Useful Notes: Nintendo Entertainment System

aka: NES
"Now you're playing with power."

The system that brought video game consoles back from The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 in North America (they were pretty healthy elsewhere) and ushered in The 8 Bit Era. Known in Japan as the Family Computer (commonly abbreviated as the "Famicom") and in South Korea as Hyundai Comboy (현대 컴보이) made by Hynix with unlicensed clones (most notably the Dendy) made in Eastern Europe, India, the Middle East and in China, it was the console that brought in the oldest and longest lasting competitor in the Console Wars, Nintendo. It also served as the initial console for many of gaming's oldest franchises, introduced the modern third-party licensing model for video games, and set the standards in control pads for consoles. It is still very much an icon of video games (less so the redesigned variant).

To a casual observer, the graphics for the NES may be seen as "blocky". This is because every graphical element generated by the system is made up of 8x8 pixel blocks known as tiles. The reason all NES games are tile-based is because that's what the NES hardware does; the graphics system is a separate processor that has its own memory space for palettes and images. It only understands tiles, tilemaps, and sprites, and it implements them directly in the video output hardware. While this imposed limitations on developers that even Atari 2600 games didn't have to suffer under, it also freed them from having to deal with the minutiae of graphics. Yes, you could only do tile-based graphics with sprites, but at least they were good tile-based graphics.

While the NES-001 is an iconic part of video game history, it's pretty badly designed. While the Japanese version (HVC-001) is a remarkably solid piece of engineering that often continues to work over 25 years later, the American release (handled by Nintendo of America) was rather sloppily redesigned to distance itself from pre-Crash consoles due to many vendors refusing to stock anything even remotely resembling the console, fearing that they wouldn't sell.

So what was wrong with the NES-001? Well...
  • NoA's industrial designers made the console look like a VCR, adopting a VCR-like front-loading cartridge. Due to expenses, a "zero insertion force" mechanism was used (put a cart in, fix it with a lever)...but said mechanism ended up putting great force on the pins in both cart and connector, bending them slightly more with each insertion and shoving the ROM board back into the cartridge.
  • This was further compounded by using rather substandard materials for the connector and its frame, making it susceptible to bending. With each cartridge insertion, the cheaply-made pins and frame were bent more and more until no contact could be established. The fact that the pins were simple, ungilded copper and tarnished easily at exposure to moisture didn't help, and only intensified when NoA blamed dirty cartridges...which led to the classic tactic of blowing into the system and/or games.
  • The infamous 10NES lockout chip, required for all NES cartridges. While intended to keep unlicensed games from being used, the fact that it required a constant connection meant that constant usage of the system made it block even the licensed titles (hence why the system occasionally resets once per second). The Famicom didn't have this problem because it had no lockout chip or any contact problems in the first place, all due to being a traditional top-loader.

Why so? Well, the Big N reaped enormous profits from being the sole manufacturer of the carts for its system, and thus being able to decide what gets published, in what amount, for what price, and what the developers would have from it. While the Japan branch was able to enforce it without resorting to technical means, the American one was wary of the Atari situation when everybody and their dog was producing carts for the Atari 2600...hence the 10NES and 72-pin cartridge. But in a misguided attempt to make it easier to integrate the never-released American counterpart to the Famicom Disk System (the Japanese version used a rather convoluted hookup method that wouldn't have worked with the NES's front-loading design), NoA engineers removed two pins that connected the motherboard to the sound extension chips in the cart and rerouted them to the expansion connector on the bottom of the console, ensuring that American releases would always have inferior sound.

The NES-101 (aka "NES 2"), a top-loader styled after the SNES and a bit after the original Famicom, was released in 1993 and not only used a 2-pin version of the original 60-pin connector but further lacked the 10NES chip. Despite being released in all Nintendo markets simultaneously, nobody remembers it. The last official games were released in 1994, after which the console as a whole was discontinued... although Japan produced new units until 2003, and continued repair support until 2007 (and only stopped because No J finally ran out of the necessary parts and had no way to source new parts within a reasonable budget).

The NES' cultural impact and image is more subject to transatlantic dissonance than perhaps any other major games console: in North America and Japan the respective console versions are iconic, and are The '80s for many people, whereas in Europe the system was far more obscure—especially the UK, where Nintendo made some bad decisions with their source of distributor (Mattel) that meant that the NES' very existence was considered apocryphal by many kids who first encountered Nintendo through the SNES and Game Boy. Mattel did, however, distribute the NES in Canada.

See here for the system specs.

Games/series that appeared or debuted on the NES include:


  • Boring but Practical: The hardware was nothing special, even for the time, but it was perfectly capable of delivering aesthetically pleasing tile sprites.
  • Follow the Leader: Sega's Master System console tried hard to play catch up with the NES in the West, and the consoles own controller is very similar to the NES pad. The pack-in game, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, was an obvious attempt to ride the Super Mario Bros. bandwagon. Ironically, the Master System hardware was far superior to that of the NES, so they actually had some advantage over them. While it tanked in the US, it actually managed to outsell the NES in other countries.
  • Lighter and Softer: To improve the PR image of their games, Nintendo enforced strict censorship policies in contrast to companies like Atari.
  • Nintendo Hard: Most of the games developed for the console tended to be quite difficult, first and third party games alike. Justified, as this was the era where arcade games were the norm and were purposely designed to be hard so they could quickly suck up quarters from less skilled players, and they were often the basis of certain games on the NES console.


Alternative Title(s):

NES, Famicom, Famicom Disk System, Family Computer