Thursday, October 18, 2012

Happy Birthday: A Celebration of the NES

THE video game console of the 1980s.


On October 18th 1985, what many would refer to as arguably the greatest video game console of all time, was released in North America. Most "gamers" of the more dedicated variety are familiar with the tale. It was 1983, and the home video game console market in North America had tanked, thanks in part to two major factors. The first being, the market was at this point rather flooded with systems that weren't all that dissimilar to one another. You had the most famous of the bunch, the Atari 2600, but you also had it's contemporaries, such as the Bally Astrocade, the Coleco-Vision, the Intellivision, the Magnavox Odyssey 2, the Vectrex, and even Atari's own "advanced" 5200 console. These were all systems that were in existence in the marketplace in the early 80s. The other, and perhaps even larger contributing factor, was the fact that for all of these consoles, but most especially for the Atari and "Vision" systems, there was no real controlling factor over who got to make games for them. Thus the store shelves became flooded with games from virtually any developer, of virtually any varying quality, and the real kicker being, that gamers and parents had no way of knowing whether or not a game was even worth playing until they had purchased it and brought it home. This massive flooding of the marketplace of what many in the gaming community these days refer to as "shovel-ware", along with the growing availability of early arcade and and home computer gaming, ultimately led to a vast majority of the game-buying public to abandon these consoles around 1983.




The original Japanese Famicom system.



This is where Nintendo came into the picture. Nintendo, a company founded in 1889, already had a long-standing tradition of making playing cards and toys. They had even stepped into the video game market in the 1970s, mainly in their home country of Japan, with several arcade games, as well as their own original foray into the home market, the "Color TV Game", which was basically a home Pong type system inspired by the original Magnavox Odyssey. By 1983, Nintendo had already entered the American market with such popular products as the super-popular Donkey Kong arcade game and it's sequels, as well as the "Game & Watch", an early example of portable gaming, similar to Tiger's hand-held electronic games. On July 15th, 1983, Nintendo first released what they called the "Family Computer", or Famicom, in Japan. The Japanese home market was unaffected by the American crisis of the time, and the Famicom eventually became very popular. Given the success of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. (the predecessor to the soon-to-be-insanely-popular Super Mario Bros.) as licensed software on other consoles in the early 80s, such as the Atari 2600, Nintendo decided to take a gamble and try releasing the Famicom in North America. But by 1985, the problem they faced, however, was that no American retail stores would put anything called "video games" on their shelves, as they believed they would no longer sell. So instead, they decided to try a rebranding for the West, christening their console the "Nintendo Entertainment System", or NES for short, and marketed it, along with the now-infamous R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) peripheral, as a TOY, instead of a "video game".




R.O.B., so cool.....yet so useless.


Sufficed to say, the strategy paid off, as the original October 1985 test market limited-release in New York City proved to be a run-away success, and not long after, the NES was a hot-selling item all over the country, and soon all over the developed world. The system originally launched alongside eighteen titles chosen by Nintendo of America (a tiny operation at the time). Some of them were instant classics, such as the light-gun game Duck Hunt, and Excitebike, a motocross style racing game that allowed players to create their own tracks. There were also a few that weren't so hot, such as the (only two) R.O.B. based games Stack Up and Gyromite, along with the now infamous Donkey Kong Jr. Math (which itself mirrored the launch release of other, similar crappy math education software that came with other home consoles before it). These original launch titles all had a uniform look, now commonly referred to as the "black box" look, which featured a black box with simple pixel artwork inspired by the in-game graphics themselves. This in itself was unique in the marketplace, giving gamers a direct idea of what the game actually looked like and was about, instead of leaving them to find out when they got it home. But, without a shadow of doubt, if you could pinpoint THE one single game that stood out in that launch lineup, THE game that dragged the NES into the limelight and kept it there for the remainder of the '80s and beyond, it was this title: Super Mario Bros.




THE hot selling video game of the 1980s, along with Pac-Man of course.


