When you compare video games with every other major entertainment form, it’s overwhelmingly one of the youngest. The first several years of its existence were filled with a lot of uncertainty concerning where it could go. Technology wasn’t even close to the level we have it today and a lot of people looked at the simple sprites on their screens as a passing fad. This almost became true when the second generation ended with North American audiences becoming very disillusioned by the whole idea. The preceding years were filled with some bonafide classics for sure, but didn’t directly dictate where modern gaming would go. The industry as we know it truly didn’t solidify until October 18th, 1985, when a century old Japanese company dropped some hardware that changed everything.
The Nintendo Entertainment System is the most important console in gaming history. Every single bit of innovation that came after, like 3D environments and Internet capable home systems, wouldn’t have been possible without this VCR like box. It’s not because the NES first introduced these, of course. It’s because the NES made video games profitable again. People in North America especially were fully prepared to move on and Nintendo’s technology drove them right back. These past 30 years of hugely documented tournaments, massively attended conventions, hour sucking multiplayer and single player experiences, and so much technological evolution, happened because of this one device. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. Several of its ideas tripped right out of the gate. But it was exactly what the public needed.
A tidal wave of change came when the NES hit international waters. The biggest, and one still felt to this day, was a shift in power from North America to Japan. Companies like Atari, which was based in California, failed to keep the business afloat. Nintendo did this just fine with their Family Computer in 1983. The Famicom became so popular in Japan that plans to bring it overseas quickly materialized, and lead to it becoming the NES internationally two years later. The name itself was perfect. Global audiences weren’t incredibly familiar with Nintendo, but when something is marketed as the Nintendo Entertainment System, it’s undeniable what you’re buying and who produced it. From that moment, despite other companies like Sega being in the field, video games and Nintendo became synonymous. This affiliation quickly spread to Japan, marking it as an electronic media hub, and it was significantly embraced. Japan continuously dictated where the industry would go over the many succeeding years, right up to this current generation with Nintendo and Sony as top developers.
Legitimate third-party development was born with this console too. Nintendo is a gaming company through and through, producing their own iconic creations in-house. However, giving it only first-party titles was a terrible idea. This prompted Nintendo to act as a carrier for many aspiring companies. Unaffiliated parties would create the material, and Nintendo would receive a profit share for putting it on their system. It also gave birth to some of the best franchises ever seen. Along with Nintendo’s critically adored Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda, the public received: Konami’s Castlevania and Metal Gear, Square’s Final Fantasy, Enix’s Dragon Quest, and Capcom’s Mega Man. Each of these became icons within their respective genres. Third-party developers are now crucial to a system’s success, and the idea of producing a console without them is completely insane.
Brand trust is absolutely vital though and that was in extremely short supply after companies like Atari let third-parties push out games with little regulation. Consumers didn’t want to spend money on products they had no idea were even working properly. To avoid these problems, Nintendo limited how many games were created and required their official Seal of Approval. Limited creation meant more focus for a single game, and that seal assured the public that what they bought was a game they could enjoy. Eventually all bad blood was washed away as people began filling cabinets with titles that provided actual entertainment confidence. All major companies follow this method today, though it still hasn’t prevented some really terrible and broken games from hitting the market. It’s not flawless.
Increased popularity spurred Nintendo to get a little daring with what the NES could do which provided a clear indicator of how this company would grow. The NES itself was a very simple device, created in this manner to attract a wary public. Once they were sucked in though, Nintendo pushed out a ton of accessories for the system. The list is pretty extensive, but the few people readily remember are R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), the NES Zapper, the Power Pad, and the Power Glove. Each of these were tied to a game that couldn’t exist without them, for better or for worse. The most popular was definitely the Zapper as it made Duck Hunt a household name, but Super Smash Bros. fans are now very familiar with R.O.B. as he’s been a playable fighter for two games. The NES could be enjoyed just the same without these, though eventually Nintendo found success by making their outlandish ideas part of their design (two screens, motion sensors, etc.).
Born in 1989, I honestly do not remember when my family first purchased our NES. It was just there from the moment I became conscious of my surroundings. This system, along with Sega’s Game Gear, Genesis, and Nintendo’s Game Boy, lit a fire in me that still hasn’t gone out. I love video games and it’s been so exciting watching them evolve from this amazing little system. The NES itself was a source of constant fun. Super Mario Bros. 1-3 was played endlessly. I couldn’t help but put the Zapper to the screen for Duck Hunt. My Power Pad was always missing so World Class Track Meet was severely limited. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor, and Mega Man 6 showed me the true meaning of nearly impossible difficulty. As a kid I never beat these games, but I just could not stop playing. Eventually our NES was sold at a yard sale, and I still regret not saving it.
These past 30 years have been incredible for gaming. A crash like in 1983 has never happened again and we’re now part of a globally accepting marketplace. It honestly took Japanese developers many years after the NES to finally confirm that, yes, every other country can handle their creations. The system itself has long since discontinued, but people now herald it as an industry icon. It ultimately propelled Nintendo to dominance that, despite later wavering in the face of stiff competition, has never fully died out. They’re now the only console developer that dedicates its entire business to this field. Every fan should cross paths with the NES at some point, whether it’s through a game or seeing the actual console itself. It’s an important piece of history and gives you an appreciation for what we have now.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.