Sunday, 12 September 2010

Feature: A Brief Look At The NES

Tomorrow, Monday 13th September, will mark the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and in celebration of the occasion we will be running two special features here at IQGamer over two days, covering both the console and SMB itself. Today we take a brief look at the defining NES gaming system, and how it helped shape the industry I work in today.

The Nintendo Entertainment System is one of the most recognisable videogames consoles that has ever been released, anywhere in the world. At one point it has been said that the majority of the population of the United States either had, or had access to a NES in their homes, and almost certainly a copy of the game said to have kick-started a second wave videogame revolution, the awe-inspiring Super Mario Bros. Indeed when talking about the impact the NES had on the world it’s almost impossible not to talk about SMB shaped this change, and how this one game changed the fortunes of our favourite pastime forever.

It’s hard to believe that it has been twenty-five years since the NES reshaped the videogames industry so many of us take for granted each day. The bulky, square-shaped, grey console was instrumental in bringing the joys of gaming to a mainstream audience long before the NDS or Wii was even a blink in Nintendo’s eye.

Many of the things we associate with the industry today started with Nintendo’s fledging 8bit system. The game design blueprints firmly laid down by Super Mario Bros; the near two decade long Japanese domination of the videogames industry; and the whole concept of software liecencing to third-party developers, all started with Nintendo, and the release of the NES.

In 1985, armed with a slew of high-profile Japanese developed hits, and two years after reaching fever-pitch success with its launch at home in Japan, the NES touched down in North America to a fantastic reception. Despite the videogame crash of 1983 the public were more than happy to give another videogames system a try, and after an initial launch in select retailers in New York Nintendo released the NES all across the country in February of the following year. This not only gave confidence to retailers looking to stock the system, but also the whole market for videogames itself.

Following on from its North American launch, Nintendo was already riding high on a wave of immense success when it decided to bring its Nintendo Entertainment System to Europe, or more specifically the United Kingdom. The machine had quickly spread to homes all over the US and was by and large a phenomenon of sorts, with Mario leading the charge all the way, and backed up by other popular hits such as The Legend Of Zelda and Metroid, both staple, must have titles for arguably one of the most cherished consoles ever to have been released.

The company launched the system in most of mainland Europe themselves in 1986, and then a year later in the UK, Australia, and Italy, with Mattel distributing the hardware, facing strong competition from Sega’s Master System a few months later. It wasn’t until 1990 when Nintendo opened their own operations in the UK, and took over distribution of the NES, along with marketing the machine.

Although featuring far more in the way of polished software in the first few year of its release, the NES never managed to achieve the same levels of sales success across Europe as the Master System - not initially anyway. Poor marketing and management on the side of Mattel, along with delayed European releases of many games proved troublesome, and allowed Sega’s 8bit console to take the lead. The fact that Sega’s system was some £50 cheaper upon launch didn’t help matters either (it sold for £100, against the £150 entry point of the NES).

However in both North America and Japan, where Sega’s presence was much smaller and less impactful, the NES was by far the most popular console at the time outselling every other videogame system by a wide margin.

The unique look of the NES console – a familiar sight in most North American homes, and many across Europe as well - was designed to differentiate it from other videogame systems of the time, with Nintendo not wanting to be associated with the 1983 crash of the games market, while also attempting to revitalise it with cutting-edge new software. Compared to other systems the NES was bigger, bulkier, and featured a square, angular design which housed a front-loading cartridge slot (hidden under the flap with the printed NES logo on it), and two control pad ports on the right-hand side – a first for most videogame systems.

It’s what most of us remember playing while we were young.

Interestingly the PAL version of the console was also subtitled with the words ‘Mattel Version’ or ‘NES Version’ being printed directly below the ‘Nintendo Entertainment system’ logo. This was due to Mattel distributing the system in part of Europe for three years, before Nintendo finally took over control themselves in 1990, leaving many late adopters bragging that their ‘NES Version’ was “better” or “more authentic” than their friends Mattel branded console.

