In 1983 the US videogame market suffered a huge crash, mainly due to too many low quality games and consoles being released with too few customers willing to buy them. Â Many videogame companies went bankrupt, and for a time it looked as if the home videogame market might dry up completely, at least in the US anyway.
Across the globe in Japan at this time Nintendo were getting ready to launch their new home system which was called the Family Computer, or Famicom for short. Â This was a videogame system that could also be expanded to provide computer like functionality with add ons such as a keyboard and software including a version of the programming language BASIC.
The Famicom didn’t do very well initially, mainly due to the fact that the first revision of the hardware was unreliable, but a redesign and a product recall later, these issues were solved and the Famicom rapidly became the most popular system in Japan. Â Unsurprisingly then, Nintendo decided it was time to look further afield, and so performed a further redesign and simplification of the Famicom to produce what we in the western world now know as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
The NES was a big grey plastic box with a flap on the front into which game cartridges could be inserted, and unlike the Famicom which had two hardwired controllers, the NES featured two ports on the front into which joypads could be plugged. Â However it was what was inside the box that counted, and in that regard the NES was ahead of the rest of the pack quite considerably, with powerful (for the time) graphical features which made consoles such as the incredibly popular Atari 2600 look ridiculous.
In 1985 Nintendo launched the NES into the US and quickly had the market sewn up thanks to a large library of excellent games including Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. Â The system was sold in two bundles, one which consisted on the console, two controllers and Super Mario Bros, whilst a more expensive bundle consisted of the console and controllers, the Zapper light gun, two games (Duck Hunt and Gyromite) and the Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB.
Hang on, a robot? Â Yes, strangely enough ROB was a little robot (it looked a bit like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit) that was controlled via flashing lights on the screen. Â ROB had light sensors in its eyes that detected these flashes and that caused it to perform different operations, such as making coloured discs spin. Â As is the way with odd peripherals for videogame consoles ROB never really became popular, only being compatible with two games, the aforementioned Gyromite and another called Stack-Up.
The NES almost single handedly rejuvenated the US videogame industry, although it failed to do so well in Europe when it was launched in 1986, thanks to competition from the Sega Master System. Â That didn’t stop the NES selling more than 60 million consoles, with its most popular game, Super Mario Bros, notching up an astounding 40 million sales! Â It’s also surprising to learn that Nintendo were still making the system as recently as 2003 for the Japanese market, which gives you some idea of how popular it must have been over there.
Today, a great many of those cheap consoles that plug straight into the TV (you generally see loads of them in shopping centres in the run up to Christmas) are based around chipsets which have evolved from the NES chips, and indeed many of these feature original NES games that have been hacked very slightly, usually only with a change to the name of the game on the title screen (Super Nario Bros anyone?). Â An another alternative is to use emulation, and a great site that’s packed with NES games for you to play is the excellent vNES, or Virtual NES site.