There was just "something" about Super Mario Bros. that made it special, that set it apart from other video games. There had certainly been other, similar action/adventure games in the past, such as Activision's Pitfall, or Nintendo's own Donkey Kong and Mario Bros, both of which displayed early "platforming" (running and jumping) gameplay elements. But Super Mario Bros. is considered to be the first true "side scrolling" video game of it's kind. Before this, most games were limited to one screen of gameplay. Some games allowed you to go to different, separate screens, but there was no real transition. Super Mario Bros. provided the player with what at the time seemed like massive, ongoing levels, that just kept going and going as you ran and jumped your way from left to right on the screen. But Super Mario Bros. did so much more than that. It also pioneered the idea of "power ups", items that made you permanently (or in the case of the Star, temporarily) stronger, allowing the player to upgrade their character, so long as they didn't get hit. It also presented the concept of separate "worlds" in a video game, and separate "levels" within these worlds, as well as each "world" having it's own end boss enemy that you would have to fight (or get past and drop into hot lava). Beyond that, Super Mario Bros. also dazzled in it's form and presentation, as it's graphics and music (by now famed composer Koji Kondo), for the time, were considered mind-blowing for a home game, and unlike previous attempts at free-form "run and jump" gameplay, this game also possessed very tight and accurate controls, giving the player a feeling of true, total control over their destiny within the game-world. All of these elements combined to give the game an insane level of "replayability", making players come back repeatedly, to master the game, to top their own high-scores, or to play with friends in two-player mode. And it was all of this, that made Super Mario Bros., and thus the Nintendo Entertainment System, THE new "must-have" item for just about every kid in the mid-to-late 1980s.

 It was so popular in fact, that this game alone spawned countless toys, lunch boxes, bath towels, underwear, t-shirts, backpacks, you name it. It even inspired another late-80s treat (which will receive it's own entry later on), the cartoon "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show", which mixed segments of live action (starring famed wrestler/manager "Captain" Lou Albano, and actor Danny Wells as brother plumbers Mario and Luigi), and cartoon adventures featuring the brothers (still voiced by Albano and Wells) along with (the usually kidnapped) Princess Toadstool and her loyal retainer Toad. Hell, there was even Super Mario Bros/Legend of Zelda breakfast cereal. You KNOW you're an 80s icon when you've got your very own cereal.




DO THE MARIO!!!


Now one thing the NES introduced, was the now industry-wide practice of game publishers having to be "officially licensed" by Nintendo themselves, to be able to (legally) put games out for the console. While some companies got around this (or just flat-out ignored it), most complied, and it was due to this, in part, that "the Nintendo" (as it was also called) succeeded where earlier consoles had failed. Remember, that the biggest contributing factor to the American game market's 1983 crash, had been zero regulation in who could put out games for it, flooding the market with a lot of crap and eventually turning gamers off to the whole deal. Now that isn't to say that the NES didn't have shitty games. Let me tell you right now, it most certainly did. I know, because I've played quite a lot of them in my day, even paying money to RENT some real crappers back in my childhood. Granted, back then I didn't care as much if a game had low production quality, so long as I could play it and get somewhere in it. But there were some that tested even my childhood limits, the one sticking out the most in my mind, was the now (thankfully) obscure "Defenders of Dynatron City". No matter how hard I tried to play through that "game", it was ultimately a heap of steaming garbage (much like the single pilot episode cartoon of the same name), and I quit playing it in disgust. But while every video game console in the history of the industry (typically the market leaders of any given console "generation"), have their fair share of absolute crap games released for them, the NES also had, as another industry first, an abnormally long list of truly excellent games released for it as well. And not merely games made by Nintendo themselves, though many of those (Mario, Zelda, Metroid, etc.), were the top sellers, but there were also quite a lot of hits by "third party" (game makers who don't own their own console platform) companies as well.




NES Hall of Fame



In many ways, the NES library was a "Who's Who" of video game history. It had a lot of ports of popular arcade games of the 80s, such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Elevator Action, Rampage, Bad Dudes, Galaxian, Xevious, 1942, R-Type, Gauntlet, Paperboy, Ring King, Ikari Warriors, Ghosts n Goblins, Burger Time, Joe & Mac, Arkanoid, Double Dragon, Gradius, Bubble Bobble, and some of Nintendo's own, such as Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros. It even had an early 90s release late in it's lifespan, of the popular arcade game Final Fight, in this case re-imagined for the NES as "Mighty Final Fight". But more than just arcade hits, the NES was home to, perhaps more than any other console in video game history, the birth of a great number of game franchises, some of which that carry on even to this day. Just some of these include:

  • Super Mario Bros.
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Metroid
  • Castlevania
  • Mega Man
  • Final Fantasy
  • Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in the states back then)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Contra (port of a lesser known arcade game)
  • Punch Out (same story)
  • Bionic Commando
  • Adventure Island
  • Battletoads
  • The Adventures of Lolo
  • Kid Icarus
  • Excitebike
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • Blaster Master
  • Star Tropics
  • Batman (not the FIRST, but the first GOOD Batman games)
  • Bomberman (originally a Japanese PC game, became famous on Famicom/NES)
  • Fire Emblem (Japan only, same with Earthbound/Mother 1)
  • R.C. Pro Am
  • Wizards & Warriors
  • Tetris (not the first, but Nintendo made it the most famous)
There were also many other great games that weren't necessarily part of long running franchises, such as the Duck Tales and Chip n Dale games, Tiny Toon Adventures, Bonk's Adventure, as well as famous games that weren't the first in a series, such as Kirby's Adventure or Gargoyle's Quest II. And of course, more obscure titles, such as Totally Rad, Monster Party, Kid Niki, Kickmaster, Little Samson, Power Blade, V.I.C.E. Project Doom, Super Spy Hunter, River City Ransom, Shadow of the Ninja, and many others. All told, the NES has a library that spans nearly 800 games. Not all classics, but many some of the most recognizable classics of all time.





Legends of Gaming


My own personal memories of the NES are some of the fondest of my childhood. Growing up in a poor family, raised by my grandmother, it pretty much goes without saying that I did not get an NES when it first came out. In fact, around the same time the NES was first releasing, my first video game console I ever got at about age four, was a hand-me-down Atari 2600 from one of my cousins. I certainly loved that thing, though we only had about three games for it that I remember: Combat, Astroblast, and Space Invaders. Other than that, my earliest video game memories consist of Pac-Man and Dig-Dug at the local Roundtable arcade, and the craptacular Radio Shack Tandy 1000 (which consisted of basically educational software that, no shit, played from a cassette tape deck). It's safe to say I have always loved video games, for as far back as I can remember into that early toddler-hood. But it's also safe to say that I didn't fall in love with video games until I first experienced the NES at a friend's house. I didn't get my own until the late 80s, and in that respect, as a gamer growing up, I was pretty much behind the curve in getting all of my gaming consoles. But let me tell you something, when I did get that beautiful dull gray box, it was the absolute pride of my life at the time.

I clearly remember, I was supposed to get my NES for my 9th birthday, but my grandmother decided to give it to me a couple months early, as a ploy to con me into getting my homework done faster. Let's just say, mission accomplished, because I wanted to fire that fucker up and be transported to a world of 8-bit glory. When I first got it, naturally, the only game I had for it was my pack-in Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge. Mind you, that's all I needed, as I loved me some SMB to perhaps a slightly ridiculous level. In fact I'm proud to report that while being late to the NES-owning race, I was the first one of my friends to actually MASTER Super Mario Bros., and got the distinct pleasure of showing THEM the tricks I had learned. It wasn't long before I gradually started accumulating other games for my collection, such as the light-gun shooter To the Earth, Zelda-esque classic Arkista's Ring, and others. And, naturally, I became very well acquainted with the NES section at the local video store.




My first True Love? Nah...okay maybe.



Some of my fondest childhood memories involved my NES, and some of the fondest of THOSE involved a couple of holiday incidents. One of which, was, as I recall, the Christmas directly following that first year I got my NES. My grandmother had started a tradition with me growing up, where instead of waiting until Christmas morning to get up and open our presents, we would instead wake up around midnight, open our gifts, play with them a bit, and then go back to sleep happy. And in that tradition, on this particular Christmas "morning" (I have always maintained that it isn't morning until the sun rises the next day), I had one hell of a package awaiting me. It was a big, generic, brown box, plainly marked, nothing special about it at all on the outside. But I just knew that such a box simply HAD to hold something special inside, right? Right. So I took to tearing that bitch open as fast as I could, and wouldn't you know it, BLAM, not one but three new games awaited me: Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout (a game I had already rented and liked), Dr. Mario (a game that was "my" gift, but my grandmother suspiciously wound up playing it far more than I did), and the third one, the one that wound up being the very "Holy Grail" of my childhood gaming existence, Super Mario Bros. 3. Now sure, I got my NES way after a lot of other kids did, but as fate would have it, I got SMB3 right after it had first released. And my God, what a glorious experience. I will most certainly give that game it's own personal blog someday, but let me for now just tell you that while I loved just about all the games I owned back then, THAT game was the ever-living shit to me. And it remains, to this day, my number one favorite game of all time. That's how good it was, hell, that's how good it still is.



