At the same time that the North American video game industry is in the process of imploding in 1983, the seed for its resurrection is planted across the sea in Japan by Nintendo, a company located in Kyoto and best known in America for having made the smash arcade hit Donkey Kong in 1981. For the story of how this resusitive game device comes into being, we’ve got to back up a bit.
Entering the Game
In the early 70’s, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi starts getting wind of new video game technology surfacing in the United States. Released in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was the first home video game system, and in 1974 Nintendo licences it for sale in Japan. The company also starts work on their own system, although their lack of the technical know-how to produce the inner circuitry requires a partnership with Mitsubishi. The first product of this union is Color TV-Game 6, released in 1977. The unassuming, orange box offers three different built-in versions of Atari’s PONG, here called Light-Tennis, with each having an available doubles mode that brings the total number of games to 6. This is followed the same year with Color TV-Game 15, with over double the game variations available. They are both hits for Nintendo, selling around a million units between the two of them. A racing game, complete with steering wheel, gear shift and two paddles for two-player mode, follows in 1978 called Color TV-Game Racing 112. It is on this game that junior employee Shigeru Miyamoto cuts his teeth, having been hired by Nintendo in 1977 as an industrial design graduate. His first project at Nintendo is designing the outer casing for this driving game. The final entry in the Color TV-Game series is Block Kusure (Breaker), heavily inspired by Atari’s arcade game Breakout. Released in 1979, it is Nintendo’s first all in-house design, with an outer case also designed by Miyamoto. While the first units sell well, sales figures steadily drop off by the time of the release of Block Kusure, prompting Yamauchi to direct his hardware developers to move things to the next level.
Something To Watch
In 1980, Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 division starts the Game & Watch line of handheld game devices, featuring LCD screens. Yokoi had come up with the idea of a small, portable hand-held game one day while watching a bored businessman fiddle with his pocket electronic calculator while travelling home on the Shinkansen, or high-speed bullet train. Utilizing a calculator chip from Sharp, the first Game & Watch title is Ball, released in April of 1980. 72 segment displays are used to switch black and white game elements on and off; in the case of Ball, a silhouetted figure is controlled by the player using buttons to move his arms left and right in an attempt to keep juggling balls in the air. Later games would feature a character known as Mr. Game & Watch in various situations. The series of handhelds is an astounding success for Nintendo, moving through various technical upgrades such as the Gold Series (settable alarm), Wide Screen Series (bigger screen) and the Multi-Screen Series, featuring a closing clam-shell design that contains two screens. One multi-screen entry is an adaptation of arcade game Donkey Kong, released in June of 1982. The Donkey Kong G&W is most notable as the first Nintendo game device to feature the directional pad or D-Pad, an innovation by Yokoi that would go on to be featured in nearly every other gaming system subsequently released. Gunpei’s four-directional innovation is eventually awarded an Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2007, for Peripheral Development and Technological Impact of Video Game Controllers.
59 Game & Watch titles are released, selling 12.87 million units in Japan and 30.53 million overseas, for a total of 43.4 million world-wide. The series’ last original game release is Mario the Juggler in 1991, making a nice, complete circuit that any electrical engineer could appreciate.
The Next Level
While the Game & Watch units are flying off store shelves, Yamauchi wants to build on Yokoi’s success before sales start tapering off, and so in November of 1981 makes a phone call to Masayuki Uemura, head of Nintendo’s R&D2 group. Uemura is tasked by Yamauchi to develop a new game console, one that would follow the lead of current home video game systems by using cartridges, as opposed to the games being hardwired into the device like the Color TV-Game series. Uemura is further instructed that the system has to be sold cheap enough to undercut the competition, around ¥9,800 or $75 US. And it has be ready for release by mid-1982. And it has to be sufficiently advanced to stave off the competition for a few years. Oh, and one more thing… he can’t tap his former company Sharp for assistance in making the console, as Yamauchi is worried the project might distract them from working on the lucrative Game & Watch line. When he begins casting about for ideas for this new system, Uemura ponders the ColecoVision.
