A system that has maintained production for 20 years, and can boast of many hardware innovations from built in microphone, to Disc based add on and even internet modem. A system that was the birth place of some of today's biggest franchises in gaming, a system that pioneered many things in its lifetime. Its name? The Nintendo Family Computer. Although known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West, the Japanese counterpart was superior in every aspect. It is perhaps surprising then, that few people outside of Japan know of the full impact it has had on gaming history.
The Famicom only stopped production in late 2003, having lasted longer than even the NeoGeo, longer than any other system in fact. The assembly line was discontinued due to difficulty in obtaining the needed electronic components. To commemorate its passing, various groups set about creating dedication memorabilia.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography held a Famicom arts exhibition from December 4th to February 8th, showcasing every game released for the Japanese machine, along with various different peripherals and model versions. They also conducted an online poll to find the nation's favourite games for the system. Enterbrain, in association with Famitsu, commissioned a commemorative Famicom DVD, featuring interviews, a tournament circa 1986 (StarSoldier), and the results of a Famitsu poll showing Japan's 100 favourite voted games, which includes in-game footage. A translation of the top 100 is below.
These various productions have taken Famicom fans down memory lane, helping to bring childhood recollections flooding back, ensuring that the end of an era has been seen off with a bang.
The Famicom was released on July 15th 1983, with only a handful of initial games released, including Donkey Kong and Popeye. Designed with the ideology that "Form is superior to mass", Nintendo wanted to avoid Atari's mistake of releasing vast quantities of low quality games that eventually crashed the US games market. They believed that in order for the system to succeed, the software would have to be of the highest quality. It was an overnight success, with long queues forming, and shipments selling out as fast as they could be delivered. To maintain quality, Nintendo placed very strict licensing restrictions on prospective developers. High licensing costs, coupled with each company only being allowed to release a certain number of games per year, ensured that said company's products were of a relatively high quality in order to maintain profitability. There was no way around the restrictions, since Nintendo had in place a security chip that meant only pre-approved licensed games would work on its hardware. They would later use this technology along with the physical hardware shape, to ensure that systems from different regions weren't compatible. These were the early steps on a long road of software based regional protection. Suddenly, Japan was hooked; everyone from school children to Kaisha Salarymen were playing the Famicom, the lure of Shogi and Mario simply being too strong for some. Many now well known games designers started working on the system during this time, and went on to create classics loved the world over. For example Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, first cut his teeth on the Famicom hardware back in the 80's, creating the cult classic, Quinty, out of old circuit boards bought from Akihabara junk shops and combining them with parts from his Famicom system. A genuinely "handmade" game. Even after its successor, the Super Famicom, was released in 1990, its popularity remained. Throughout its history, the machine gained several hardware additions and modifications, before finally undergoing a remodelling in 1993 to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Many features were removed, such as security lockout, in order to lower the cost. Software development for the system was officially stopped in 1994, with the final game released in Japan being "J League Winning Goal" on 27/05/94.
Hardware production was maintained throughout though, even long after its Western counterparts sales had ground to a halt. Indeed, in the years leading up to the machine's 20th anniversary, output actually had to increase to feed the many children, who having reached adulthood, were buying the machines anew in order to relive their gaming memories.