In reality, the difference actually boiled down to the ‘Mattel Version’ featuring a slightly higher quality plastic finish on both the top and bottom of the machine, while the ‘NES Version’ was compatible with games from North America.

I myself received my ‘Mattel branded’ Nintendo Entertainment System in Christmas 1988. It came packaged with two controllers, a copy of Super Mario Bros, plus Duck Hunt and the famous Nintendo Zapper. After months of seeing what seemed like constant TV adverts in the run up to Christmas, I was completely overjoyed, and my first little foray into console gaming would later lead me into becoming a fully-fledged enthusiast during the 16bit era with the Sega Megadrive. But it all started here, with the NES and a copy of SMB.

Indeed, compared to my first gaming experiences with my old green-screen Amstrad computer, the NES was like a breath of fresh air. The games were far more responsive, and that d-pad made playing fast-paced action titles a breeze compared to the Amstrad’s clunky official joystick.

Whilst the console itself may be considered iconic, the controller itself is no less revered. In the eighties most consoles released with large, somewhat bulky control pads or joysticks, restrained by their inherent arcade heritage and often, by the use of only one action button. Most of these, like the one that came with my Amstrad PC, were rather unresponsive, requiring strong, defined joystick movements, and hard button presses in order to control the action on screen.

Nintendo’s rectangular, slab-shaped design of the controller, along with its cross-shaped d-pad then, was revolutionary. A multi-button set-up, consisting of two action buttons; ‘A’ and ‘B’, plus both ‘START’ and ‘SELECT’ buttons, and its most defining feature; that Nintendo d-pad design synonymous with modern day gaming, basically provided the next standard in control for well over a decade, up until the launch of the N64, and its controller’s trademark analogue stick.

Better, more responsive d-pads may have since been produced – with Sega’s Japanese Saturn pad commanding the lead – but it was this NES/Famicom original that paved the way.

Even now the NES controller is still one of the most responsive out there, making a laughing stock of the shamelessly plasticky feel of both Wii Vitual Console controllers, and their poor imitations of that ‘NES styled’ d-pad used in every Nintendo console to date in some form or another.

Outside of the revolutionary control pad, Nintendo also produced a few other iconic peripherals, including the Zapper Gun, and R.O.B, both of which were packaged up with NES at some point in its life. The Nintendo Zapper, along with Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros was often bundled with the NES console, and two control pads.

The NES had a rather successful worldwide run that lasted up to twenty years (including the Famicom in Japan), at one point being the biggest selling, and most recognisable console of all time - a feat that perhaps has only been dwarfed by Sony’s PlayStation; another success story that changed the industry for the second time.

Some of the worlds biggest gaming franchises also began life on the system, including Mega Man, Castlevania, and Contra (Probotector), along with Nintendo's own Mario, Zelda, and Metroid - just another area of significance for one of the most popular consoles ever to come to market.

In 1995, after steadily declining sales and large software droughts, along with a decade of success, Nintendo discontinued the machine in both the United States and throughout all of Europe - to be fair the last release for the platform was in 1994 with Wario’s Woods. In Japan the machine would continue to be sold up until 2003, although software production was halted years before when the popularity of the Super NES had long since taken over, and the release of the N64 garnered more of their attention.

In its long and prosperous life the NES defined a new standard in which other videogame companies would follow, and that is still echoed in the designs and choices made by Nintendo and other companies today. The concept of software licensing for third-party developers, the trademark controller and d-pad design, establishing some of the most common, and copied blueprints of videogame design with Super Mario Bros, and the near two decade long Japanese Dominance of the videogames industry, were just some of the things Nintendo, and the NES brought to the table.

It’s this forward thinking approach that has both disappointed (Virtual Boy) and propelled (Nintendo DS, Wii) the company to be the revolutionary success story it is today.

1 comment:

  1. Hi i didn't read through this whole thing but i have this machine my mum got it for my oldest brother when it first came out and i just hooked it up out in the shed unfortunately our controllers are broken and we dont have the gun and that cas we got a game that has 110 games in one its cool as, but i was wondering if you knew where i would be able to get some of the remotes it they are still out??