Nobody has ever heard of these things, but they were exceptionally awesome, take my word for it.


On a side note, that brown package also contained two (out of nowhere) Hudson Soft brand "Joycard Sansui SSS" controllers. I'm not even sure why she got me these, but I was glad she did. They were rounded, so they were more comfortable to hold, they had rapid-fire switches for the A and B buttons, and in some ways the coolest feature, they had a headphone jack and a volume control switch built in, so that you could enjoy those sweet 8-bit tunes without annoying your parents. Not a truly important thing to note, but it was a badass bonus in an already "God Damn!" worthy Christmas package, and I'd have to say of all the cool childhood Christmas memories I have, that will always remain my favorite. The feeling of opening that box and finding all that awesome shit is just.....yeah. Good times.

So on my NES gaming went, and I should point out that, because of the aforementioned general family poorness, I actually didn't wind up getting my own Super Nintendo (the next Nintendo console to come along) until Christmas of 1995, several months after my grandmother had passed away. I did get a Game Boy, I do believe, for Christmas 1993, I want to say. And that was, believe me, also especially awesome. But sufficed to say, I got a lot more play out of my NES system than perhaps most kids did, as I stuck with that bad boy until they finally stopped making games for it, all the way at the tail end of 1994. And looking back on that now, it's honestly a good thing that Nintendo and other third parties at least somewhat kept supporting the system long after it's more powerful little brother, the SNES, came out in 1991. Because that allowed a kid like me to still have new games to look forward to in those early 90s years, such as Kirby's Adventure (another "love at first site" kind of game), Yoshi, Mighty Final Fight, the later games in the Mega Man series, Monster in my Pocket, Battletoads and it's sequel Battletoads & Double Dragon, and Star Tropics 2: Zoda's Revenge. On the one hand I was, naturally, envious of my friends who had a 16-bit SNES, but on the other hand, I still loved the shit out of my old clunky NES, and got the most mileage I could out of it.



The NES Model 101....kind of like the Terminator, but better.


In October of 1993, a full ten years after the original Famicom had first come out in Japan, Nintendo, trying to spur sales to the (at the time) still fairly popular and selling NES, released what would become dubbed the "NES 2.0", a newer, smaller, sleeker model of the system. It featured a top-loading game slot, similar to the Famicom and the new Super Nintendo, which was more conducive to your games playing better. Anyone who ever owned an original model NES like I did, knows all about the aging of the system, and how later on in it's life, cartridges would get dusty, as would the game slot itself, and you'd have to try various semi-retarded methods to get the game to work properly, the most infamous of which being blowing on it (which, as it turns out, is NOT good for your games, the prescribed method being to use a q-tip...duh). The new model also featured the "dogbone" controller design, which was very similar in style to the SNES controller, and I honestly thought was quite awesome. All of this, for a whopping $49.99 USD, which even for an "outdated" system, was a steal for such a cool remodel of such a great system. And to accompany this, Nintendo also had a brief "Save the NES" promotion in late 1993-mid 1994, which featured the releases of games like Star Tropics 2, as well as the Nintendo-published Mega Man 6 (a game it's developer, Capcom, apparently didn't feel like bringing to the states, so Nintendo did just so American gamers would have a new NES game to play).



I guess Wario got the last laugh after all.....


The last official NES release in North America, was Wario's Woods, a puzzle game starring Mario's new Game Boy nemesis, which came out on December 10th, 1994. Nintendo officially discontinued the NES in 1995. By all standards, a pretty damn good run, ten years in the states, which is far longer than most gaming consoles last. The Nintendo Entertainment System provided a lot of gamers with their first great gaming memories (like yours truly), and even today, younger generations are able to experience some of the true classics through things like Nintendo's "Virtual Console" service, which allows you to download these games to play on your Wii, as well as other venues (*cough*emulation*cough*). And that's a great thing, because if you ask me, any gamer, regardless of their age, if they truly love and appreciate the medium, need to know and respect where it all comes from. Playing the classics is as essential, in my mind, to a gamer, as would be having classic Beetles or Black Sabbath or Queen be required listening for modern rock music fans.

