and the system was discontinued in North America and Europe in 1995. In Japan however, the Famicom continued to see bootleg releases and was supported by Nintendo until it was finally discontinued in 2003. Even then Nintendo continued to repair consoles until 2007 (an incredible 24 years after it’s Japanese release).
I was a relatively late adopter of the NES due to age. My first experience with the system would have been about 1988 when I saw the console in action for the first time. We were visiting my grandparent’s and my parents arranged for me to play with a kid that lived across the street from them at the time. In his basement an NES was hooked up to a TV in the entertainment center at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing and assumed it was some kind of a cartoon. I was much more interested in the big plastic Proton Pack he had on the floor down there! While he played Super Mario Bros. I was wearing the Proton Pack and examining it’s every curve and sculpt.
Eventually we moved in with my grandparents and through 1989 my exposure to the NES grew exponentially as my new friend and I played the console nearly daily. At this point it was moved into an unfinished part of the basement hooked up to a TV that sat atop a dresser. Unable to read we were frustrated by games that required the player to scroll through dialogue to understand the next objective in the storyline. We were constantly skipping “the words” of games in order to get to the action. Super Mario Bros. was clearly the stand out but his dad was a gamer and thus had a pretty healthy collection of titles. We would also borrow games from the older neighbors.
I did not receive my own NES until my birthday in 1990. It’s an occasion I will never forget. I got off the bus at my grandparents house and sitting on top of their refrigerator was the glorious NES Action Set box. For those who have forgotten the NES Action Set contained the console, two controllers, the Zapper, and a combo cart containing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. The box was not wrapped in any way and was not a surprise as it was promised to me. My grandfather unceremoniously took it down from the top of the refrigerator and handed it to me and said “here” followed by an after thought “happy birthday”. It was the most beautiful sight I had yet to behold at that early point in my life. When my mom picked me up after work I eagerly anticipated an evening playing Super Mario Bros.
Instead things did not go as well as planned. My dad was working that night and my mom was anything but tech savy. She had much difficulty connecting the console to our old furniture box TV that sat on the living room floor. Eventually a neighbor of ours who was in high school at the time came over to try and help connect the system to the TV so that I could play. After an arduous several hours we finally booted up the cartridge. Everything seemed fine until I made it to world 3-2, the first water level in the game. For some reason the water was purple! My mom couldn’t figure it out and it seemed that for some reason I would be doomed to play discolored games for an eternity.
Later we would discover that the tint on the TV was not calibrated correctly. By turning the tint dial we were able to change the water back to it’s appropriate blue hue. My first Saturday with the system also seemed to be an exercise in patience as a lightening storm moved into the area. I wasn’t allowed to play the NES until the storm had passed. After what seemed like ages I finally played through most of the afternoon.
Eventually I would own a total of 18 NES cartridges before its discontinuation and although many of the games were big sellers and classics, I also completely missed out on several important titles. The games I did own are as follows:
- Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt
- Super Mario Bros. 2
- Super Mario Bros. 3
- Blades of Steel
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: The Manhattan Project
- The Karate Kid
- Kung Fu
- Ikari Warriors
- Cobra Command
- Pro Wrestling
- Bases Loaded 3
- Fester’s Quest
- Karate Champ
- Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six
- Pipe Dream
As you can see I was not privy to several of the heavy hitters: no Zelda, no Castlevania, no Contra, no Mega Man, no Final Fantasy…. Although I did not own them I had played Contra and the Mega Man series through other friends or the rare rental. I also played some other well known games that way such as Double Dragon, Excitebike, Donkey Kong Classics, Metroid, and Kirby’s Dream Land. Somehow I completely missed out on Castlevania and Zelda however. My only memories of the Zelda franchise during the NES era were the cartoons played every Friday in lieu of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show. Needless to say I was not a fan since I didn’t play the game.
