Fourty Years of Famicom: The Once and Future King
1983 was an amazing year in the scope of human history. The first mobile phone call was made, along with Nokia creating the first mobile phone game, Snake, which paved the way for years of suffering to come. Dick Smith, famed crazy Australian, circumnavigated the world in a helicopter, because why the hell not. And, tragically, on June 9th, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected, ensuring that Meryl Streep would have her worst movie role ever in the distant future.
For Japan, though, it was a year of ups and downs, from the terrible Sea of Japan Earthquake (a notable down) to Ronald Regan deciding to be the first US president to talk directly to the provisional government (good?). Yet smack dab in the middle of 1983, on July 15th, Nintendo would forever change the course of both home consoles and video games as a whole. Under the watchful, sometimes baleful eye of Hiroshi Yamauchi, former president and genuine maniac, Nintendo would push forward with the Family Computer, shortened to the Famicom. Many of you know it by its Western name, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
Looking back, it seems silly to either overlook or understate the importance of the Famicom. After all, as a retrospective, it’s easy to see how the roadmap worked in terms of Nintendo’s rise to prominence and respect. You have the NES, then the SNES, then everything after that until the Nintendo Switch is now the third best selling console ever and actively gunning to try and catch the PlayStation 2. For people who’ve had access to thinks like the Nintendo Switch Online catalog of games and even the NES Mini, it feels impossible that there was ever a doubt about the success of this little machine. But it’s so important to understand the how, the why, and the exact timeline that made this machine a miracle and not just another blip.
The Famicom wasn’t the first home console, not by a longshot. Ask any gamer who was around in the 70s and they’ll argue about the merits of the Atari VCS, the ColecoVision, Intellivision and, my personal favorite, the Magnavox Odyssey2. In fact, it was the sheer number of machines that came out in a very short period of time – 1976 to 1982, to be precise – that caused the Video Game Crash of 1983, which had the awesome name, Atari Shock, in Japan. By and large, the thrill of everyone and their mother buying Pong machines and then seeing who could make the worst home port of Pac-Man was wearing off, and the market, super saturated, no longer held any interest in yet another machine. It was awful, and it was done.
So imagine this: there has just been an event large enough that it gets a devastating name that signifies the end of home video games and potentially games as a whole. People are pawning off machines left and right, companies are going bankrupt, and arcades are praying children and parents don’t watch the news or they’re going to be on their asses. And here’s Yamauchi, who looks at a house fire and thinks smores, not loss. This man was all business, through and through, and he couldn’t give a flying kuso about video games, he was interested in money.
Nintendo wasn’t coming out of nowhere with this idea of a home video game system, not even a little. Though a lot of success and income had been from arcade collaborations and the publishing of some silly title called Donkey Kong from a young upstart named Shigeru Miyamoto, Yamauchi had also overseen the creation of Game and Watch consoles. Yet he wanted something that would be both affordable and dominate the market, eyeballing the massive hubris of Atari. With Atari’s 2600 costing $199 dollars at launch (that’s about $610 with inflation), the target was an easy one to make. Just create a console that didn’t cost a month’s salary.
Rather than take you through every single note of creation, know these things about the Famicom, which are quite interesting. The controllers are attached for price reasons: it would take a couple more years of R&D to make a removable controller that didn’t almost double the MSRP. The Famicom asked for inputs on channels 2 or 3 because that was most convenient for Japanese households, so it wouldn’t overlap with the NHK. The Famicom also launched with three freaking games, which were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye, which is fairly incredible but also less interesting than the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt that Westerners are used to. And, for those who’ve never seen it, the Famicom’s top loading style made more sense to copy the Atari’s cartridge style, whereas the NES (which wouldn’t be released till 1985) was desperately trying to copy a VHS player.
Best of all, the name, Famicom, almost didn’t get used. The staff originally wanted to call it a Gamecom, but Masayuki Uemura, the head designer and future father of the SNES, talked it over with his wife. His wife pointed out that the Japanese name for a computer, a pasokon (literally a portmanteau of “personal computer,”) didn’t feel like a good name because nothing about it was personal. So, instead of being a “game computer,” it should be a “family computer.” Uemura agreed and Yamauchi said whatever because he was busy justifying that it should be red and white, simply because he liked how some other company’s antenna looked. Like I said, dude was crazy.
The Famicom had a rough first year due to failing motherboards, but Nintendo kept a stiff upper lip and gave replacements and fixed things up quickly. The price tag, a mere ¥14,800, kept people intrigued and telling all their friends about it. Not only was this a reasonable ask at the time (where people were spending tons of money at arcades each week), this price is even incredible TODAY. Adjusted for inflation and the fluctuating yen, that means the price was approximately ¥21,000, which means the original Famicom was barely more expensive than a brand new Nintendo Switch Lite. Yamauchi knew how to hook a customer, and he was able to keep his own promise of selling more than one million units and got to be the best selling console of 1984.
How important was the Famicom, though? Let’s look at the facts of the time. There had been a massive video game crash a couple months before, but Nintendo still pushed forward, ensuring they would be the only game in town. There was a Sega console released on the same day, and yet only Sega diehards would tell you about the SG-1000. Nintendo locked into the idea of doing only first party titles, but eventually relented when Yamauchi realized that the artists, not the architects, were the way of the Famicom’s future. And, yes, this important first step helped to eventually bring the NES to the world and, as such, create a bright new era for everyone.