One of the key things that make the Famicom such a landmark system, is that it introduced many hardware innovations that are now taken for granted. Even today, the cross shaped D-Pad with start/select buttons can be seen on modern controller layouts such as the GBA and PS2. It was Nintendo's GameAndWatch series that first utilised that patented D-Pad technology. It was also the first system to utilise voice technology, since built into the second hardwired control pad, was a small microphone. "Bungeling Bay" allowed the second player to control his fighters by shouting into it, while "Kid Icarus" was able to gain discounts if the player spoke directly to the games merchants. In Takeshi Kitano's "Choujin", the player was told to sing Karaoke style into the mike in order to progress further, though few succeeded, since the voice technology was not entirely reliable. Whilst many regard the Dreamcast as the first console to go online, it was in fact the Famicom that got there first. Several network adapters/modems were released that plugged into the system, allowing for a variety of connection set-ups, and allowed checking of emails and horse racing results. Sadly online gaming was never implemented. As the "Family Computer" name claims, it was possible to turn it into a form of semi computer, able to connect to PC's, phone-lines and even coming with its own unique programming software (Family BASIC) complete with keyboard. This allowed for many to start programming their own simple homebrew games, and get a taste for the hardware. Nintendo also took the unique step of releasing a disc based system add-on, that ran proprietary Nintendo made floppy discs. Had it been more successful, the gaming world would most likely be very different today. Created in order to lower the price of games, it was possible to buy a blank disc from Nintendo, then for a small fee write any of the supported games to it via small vending machines found in most stores. Many games were converted, with several exclusives such as Super Mario Bros 2 (Lost Levels), and the fact that the discs were rewrite-able meant that it made gaming more affordable. Sadly though, pirateers soon found ways of copying the discs, and the market was flooded with bootlegs. This resulted in companies slowly abandoning the FDS. Luckily, single combined cartridge and disc-systems were later released, since the original model was notorious for the drive belts breaking down.
Nintendo made good on their promises, with large amounts of extremely high quality software being released. Famous franchises such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Metroid all started life on this small system. Series' like Goemon and Metal Gear, though first released on the MSX, also made their console debut on the Famicom. Little known to many, even a Biohazard semi-prequel was made for it. Entitled "Sweet Home", it was an RPG by Capcom that featured several key gameplay elements that would go on to heavily influence the survival horror series that followed. Many would say survival horror started with "Alone in the Dark", but a small piece of credit should be given to the Famicom for the role it played in starting one of the genre's leading titles. With advances in chip and memory technology, Famicom and FDS games increased in size and quality, and went on to incorporate several gameplay innovations, such as those in Otocky. A musically influenced product combined with classic shooter gameplay, it was described as a cross between media art and videogames, with Rez being its closest modern day equivalent. As much as it is lamented in today's gaming world, the Famicom also, was not without a thick list of licences and franchise endorsements. KISS influenced rockers Seikima had a game featuring their antics (Seikima II: Akuma no Gyakushu), which surprisingly received good acclaim. Takeshi "Beat" Kitano had a game created to his specifications, and Congressman Masuzoe created a game about "intra-office politics" that "taught you the art of how to get ahead in life". (Interestingly, congressmen in the USA more often than not try to ban videogames). There was also a multitude of Anime licences released. Sadly, several major licences, were to remain unknown outside of Japan, such as Master Takahashi, who having been crowned winner of Hudson's StarSoldier "National Rally 16-Blast" championship, went on to star as the lead character in "Takahashimeijin no Boukenjima". In the Western localisation he changed to "Master Higgins" starring in "Adventure Island".
The popularity of Nintendo's first console is plain to see - you need not step further than the Internet to find a vast ocean of dedicated fan sites such as www.nesworld.com
. A quick look at the emulation scene is also very revealing, with more emulators for the Famicom/NES than perhaps any other console system. There is even an unfinished emulator programmed in QBASIC and another that displays the graphics entirely in ASCII.
Along with all things officially sanctioned by Nintendo, it is worth noting the extensive Famicom underworld that exists. Whilst being the most emulated system, it is also the most pirated system, with bootleg FamiClones found everywhere from South Africa and Brazil, to Turkey and the Russian black markets of Moscow. For all the effort Nintendo put into the security, the hardware was replicated and the cartridge protection cracked. Although not good for Nintendo, it was of some benefit to gamers since it allowed unlicensed homebrew games to reach the market. At the time cheaper than official games, some titles now sell for high prices on auction. Games like "Huang Di" needing particular attention, since some regard it as being of equal quality to many of Nintendo's official 3rd party licensed efforts. This scene also brought about the famous multi-carts, boasting of hundreds of games contained in a single plastic cartridge. Most of them being hacked and of a poor quality, with sections removed in order to fit everything in. Many of the bootleg games ended up missing the title screens and a lot of in game text, in order to cut down on memory space. Regardless, the proliferation of pirate Famicom hardware resulted in even some of the poorest nations' children being able to play games, and helped spread knowledge of it.