Mind you, I'm well aware of the fact that everyone has the strongest nostalgic feelings for, typically, whatever their "first" of anything was, especially game consoles. Which is why there are kids today that, as much as it trips me out on a personal level, are nostalgic about the Playstation or Playstation 2, or even the Xbox. But regardless of nostalgia, I firmly believe that the NES and the best among it's library of games, stand proud even today, as some of the very best games ever made, and quite frankly, to me anyway, the single greatest gaming console ever made. There are plenty of arguments to the contrary, and that's fair. But no matter what you feel is "the best", if you haven't yet, you owe it to yourself to get your hands on some classic NES goodness and experience what the "8-bit Revolution" was all about. The NES certainly wasn't the even the most technically powerful of it's generation (many argue that was Sega's "Master System"). But there's a reason it is without question the most well remembered: The Games.


So on this, the Nintendo Entertainment System's 27th birthday, I just want to say: NES, I salute you!


And with that, I'll just leave you with one last little gem to celebrate the occasion......




                                         The first ever NES commercial in the United States. HELLA 80s.

4 comments:

  1. I love me some NES. It's not my favorite console, that title would go to the Super Nintendo, but it's a close second. Atari 2600 was my first system, which I played the hell out of. I still remember the first time I ever seen one was at my Aunts house, she had Mike Tysons Punch Out!! and Super Mario Bros. I played Punch Out!! which I thought was pretty awesome, but then I tried Super Mario Bros and was completely blown away. I had to have one, and have been pretty obsessed with Mario ever since. I think I ended up getting one of my own around 87. My first games were of course Mario/Duck Hunt, Punch-Out!!, and Excitebike. Then later that year I got Tag Team Wrestling, and Rush n Attack for my birthday. Probably my most memorable birthday ever was when I got Super Mario Bros. 3, also still my favorite game ever made. I remember the days of going in the video store and picking a game to rent based solely by the picture on the front or the movie or comic they were based on. Which didn't always work out well, I probably played every LJN game in existence since they had all the cool licenses, but they generally made terrible games. But there were certainly tons of great games for the system that are still a lot of fun today. It was just pretty much a crap shoot since there was no internet to find out anything about the games, Nintendo Power was probably the best way to find out about new games, but I didn't have a subscription.
    Sadly I ended up selling my original NES with a milk crate full of games so I could buy a SNES a couple years after that came out. I immediately regretted that decision and bought the "NES 2" and started trying to get my game collection built back up. I've become pretty obsessed with getting them now, I go to yard sales almost every weekend looking for them. This summer I bought a box full of 30 games for $1, which included Mighty Final Fight by the way.
    I have kids of my own now, but they both have NES, SNES, and N64 consoles of their own (thanks to yard sales I have found them for 5 or less dollars each). My youngest is too young to play anything yet, but I have a 13 year old who also loves the old games.

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    1. Awesome stuff man. Looks like we have much in common in that area. Yeah, I have a little Nintendo system collection of my own, NES, SNES, N64, never did own a GC, but I have the Wii for that. And that's even cooler that your kid is into the classics. If I ever have kids, I'm gonna "raise 'em right", on a steady diet of love and appreciation for every kind of "retro" thing you could imagine, especially movies, music and games.

      I actually do have a "NES 2" myself, a gift from a friend years ago, though I also have the old model. And I hear what you're saying about getting rid of stuff and regretting it. I used to have, I'm going to say, at LEAST over 30 games from my childhood for NES, maybe closer to 40, and at one point in my teens I went through a "phase" and let them go. But I and a friend of mine thankfully also went through another "phase" in my early 20s where we were getting as many used games as we could get our hands on, so I've gotten many of what I owned back and more.

      Cheers, and thanks for writing!

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  2. Quite the lengthy in-depth write-up there my man! Keep up the good work and don't stop whatever you do! Really enjoyed the piece.

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    1. Thanks a lot man! Not nearly as ambitious in goal as the NESquest, which I must say is a truly epic and probably overwhelming undertaking. But I think I have plenty of content in this ol' head of mine to keep things going. Keep on rockin' in the free world!

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