The Industry-Saving Nintendo Famicom Turns 40

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The Industry-Saving Nintendo Famicom Turns 40

40 years ago the videogame industry started to undergo a seismic shift, but it would take over two years for almost anybody in North America to realize it. On July 15, 1983, while the games industry was collapsing in the U.S., Nintendo released the Family Computer, or Famicom, in Japan. The 8-bit console built on Nintendo’s early ‘80s arcade success, launching with versions of the popular games Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. It wasn’t an instant success in Japan, but it exploded in popularity there in 1984, while the videogame console business was basically dead in America. The Famicom wouldn’t make it to our shores until October 1985, and under a different name. You probably know it as the Nintendo Entertainment System, aka the NES. If you were like most kids at the time, and all parents, you simply called it the Nintendo. 

It’s not an understatement to say that the Famicom saved the entire console gaming industry, at least in the U.S., after arriving here as the NES in 1985. It took time, though. Its initial launch in the New York market in 1985 was met with skepticism by retailers who felt the impact of Atari’s collapse firsthand. A gradual rollout meant the NES wasn’t available in most markets until late 1986, and it was in 1987 when it really started to explode in the States. By 1988, though, the NES was thoroughly dominating the games industry, and “Nintendo” had become as synonymous with games as “Atari” had earlier in the decade. (Anecdotally, I was one of the last kids I knew to get an NES when I bought one at a Toys R Us in March 1988; the same night my parents took me to a monster truck rally. I will always associate the NES with monster trucks.)

The Famicom’s eventual American success can be chalked up to a number of factors. The draw of Super Mario Bros. as a pack-in game, along with the appeal of the Zapper light gun peripheral in the gun-happy Reagan days of the ‘80s, was a large part of its success. With its vibrant graphics and long, seamlessly scrolling levels, Super Mario Bros. was a revelation at the time; it caught your attention by looking better than any home game had before, kept that attention with some of the best play and design seen in the medium, and then rewarded that attention with a long, deep experience that grew more impressive the more you played it. Also, never underestimate the power of a cute robot, especially in the 1980s.

During its first two years the NES was sold with a peripheral that looked like a small robot. R.O.B., as it was called, was like a half-step between a game controller and a Teddy Ruxpin; it gave off the illusion of life as NES owners used it to play Gyromite and Stack-Up, the only two titles released in Nintendo’s “Robot Series” of games. Although R.O.B. didn’t launch in Japan alongside the Famicom, it was available there by the summer of 1985, just in time for the Famicom to make its American debut. R.O.B.’s importance as a marketing tool far outstripped its actual utility as a game interface; with the inclusion of R.O.B. in the original NES bundle, Nintendo was able to convince stores still hurt by the Atari collapse to stock its new system in the toy section. As the target audience for Nintendo in the mid to late ‘80s, I can confirm that this quickly discarded and ultimately useless little robot was a huge reason kids wanted to grab the NES, and even though there were only ever two games for it, I’m still kind of bummed it had been discontinued when I finally got an NES.

Beyond the quality of its technology and the zeitgeist-capturing nature of its sci-fi peripherals, the NES also excelled because it arrived at the perfect time. There was a whole sub-generation of children who were too young (or, like me, just barely old enough) to have had an Atari 2600 before the crash. By 1987, when the NES really took off in the U.S., the 2600 was over four years removed from its successful era, and the 5200, Atari’s failed follow-up system that contributed to the crash, had come and gone. I shouldn’t have to explain how, for products marketed to children, four years is ancient history. Computers kept games alive in the west, especially the Commodore 64, Apple II, and PC, but they were prohibitively expensive for many families, and designed for far more applications than simply gaming. To children who had never had a home console before, the NES was an exciting new innovation that brought the fun of the arcade home; to kids like me, who had a 2600 because of older siblings but had long since put it in a storage closet for good, the NES reminded us of how fun games can be while offering a dramatically better experience. By 1987 the kids of America were ready for something like the NES, even if they didn’t know it, and Nintendo came by at the right time to capitalize on that pent-up demand.

A weird footnote to Nintendo history is that Atari almost released the Famicom in the West. An aborted deal with Atari would’ve brought the Famicom to America not long after its Japanese debut, and it’s fascinating to think how different games history would be if that had happened. Was the Atari name too toxic after the crash for it to successfully launch the system that revitalized the videogame industry? Would a mainstream audience have accepted any new system in 1983 or 1984, no matter how good the system and its games were, having just been driven away from the home console market? Could the Famicom have been a success in the States without Super Mario Bros., which wasn’t released until late 1985? Nintendo was notoriously restrictive about what could be released on its system at the time, and deserves much of the blame for stunting the medium’s emotional and intellectual growth in the U.S. in the ‘80s and early ‘90s; Atari, meanwhile, had seen its business collapse by not having enough control over what was published for the 2600. Would an Atari-licensed Famicom have split the difference between these two extremes, or would one have still taken precedence over the other? Obviously we’ll never be able to answer any of these questions, but the would-be Atari/Nintendo partnership is one of the great “what ifs” of videogames.

No matter what could have happened, it’s hard to find much fault in how things ultimately worked out—well, unless you worked for Atari, whose total collapse was basically complete by the mid ‘90s. The Famicom was a success in Japan and a literal savior in America, revitalizing a dormant industry that went on to have a massive impact upon our culture. And it all started 40 years ago this week, when the Famicom first hit store shelves in Japan.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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