The Famicom, a home video game system by Nintendo 1983

The Friendly Famicom

Famicom - All In the Family

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Nintendo 1983

Chipping In

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.

The Famicom, a home video game system by Nintendo 1983

The Family Computer

 

The Guts

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.

 

D-Lightful

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.

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