Pipe Dream was received as a birthday present from my grandmother and I had never heard of it prior to receiving it. To say that I was disappointed would be a massive understatement. First of all it was a puzzle game which was not a genre I was particularly fond of at such a young age. Secondly, for some reason the game itself terrified me. Seriously the box art which was nothing more than some slime coming out of a pipe resting on a checkerboard black and white tile floor was so frightening to me that I had to segregate it from my other cartridges. All of my NES games were kept in a box, but the Pipe Dream box was laid face down on a different side of the box with some paperwork stacked on top of it. I was afraid to even look at it. Eventually my mom let me sell it at an auction so that I could access my games box without fear of the Pipe Dream cartridge sucking me into an alternate dimension.
Fortunately the NES was a durable machine. Once while I was playing Super Mario Bros 2. our dog decided to bolt through the room to look out the window. Of course the controller cord was in-between him and the window and he rampaged right through the chord. Since I didn’t let go of it something had to give, and it was the NES getting yanked right off of the top of our television and hurled onto the floor. A small chip of plastic where the bottom and the top of the shell meet was broken off of the corner but the system suffered no other damage beyond that. The scar is still on my working NES to this day which I still play in my basement. One of the reasons the SNES and the Nintendo 64 were designed with curved and contoured tops was because there were stories of kids setting drinks on top of the NES and spilling them into the game system. Although the NES was durable when considering impacts, it didn’t fare to well when pitted up against liquids.
When I first got my NES it was amazing to be able to put a cartridge into the slot and watch the game immediately power up. I criticized my friend whom I thought was just hard on his stuff for having to blow into the cartridges and jiggle them around to get them to boot up. His response was simply that his system was just “old”. Over time my NES suffered the same affliction. Every kid back then had their own special trick or technique on how to get an NES game to finally work. My friend would blow into the cartridge from left to right quickly, then right to left quickly. He would then proceed to work back from left to right going very slowly and blowing in bursts. He would then repeat the process going right to left. They say you aren’t supposed to blow into the game cartridges but more often than not his technique got the game going. I would adopt this as my own method as well. Today I don’t have the issues as I’ve cleaned up my 72 pin connector and use contact cleaner on all of my games.
Nintendo was a lifestyle at the time. Not only did I play the games, but I had a Super Mario Bros. pencil case, Super Mario Bros. plastic drinking cups, Super Mario tennis shoes, Nintendo themed clothing, trading cards and stickers, posters, and of course I watched the Super Mario Bros. Super Show after school everyday. Some of my friends were fortunate enough to get the power: Nintendo Power. One kid at school in particular was excitedly telling me about how he and his brother had a subscription to Nintendo Power and how it was invaluable at beating NES games. It was almost as if he were a salesman for the company trying to get me to subscribe. I’ll never forget him flooring me with the line “it has tips and strategies straight from the pros!” Afterwards I tried to convince my mom how critical it was that I also subscribe to Nintendo Power and used the same line on her to much less effect. “What pros?” was her response. Frankly I didn’t have a retort.
Another amazing aspect about the NES was that seemingly every household had one. Of course I had one as did all of my friends but the mania spread to even unexpected consumers. My aunt and uncle had an NES hooked up at their house despite not having any kids living in the home at the time. My wife’s aunt had an NES back in the day on which she unsuccessfully tried to conquer Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest without access to the necessary Nintendo Power. Ultimately she failed. I knew neighbors who had an NES in the home that you would never have expected to own a gaming console. The NES was truly a phenomenon.
Eventually I would move on to the Sega Genesis, the Sony PlayStation, the Nintendo 64 and on down the line but it all began for me with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Speaking of other consoles, its somewhat comical how the name of the Nintendo Entertainment System seemed to change in the vernacular after other consoles were released. At first we all simply called it “Nintendo”. Then after the Super Nintendo was released we rechristened the system as “Regular Nintendo”. Once the internet became mainstream and we started to reminisce about the ole’ “Regular Nintendo” we finally caught on to the NES abbreviation and began to refer to it as such. Now sometimes I also hear it called the “Original Nintendo”. But the fact that it is still so revered and discussed 30 years after it’s release speaks to the lasting and timeless appeal of the system. There aren’t nearly the quantity of enthusiasts for the Atari 2600 which arguably made the industry mainstream, but there are people collecting NES games that weren’t even alive during the initial lifespan of the console. Most of the best franchises in gaming began on the NES and for most people my age it was also our introduction into the hobby.