Yamauchi was never fully satisfied with the Famicom, though, and I think that’s important to know. He was constantly fixated on turning it into the real intention of its name, a computer for an average household. He created the disk system so that you could put floppy copies of titles onto the Famicom with higher musical fidelity and cheaper games. This guy was trying to move away from cartridges in 1986, and yet Nintendo as a whole couldn’t do that until 2001 and then they did it wrong. It’s such a damn shame that the disk system didn’t work, because you could buy a disk for ¥2000 and then pay ¥500 to write a new game onto it, overwriting old games when you were bored. It made SO MUCH SENSE, and yet it died on the vine because people couldn’t be trusted to handle floppies correctly.
The Famicom also showcased the importance of Nintendo’s vigorous, sometimes batshit dreams of what they could accomplish on a video game console. There was a 3D visor add-on that brought 3D gaming home in 1987. There was a full fledged keyboard and a BASIC coding cart back when most people thought computers either captured Jeff Bridges or taunted Matthew Broderick. Yamauchi also wanted to bring the Internet to the Famicom, which was still so new most people thought it was goblins that stole thoughts from robots. You had a modem, with a specific option to bet on horse races, on the same device where families were learning what Dragon Quest was and how important it would be for the next few generations. This modem directly lead to the Satellaview, which, in turn, gave us Radical Dreamers. Without the need to gamble at home, we’d never have Chrono Trigger.
And those are what never made it out of Japan. The successful ones created even more of a hype to the ever shifting system. The Family Training Pad would become the Power Pad and get tons of kids to jump around on Short Order/Egg Exploder. The Video Shooting Series Light Gun would get the more functional name NES Zapper and create tons of chinks in TV screens as players held the damn thing right against the glass. The Power Glove would be published and everyone, even the creator, would distance themselves from it. And Family Computer Robot, called R.O.B. in the West, would be one of the most useless peripherals that is also the most sought after flex for collectors worldwide.
Naturally, the Famicom will always be remembered and revered for what it meant for game series for years to come. Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus, and many more got their very first start on the Famicom. Mario became the ubiquitous household name from the titles that would launch right here in 8-bit glory. Final Fantasy and the aforementioned Dragon Quest got their first showcase here, whereas existing properties of Kunio-Kun and Ninja Gaiden (called Ninja Ryukenden in Japan) got a proper spotlight. There is probably some garbage shovelware title that you covet right now that you first played on the NES, and it never would have come to pass if the Famicom hadn’t proved that there was still a market for home video games.
The Famicom and its repercussions weren’t all great, though. Yamauchi, always the shrewd businessman, wasn’t wildly pleased when he opened up the licensing to 3rd party devs, and we got Bubble Bath Babes and Sesame Street ABC. Yamauchi was very draconian on publishing with the SNES as a result, which gave us some amazing titles, but some real stress and heartache for developers. Additionally, the Disk System was, as you might expect, easy as anything to pirate and bootleg, and this blowback kept us firmly on cartridges for over a decade afterwards. As much as it’s fun to take risks and try new things, Nintendo saw ideas blow up and create more pain than success, which meant that, instead of trying to optimize them, these ideas were cast aside and left to rot. Nintendo will always move forward, but, sadly, it rarely looks back.
Decades later, the Famicom is still incredibly iconic both within and outside Japan. Heralded as both a cornerstone of many a generation’s gaming and the pilot who brought millions of children to their next passion, the console continues to garner attention and respect. Nintendo ensured that nearly every subsequent system had some access to games of the Famicom era, from the SNES (Super Mario Bros. All-Stars) to the Game Boy Advanced (Famicom Classics series) and the Nintendo Switch today (Nintendo Switch Online). The Mini/Classic consoles from just a few years back remain collector’s items both as pieces to keep on the shelf and pieces of genuine enjoyment.
Yet the Famicom means everything to me, and not just as an NES kid. Back in 1994, my grandmother took a trip to Japan and smuggled back a Famicom in her purse along with three games that she clearly grabbed at random. She thankfully brought back the RF module, but that didn’t want to work with my American television, and the trips to Radioshack to jury-rig a solution were an incredible headache. Yet when we finally got it working and didn’t blow the damn thing up, thanks to my father’s foresight about a voltage down stepper, it was a sight to see. All those pixels and colors I knew and loved with a strange, unreadable language on top of them. It was magnificent, and I wasn’t just slapping a modified cart into my NES: I was using the real hardware.
The Famicom, in so many ways, was my first step into the life I live today. Without Nintendo’s big home run of a system, I wouldn’t have kept enjoying video games for the past four decades. Without the NES, I wouldn’t have known about the forerunners of JRPGs, and thus wouldn’t dump hours upon hours into games that never seem to end. Not to mention, without the Famicom specifically, I wouldn’t have made the connection to Japan and my life as I live it now wouldn’t be where it is, with who it is with, and the way that I live it. West or East, we all remember the bite of the controllers, the sharpness of the sound, the irritation when a game went awry because of dust or someone put a sandwich in the console.
So then, a toast to the one who brought many of us here today. To the Family Computer and all it stood for and still stands for today. To Lolo, to Crystalis, to Bayou Billy, and all the other madcap adventures we shared across the world. And to Nintendo, who celebrate the Famicom in their own special way today. It’s been an amazing ride, and I couldn’t be happier to have been a part of it. Here’s looking at you, Famicom. You made this all feel possible.