The continued popularity and legacy of the Famicom has shown developers that older style games are still profitable, with many companies releasing compilations of their past hits, such as Capcom's Megaman collection and Hudson's remakes of Adventure Island and StarSoldier.
Without the Famicom and the many developers who started out creating and painting their dreams with it, we would have no Mario or Zelda, no Sonic or Goemon and Kefka would be little more than a twinkling in Yo****aka Amano's eye.
Below is a translation of the Poll conducted by Famitsu and featured in the Enterbrain Commemoration DVD. It is interesting to note, that out of 1219 officially released games, that Japan as a nation chose to vote these as their favourites:
1) Dragon Quest 3
3) SMB 3
4) FinalFanatasy 3
5) Dragon Quest 4
6) Dragon Quest 2
7) Dragon Quest
8) Legend of Zelda
10) Mario Bros (not SMB)
11) Final Fanatasy
13) Kunio Kun no Jidaigeki dayo Zenin Shuugou (Kunio in Feudal Japan)
14) Downtown Nekketsu Koushinkyoku Soreyuke Dai Undoukai (Kunio sports)
15) Spartan X (Kung-Fu)
16) SMB2 (lost levels)
17) Nekketsu koukou Dodgeball Club (Kunio Dodgeball)
18) Final Fantasy 2
19) Fire Emblem Ankokuryu to Hikari no Ken
20) Sanma no Meitantei
22) Ice Climber
24) Akumajou Dracula (Castlevania)
27) Captain Tsubasa
28) Konami Wai Wai World
30) Takeshi no choujin (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano game)
31) Final Fantasy 1+2
32) Portpia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken
33) Nekketsu Kouha Kunio Kun (Renegade)
35) Ganbare Goemon
37) Donkey Kong
38) Hokkaidou Rensa Satsujin Oho-tsuku ni Kiyu
39) Pro Yakkyu Family Stadium (baseball game)
41) DR Mario
42) Metal gear
44) Fire Emblem Gaiden
45) SMB USA
46) Dai 2 Ji Super Robot Taisen
48) Rockman 2
49) Kunio Kun Soccer League
51) Captain Tsubasa 2 Super Striker
53) Kinnikuman Muscle tag match (M.U.S.C.L.E in the West)
54) Star Soldier
55) Dragon Ball Z
56) Tower of Druaga
57) Dragon ball Z 2 Gekishin Freeze!!
58) SD "Gundam" Gachapon
59) Dragon Ball Z Gaiden Sayajin Zetsumetsu Keikaku
60) Adventure Island
61) Ghosts 'n' Goblins
62) Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari
63) Hatori Kun
64) Metal Slader Glory
65) Lode Runner
67) Balloon fight
68) Famicom tantei club 2: Ushiru no shoujo kouhen
69) Valkyrie no Bouken Tokinokagi densetsu
70) Momotaro Densetsu
71) Akumajou Densetsu
72) Zelda 2: Adventures of Link
73) Momotarou Dentetsu
75) Meikyu Kumikyoku Milon no daibouken
76) Rockman 5
77) Rockman 3
78) Hanjuku Hero
79) Dragon Ball Z 3
80) Famista 89
81) Famicom tantei club 2: ushiro ni tatsu shoujo zenpen
82) Kaiju monogatari
83) Famicom Wars
84) Family Jockey
85) Rockman 6
87) Rockman 4
88) Ganbare Goemon 2
89) SD Gundam Gaiden: Night Gundam Monogatari
90) Legend of Kage
91) Sweet Home (pseudo-prequel to Biohazard)
92) Famicom Jump
93) Yoshi's egg
94) Dragon Ball 3
95) Famicom tantei club kieta koukeisha kouhen
96) Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
97) Famicom tantei club kieta koukeisha zenpen
98) Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu
99) Gundam Z Hot Scramble
100) Gradius 2
"Select 20" that didnt quite make it, in no order:
Outrun Chase HQ
Yie are kung-fu
Clu Clu Land
Nuts and milk
Route 16 Turbo
List translated and feature written by John .W . Szczepaniak