Coleco and Nintendo have a lot in common. Both started off as specialty niche companies with a long history; Coleco as a producer of leather goods in 1932, Nintendo as a producer of playing cards in 1889. Both grew their fortunes in the early days by licensing Disney IP. Both eventually began making toys in the 60’s, and into the 70’s they both made toy gunfighter games; Nintendo with its Kousenjuu or Ray Gun SP products, as well as the arcade game Wild Gunman, and Coleco on a smaller scale with its electronic desktop shooter Draw!. They both also eventually entered the home video game market with PONG clones in the late 70’s. And both saw the potential of Miyamoto’s arcade game Donkey Kong, with Nintendo hinging its future in America on the game, and Coleco using it to sell its new wave home video game system, the ColecoVision. A prototype of this powerhouse new console is brought to Kyoto in 1982 for a demonstration, facilitated by Coleco’s home console rights for Donkey Kong and the adaptation of Nintendo’s popular arcade game to their home game machine. Examining it, the R&D2 team is amazed at the fluidity of the graphics on display. With Uemura inspired by the runaway success of the Atari 2600 and amazed by the advanced graphics of the ColecoVision, he and R&D2 now know how much higher they have to aim for their own system.
A few months after Yamauchi’s instructions, Uemura takes a chance phone call from Kyoto-based microchip manufacturer Ricoh. They too are in a bit of bind; they have a new, state-of-the-art semiconductor plant that is stagnating at only 10% of capacity. They’re hoping Nintendo might have some projects on the burner that could make use of their facility. While touring the plant, Uemura meets an old colleague. Hiromitsu Yagi had led the team on the Mitsubishi side of development for the Colour TV-Game circuitry. He had subsequently left Mitsubishi for Ricoh, and is now a supervisor at the microchip maker when he runs into Uemura. He enthusiastically sells Uemura on using chips supplied by Ricoh for the new Nintendo game console. The problem is that Uemura hasn’t yet written up any particular specifications for the new system’s CPU, so in leu of that, the initial yardstick is declared to be that it must be capable of running the arcade version of Donkey Kong. To facilitate that, Yagi and Ricoh recommend the 6502 processor, a MOS Technology chip ubiquitous in the United States but virtually unheard of in Japan. Atari’s 2600 uses a stripped-down version of the 6502, called the 6507, and the 6502 is also the brains of the Atari 400 and 800 home computers, as well as the Apple II. Using the 6502 in the new Nintendo project has some compelling benefits to Uemura. It is 1/4 of the size of the Zilog Z80 processor used in the Donkey Kong cabinets, which would save valuable space on the motherboard and make manufacturing cheaper. Perhaps most appealing is the fact that since nobody knows much about the chip in Japan, it would help fill Yamauchi’s requirement that the system stay ahead of the competition technologically for three years. This is a double-edged sword, however; there is a fair amount of documentation on the Z80 processor sitting around Nintendo, but going with the 6502 would mean having to build up development tools from scratch. Another worry is the price of the CPU, threatening to substantially raise the price tag of the console. Yamauchi instructs Uemura to make an unheard-of purchase order with Ricoh, to the tune of 3 million microchips, in a bid to reduce their cost-per-unit through volume pricing. Many feel that this is a huge mistake by the Nintendo president, as no one believes Nintendo will ever use that many. Ricoh agrees to the deal, a decision that will ultimately result in Nintendo becoming Ricoh’s largest customer for semiconductor chips by 1986, accounting for between 60-70 percent of production.
With the chip supplier and end goal established, development of the console project, referred to as GAMECOM, goes forward. The 6502 is accompanied by a Picture Processing Unit (PPU), which does the graphical heavy lifting and allows the CPU to get on with the business of running the rest of the show. There is 2K of internal RAM that can be accessed, along with 2K of video RAM or VRAM for the PPU. There is 32K of program ROM, although later MMC or Memory Management Controller chipsets are added to cartridges to allow for more memory in games. The system has a pallet of 52 available colours, 24 of which can be displayed on the screen at the same time. The machine’s memory can handle 64 sprites, or individually created graphical elements, which can be pieced together by programmers to create larger characters. It has a screen resolution of 256×240 pixels, outputted through RF video output. The version of the console later sold in North America will add composite video output through RCA connectors. To round off the specs, the innards of the system feature a 5-channel PSG sound chip, invented by composer Yukio Kaneoka. As for the outside of the system, the casing gives it a friendly, toy-like look. It has a white surface interspersed with burgundy highlights that carry over to the controllers, which also sport gold plating. The deep red colour used on the console and all branding associated with it is inspired by the company president: it is Hiroshi Yamauchi’s favourite colour.
