NES History: Part Two - The Hardware

Last time we talked about how the NES rose up and dominated the market place, now let's look at the machine itself. 

Part Two: Let's focus on the hardware. By Drew McCabe

Part One:

Internally the heart of the NES runs on a Ricoh 2A03 8-bit processor and for its graphics it developed a custom PPU with Ricoh, allowing it to display and run simultaneously the nicest graphic color palette out of any home console at the time.

The system supported 5 different sound channels, as well as the ability to support expansion chips contained in cartridges which dealt with expanded memory and other sound channels (which was taken advantage of by various companies in several of their games). The system also featured lock-out technology, similar to Mattel’s Intellivision model II. which was released the same year in North America, in effort to combat piracy, unwanted third parties, and increase control over the type of material being released for the system in each distinct market place.

Depending on where you lived changed what version a user received/had access to for this device. Worldwide the system used ROM-cartridges however they differed regionally. In Japan and Asia the Famicom-version cartridges were a bit smaller, a small rectangle shape and with a different number of pins then that used by the NES releases elsewhere worldwide.

Nesadold

Those releases used more pins and were a large, flat square shape. This made the two systems version incompatible with playing each other’s games. The choice to make the NES cartridges big and flat was on purpose to make the NES unlike other home consoles and help distance it visually from the pack in the fallout out of the 1983 videogame crash, something Japan didn’t mind doing anyways because it also help prevent reverse importation scenarios from ever taking place.

Stylistically, the Famicom was a top loading system, where for much of its life the NES was sold as a front-loading system. The choice to make NES front loading was again to trick consumers into not seeing it as a video game console, the front loading similar to the growing popularity of home VCRs at the time. The controller for both version was a rectangle joy-pad, with two buttons.

The Famicom initially had its controllers hardwired into the system, common of almost all systems at the time, the player 1 controller having a start and pause button, however the player two controller having instead a microphone and a volume control. Eventually in the early '90s, the Famicom would receive a redesign where both controllers were detachable for easy replacement.

NES Nintendo Pad

The NES version always had its controllers detachable, both left and right being the same controller with both start and pause buttons. A variety of add-ons were made for the NES throughout its life, some notable and some not as quite. The most common was the light gun called the NES Zapper. Like many light guns, it plugged into the controller port and could be used with a variety of shooting games. In many regions both the game Duck Hunt and the gun was packed with the system itself.

NESROB

One of the more uncommon add-ons was R.O.B., a small robot which ran on batteries that would receive different light signals from the game and would interact by doing such things as pushing buttons on the second controller for certain tasks in a game.

Unfortunately R.O.B. only worked with two NES games and after Nintendo had a solid lock on the North American market, it was decided further games to interact with him were no longer needed, as essentially he was a cleverly disguised marketing tool to again make the NES seem like a high end toy and instead of a video game console. The most notable for many hardcore fans was for the FCD, or Family Computer Disk, for the Famicom version.

Famidisk System

This attachment was a floppy drive unit that attached to the bottom of the Famicom and could play games saved on Nintendo disks. Nintendo sold these discs in special kiosks throughout Japanese malls and some games, like The Legend of Zelda, would actually first premiere on this format. However due to the FCD’s internal belt frequently breaking and only a limited number of developers interested in creating for the FCD, Nintendo discontinued it after a few years and decided to not launch in other territories. Games for the FCD would be released directly on ROM-cart instead everywhere else in the world.

Despite its difficulties with the release, the FCD would alone see a total of 229 games released for its disk format, although many would be releases that also saw a previous Famicom-cart release, i.e. Super Mario Brothers. By the end of its run, the NES would have a US/PAL library totaling of 713 licensed games, and the Famicom would have a gigantic 1,057 licensed games. More for both versions if you add in unlicensed games or even more currently homebrews for the platforms.

As we all know, the system was famous and beloved by gamers for launching franchises starring Mario, Kirby and many more. So how did the NES having this much power go disappear eventually? It started with the anti-monopoly laws in the United States. Nintendo had a strict policy that third party developers could not develop games for a competing system until 2 years after the NES game was already published. If they did they would be “punished” and Nintendo would both threaten to take them to court for violating contract, as well as not allow them to develop further games for the NES.

This would mean plenty of developers would develop a game on the NES and suddenly discover they couldn’t develop a game for the Atari-7800 (one of the factors that contributed to Atari-7800’s death), and so they would just stick with the NES since that is where the guaranteed money was. The United States Federal Trade Commission investigated Nintendo due to numerous complaints about Nintendo’s policies hurting third party companies, combined with the fear they were creating a global monopoly of the video game industry.

Nintendo not wanting to receive harsh backlash panicked upon finding out they were being investigated and immediately got rid of this punishment system and loosened up on other rules with third party developers in 1990. Nintendo’s punishment from the FTC was in 1991 they were forced to offer a coupon to every Nintendo player who bought a game between June 1988 and December 1990, for five dollars off a new cartridge, one of the lightest penalties ever given by the USA's FTC, but one thought as fair as it could be by them since Nintendo willing themselves removed the rules in question for third parties.

With those rules now gone, developers certainly began developing outside of NES at rapid fire, and the system most for: the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. The Famicom was already losing a little ground in Japan to both the superior 16-bit NEC’s PC Engine and Sega’s Mega Drive, but not much at the time. However elsewhere worldwide outside Japan is where the NES would really start taking hits.

The Mega Drive began to prove more successful in territories which the Master System had already beat out the NES already, an then finally the big blow: the Mega Drive, under the name Genesis, would beat out the NES in North America in those days of the early-90s. Nintendo’s 80% lock of that market would quickly begin to plummet and Sega would quickly nab majority of the market for some time.

The writing was on the wall and Nintendo would finally have try something new and it would retire the NES and unleash its new 16-bit competitor in an attempt to nab Sega’s global invasion, and that gem would be known as the SNES, but that is another story.

 Article By Drew McCabe 

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