Useful Notes: Nintendo Entertainment System

"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 dated almost as soon as it was released, paled in comparison to P Cs of the time, and was quickly outclassed in hardware by the Sega Master System, but it was perfectly capable of delivering aesthetically pleasing tile sprites and it got the job done just fine as a gaming machine. Skilled programmers could really push the hardware further than what one could expect the console to do, as games like Vice: Project Doom show.
  • Bowdlerise: To improve the PR image of their games, Nintendo enforced strict censorship policies in contrast to companies like Atari.
    • Blood and gore were explicitly verboten, and violence had a lot of restrictions; beating up or shooting robots, aliens or zombies was OK, but against real people it was usually discouraged. Any excessive or gratuitious violence, especially against non-enemy characters, was not allowed; Maniac Mansion originally had a scene where you could blow up a hamster in a microwave, and Nintendo forced it to be removed.
    • Using the words "Death", "die", "kill" or "killed" was not allowed.
    • Sexual references weren't permitted either. Maniac Mansion had a scene where a message written on a wall said "For a good time, call Edna.", which Nintendo edited to remove the first four words.
    • References to touchy topics such as religion and or hate groups like the Nazis were also not allowed. In Super Mario Bros. 1, Daimaō Kuppa (Great Demon King Koopa) was changed to Bowser. One of the bosses of Mega Man 1, the Yellow Devil, was renamed to Rock Monster due to this. note  Bionic Commando had all references to Hitler and the Nazis removed, renaming them as "Master-D" and "The Badds" and replacing the Swastikas with eagle symbols (curiously, the gruesome image of Hitler's head exploding was left in). Some other edits were done if it had the potential to be touchy, such as replacing the seals from Ice Climber with Yetis. In the unreleased US port of Mother, all references to religion were removed (along with sprites edited to remove references to blood or tobacco).
    • Swearing or obscene gestures were not allowed. The Who Framed Roger Rabbit game had to edit the name of the one of the weasels, Smart Ass, into "Smarty" because of this.
    • References to drugs, smoking and alcohol were also strictly forbidden, even in the context of portraying it in a bad light. In Punch Out, "Vodka Drunkenski" was edited to "Soda Popsinski" for this reason. The port of NARC removed all references to drugs, even though hunting down drug dealers is the entire premise of the game!
    • Games with "subliminal political messages or overt political statements" were barred from release too. This is likely the reason why the game Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, where you controlled President Clinton's cat and fought caricatures of Republicans, such as George Bush and Richard Nixon, never got released.
  • 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 due to Nintendo holding a huge monopoly over market shares and third party support, it actually managed to outsell the NES in other countries.
  • 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.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The Nintendo "Seal of Quality". Nintendo created it as part of their strict licensing and censorship policies, in order to prevent the flood of unlicensed games that swamped the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries. Unfortunately, many consumers misinterpreted the Seal as meaning the gameplay itself was guaranteed to be top quality, which was another thing well out of Nintendo's hands.
  • Product Facelift: The original NES design was heavily redesigned from the Famicom, and as noted earlier, it was not for the better, so it's quite difficult to find an original NES in good working order. The NES 2 revamped it again into a smaller, much more reliable top-loader format, but it needed an adapter to use a Game Genie, and it only had RF cable support—no AV inputs—so the picture quality took a hit, too. The controllers were also revised from the old rectangles into a dog-bone shape, in order to match the rounded corners of the Super Nintendo controller.
  • Quality Vs Quantity: Part of the reason Nintendo was so strict about licensing in the early days of the NES was because they wanted to avoid having the consoles game market be swamped with crappy games, a fate which befell the Atari 2600 and its competing consoles during The Great Video Game Crash of 1983. Nintendo required that they be the sole manufacturer of all cartridges, and that the publisher had to pay in full before the cartridges for that game be produced, so they basically called the shots on what could and couldn't be released. Unfortunately, Nintendo went way over the line in this—companies were required to sign a contract by Nintendo that would obligate these parties to develop exclusively for the system, order at least 10,000 cartridges, and only make five games per year (a rule that developers like Konami worked around by forming dummy corps like Ultra Games), meaning they could basically blacklist any third party developer who worked for a competitor. In 1991, these practices were ruled as a monopoly in court, and Nintendo was forced to become more lenient in what games could be released on the NES. While this ultimately allowed the NES library to balloon with hundreds of games of varying quality, Nintendo's reputation had already been established by that point, so it didn't truly hurt them in the long run.


Alternative Title(s):

NES, Famicom, Famicom Disk System, Family Computer