While the 2600 and ColecoVision may have been inspirations for the new system, for the controllers the developers seem to have taken a lead from Mattel’s Intellivision by eschewing the joysticks of previous video game consoles. Instead of the round disc of the Intellivision, however, the player will use the plus-shaped button from the Game & Watch games for game input. The recommendation to use the D-pad comes from a member of the new game unit’s development team named Takao Sawano, an employee of Nintendo since 1972. He will later be instrumental in development for an online network created for the game system, and further still during design of the Wii Balance Board for that game console. The overall design of the project GAMECOM controller makes it a comfortable size and shape for holding, and along with the D-Pad features two square action buttons, labelled B and A. Game controller I also has Start and Select buttons for navigating menus; these are absent from controller II, which replaces them with a built-in mic and a volume slider switch. The voice mic is an interesting idea for user input, although it ends up being utilized in only a handful of games. The controllers are also hardwired into the system, preventing them from being easily replaced.
A Computer In the Home. No, Really This Time
Despite Yamauchi’s desire to keep the unit’s cost as cheap as possible, a data connection to the CPU is snuck into the design, a connection port in the front of the console that appears to be another nod to the ColecoVIsion and its forward facing expansion port. This connection paves the way for the production of computer peripherals for Nintendo’s machine. The idea of a game console that can be easily expanded into a home computer is still a viable selling point during development, even though this attitude helps spell the end of the home video game market in the U.S.. The Japanese market is much more receptive to computer peripherals attached to its game consoles, and Nintendo’s move makes sense considering the encroachment of cheap personal computers currently underway in Japan. From these considerations comes Uemura’s official name for the device: the Family Computer. Inevitably abbreviated as Famicom around the lab, Uemura’s wife suggests that they officially label the machine with the shorter name, but boss Yamauchi doesn’t like it; he believes that the full name of Family Computer will leave no doubt as to where Nintendo intends to take the system.
Yamauchi is once again proven correct, as myriad computer peripherals are eventually produced for the console, such as the Famicom BASIC set, released in Japan in 1984. It is a collaboration between Nintendo, Sharp and software house Hudson, producing a version of the BASIC computer language called NS-HUBASIC or Nintendo/Sharp-Hudson BASIC. The set comes with a keyboard in matching Famicom colours that plugs into the expansion port in the front of the machine, along with a cartridge containing the language instruction set. Sold in conjunction with the BASIC set is the Data Recorder, a tape recorder that plugs into the Famicom and can use cassette tapes to save information. This device also allows for game saving in some products, as well as saving user-created levels in games like Excitebike and Wrecking Crew. Other peripherals include the Famicom 3D System, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and released in 1987.
A New Medium
Most popular of the add-ons for the Famicom is the Family Computer Disk System, a hulking box released in early 1986 that connects to the console via a RAM adapter that plugs into the cartridge port and contains 32K of RAM. Powered by either the supplied AC adapter or 6 C-cell batteries, the system uses proprietary 2.8″ floppy disks called Disk Cards with 112K of storage each. The plan is to use the disks to release larger games that cost less than cartridge-based ones to produce. The Disk Cards are writable as well as readable, and so offer the option to players to save games in some instances. Users can also take their Disk Cards to kiosks called Disk Writers, located at various electronic shops, toy stores and convenience stores. There they can select from nine games to load onto the card for a small fee. The Disk Writer system proves long-lived, lasting until 1993 when it is finally dismantled by Nintendo. The longevity of the system can most likely be ascribed to the cost factor: a new Famicom game cartridge would set back gamers around ¥5000, while buying a blank Disk Card and writing a new game onto it only costs ¥2500. To just write a new game over a previous one is even cheaper, at only ¥500. Nearly 5 million Famicom Disk Systems are sold, although the device does not make it out of Japan.
