Remaking the Family Computer
Alone in the wilderness, Nintendo goes about redesigning the Famicom for North American release. Over several months in 1984, the brightly coloured, toyish Famicom casing gets a make-over by NoA employee Lance Barr while working in Japan with Nintendo Co., Ltd. engineers. It is Arakawa’s belief that the Advanced Video System must be distanced from the failed video game systems of the past. To achieve this, it is turned into a sleek grey box, more like a piece of stereo equipment you’d find at an electronics store than a video game. Nintendo also seems convinced that Coleco was somehow on the right track with the ADAM, and makes the AVS part of a modular computer system right out of the box, with a music synthesizer, computer keyboard, and cassette tape storage device all part of the package. The Famicom controllers also get a redesign, becoming elongated bricks that turn the D-pads of the original console into a metal square that reminds one of the Intellivision control discs. When not in use, these wireless controllers can slide into the front face of the game subsystem and disappear via two slots. Along for the ride are the Start and Select buttons of the Famicom, as well as the B and A action buttons. Rounding off the peripherals is a light gun called the Zapper, with a folding handle that turns it into a wand. For internal components, the AVS and later NES retain the chipsets of the Japanese Famicom.
What separates the AVS from computer/video game hybrids like the ADAM is the fact that all the various modules, or subsystems, are connected wirelessly through line-of-sight IR technology. There’s not a cord to be seen in the setup, aside from the power plug and connection to a TV. This includes the new wireless controllers, with Nintendo hedging their bets on their acceptance by including a large, wireless flight joystick as well. To further help consumers with clutter, the computer keyboard, and cassette tape storage fit neatly on top of the keyboard for easy storage. Accompanying the system are 25 cartridges translated from the Famicom library, including a “programmable” series of games like Excitebike that will allow users to create their own levels and save them via the cassette drive.
Crazy, or Just Stupid?
All this fancy new hardware gets its debut at the 1985 winter CES in Las Vegas, in a small booth manned by NoA president Minoru Arakawa himself. The general consensus among show goers is split pretty much 50/50 as to whether Nintendo is either crazy or just plain stupid for trying to peddle a new video game system. The AVS reminds too many buyers at the show of hopped-up video game consoles that had desperately tried to pivot into home computers as the bottom fell out of the market. The ColecoVision may have inspired lead designer Masayuki Uemura while planning the Famicom in 1983, but its ADAM computer conversion kit now haunts the AVS with dark comparisons of its keyboard and data storage unit. Atari, the word once synonymous with video game supremacy, is now invoked like a dirty word. Sitting in his little both taking this abuse, Arakawa must have been secretly thankful his company narrowly escaped being forever linked with such a failure.
And so it’s back to the drawing board for Nintendo, after the disastrous unveiling of the Advanced Video System. All of the computer peripherals are stripped out to both reduce the cost of the system, as well as to remove the bad taste from buyers’ mouths over video game/computer hybrids of the past. Only the game subsystem from the AVS is kept, also known as the Control Deck. The dimensions of the new case lovingly referred to as the “lunchbox” by the people at NoA, are enlarged to accommodate a new cartridge loading scheme. Instead of being inserted into a slot at the top of the Control Deck, bigger, flatter cartridges are slid into the front of the machine, into a 72-pin zero insertion force (ZIF) connector hidden by a plastic flap, and then pushed down to lock in place. This new loading system is intended to further disguise the game machine, fostering allusions of inserting a video tape into a VCR. It also creates technical troubles down the road, when this movement of the cartridges with every loading causes faults to develop in the ZIF connector. Cartridges are unable to handshake with the 10NES lockout chip installed in each NES (see below), and thus will not run. This leads to the popular meme of blowing on the NES cartridge connectors to get games to run. The controllers for the console revert back to a similar design of the Famicom’s, becoming wired but removable, with the trusty plastic d-pad making a triumphant return. In America, designer Lance Barr puts the finishing touches on the box, applying two-toned grey colouring and a black plastic band.
Robot in Disguise
Gunpei Yokoi and his R&D1 team at NCL come up with an item to even further distinguish the system, as well as capitalize on a current toy trend. 1985 is seeing the toy industry making an attempt at bringing cinematic robot buddies like R2-D2 and C3PO to life with robotic companions for kids. The talking, story-telling bear Teddy Ruxpin from Worlds of Wonder is probably the most popular example of this trend. Others of the era include Playskool’s Casey, a cassette player with a robotic body and LCD face, and the Omnibot by Tomy. We also have Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell’s own attempts at introducing robots into the household from two start-ups: Androbot’s Topo, as well as the Petster robotic pets and the Compurobot I from Axlon. Surfing this wave, Nintendo’s new wingman for its game machine is to be ROB, the acronym standing for Robotic Operating Buddy. It is a plastic robot on a platform that can raise, lower and twist itself, as well as open and close two hand grips in order to pick up objects. A camera in one of the robot’s eyes allows it to receive instructions via light patterns on a TV screen. A game called Gyromite accompanies ROB, with a series of gyroscopic weights that allow the robot to control the second gamepad and help play the game. Only one other game compatible with the device is ever released by Nintendo, titled Stack-Up.
Creating a long-lasting new game-playing device is not the point of ROB, of course. It is used as a trojan horse to get parents to accept another video game device into their homes, as well as distract retailers from their distrust of video games. When the entire remodeled system, now sporting the label Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), is re-introduced at the 1985 June CES in Chicago, ROB creates a more favourable attitude among retailers, but this newfound interest fails to convert into sales for Nintendo’s new game machine.