The Famicom, a home video game system by Nintendo 1983

The Friendly Famicom

Famicom - All In the Family

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Nintendo 1983

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

Click button to play the NES version of Donkey Kong

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.

Click the button to play Shigeru Miyamoto’s classic system-seller 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.

JUMP: The birth of Super Mario Bros.

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. logo_stop

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