Embracing the Famicom
The Famicom debuts in Japanese stores on July 15, 1983. This release is a year later than what Yamauchi had wanted, and the unit retails for slightly more his original target price: it costs ¥14,000 or about $100 U.S.. It enters a market already populated by competing programmable video game systems, such as Atari’s 2600 and a version of Mattel’s Intellivision licensed by Bandai, as well as Epoch’s Cassette Vision and Sega’s SG-1000, which is released on the same day as the Famicom and would later meet with more success after evolving into the Sega Master System. Only three games, inside squat, colourful cartridge casings, are ready to launch with Nintendo’s new system. Reaching their original goal for the Famicom, the system is, in fact, able to run Donkey Kong. With the original arcade game using 48K of memory, however, the game must be scaled back slightly to fit into the lesser memory confines of the home console. Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye are the other two titles available. Even with this weak launch library, sales are brisk, with 500,000 units moving in the first few months of release. Then disaster strikes. Nintendo’s Service Center is soon overflowing with Famicom units coming back as defective. Customers complain of games freezing under certain conditions, as well as units that stubbornly refuse to produce an image through the RF antenna output. Controller defects also plague the system, with users reporting that the square B and A buttons tend to stick down, much to the chagrin of the designers who insist the devices have been subjected to one-million-punch QA tests. In addition, the wires in the back of the controllers are prone to come off. Brass at Nintendo are rattled by the returns, and Gunpei Yokoi suggests that they deal with defective units as people complain. In the end, it is Yamauchi’s call, and he makes a bold one: recall all Famicoms from store shelves for repair.
An insufficient thermal design on the motherboard is rectified, the square buttons on the controllers are replaced by smoother-acting round ones, and the cables coming out of the back of the controllers are reinforced. The video-out problem seems to be user error in connecting the system to the TV, but the process is refined to make it simpler to do. Nintendo’s quick and decisive move to fix the consoles all at once may have cost the company valuable lead time, but it isn’t a detriment to sales. 2.5 million Famicoms are sold within a year, along with 15 million cartridges.
The Game’s the Thing
Demand for new games for the system is so intense that developers are required to crank out a new product every three months like an assembly line. Yamauchi hand-picks the games for release, and soon develops a reputation for having an uncanny ability to pick winners. He also lets the R&D departments determine the types of games to pursue, and keeps the marketing department out of the mix. To help keep up with game demand Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto is placed as the head of a new R&D4 group to develop games for the Famicom. He eventually releases what might be the most important video game ever created for the system in late 1985, a loose sequel of 1983 arcade game Mario Bros. called Super Mario Bros. An astounding 6,810,000 copies of the game are eventually sold in Japan, becoming the must-have video game and selling countless Famicoms to people who want to play it.
Deal With the Devil
Even with game development at full tilt, Nintendo still finds that they simply cannot keep pace with game demand, and so creates a licensee system granting permission for outside companies to produce games for the Famicom. While the license to make games for the system pretty much equates to a license to print money, the licensee terms are brutal. Nintendo demands a 20 percent royalty on game sales, and since they make the cartridges themselves they tack on a manufacturing fee of $14 per cartridge, which Nintendo farms out at a cost of $7. A licensee is required to make a minimum order of 10,000 games, paid in advance. They can only release five games a year on the system, and are prevented from releasing those games on competitors’ game machines for two years after first sale. Even under these draconian terms, which Nintendo insists is to prevent a glut of inferior games that helped fell the market in the U.S. in 1984, 17 companies are eventually licensed to produce games for the Famicom.
One In Every Two Households
Eventually selling 15.2 million units, along with 183 million cartridges, the Famicom has such an astounding adoption rate with the public that by 1989 there is one Famicom console in every two households in Japan. If you include sales of the later NES world-wide, that’s 60 million consoles sold and hundreds of millions more games. In 1993, an updated version of the console is released, featuring an updated case design and composite video output. It is called the AV Famicom, named before the initials AV start to stand for “Adult Video” in Japan. Its redesign also calls for the microphone and volume slider to be dropped from the second controller. The Famicom would loom over the video game landscape in Japan until officially discontinued by Nintendo in 2003, 20 years after its inception.
He might never actually play them, but Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi knows even just two years after the Famicom’s release that his company has solidified its future with video games. His console commands complete domination of the market in Japan. Not one to flinch from the idea of expansion, Yamauchi quickly turns his eyes towards America.
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