Nintendo’s Beginnings Part 2: From Japan to Your Living Room

(Published on August 1st 2016, this is a continuation, covering Nintendo’s history)

Welcome back! When we left off last time, Nintendo had just decided to break into the arcade market, dominate it, and make a name for themselves in video gaming. Though it would soon be time for their next move, a move that would prove to be more successful than all their other ventures combined.

Enter the Nintendo Family Computer, or Famicom for short. It would be Nintendo’s first entry into the home video game market and was released in Japan in 1983. Nintendo’s goal was to create a system that would appeal to someone who wanted both a video game system and a home computer, with more emphasis put on the latter. They designed an 8-bit system (it was actually supposed to be 16-bit) that included both a keyboard and disk drive but at release time, customers received something else.

Nintendo ended up shipping units that included just the system and two controllers, with the console including a few differences that were not in the original design. It was given an expansion port on the front of the console, which was used mostly for third party controllers and the light gun. The system also featured a lever in the top-middle of the system to help eject games (Nintendo would later admit the lever was completely unnecessary and was just put on the system to entertain children). Additionally, the Famicom used a 60-pin connector for its games, unlike the infamous 72-pin connector we would receive in the United States. Finally, the average size of a Famicom game was around 350 KB. (No, that’s not a typo and yes, it’s okay to laugh.)

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Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom for short

The controllers that came with the Famicom were hardwired into the system, which was done to help save on manufacturing costs. Unlike most other game pads being made at the time, Nintendo elected to use a directional pad on their controllers instead of a joystick for fear that joysticks could be easily broken. The two controllers were also designed differently. One had “START” and “SELECT” buttons, while the other and a microphone and volume control. While talking into the mic, the player could hear their voice through the speakers on their television.

Now, as much as I would like to tell you how the system I just got done describing dominated Japan more than Godzilla ever could, it didn’t. At least not right away…

The Famicom took a while to get going out of the gate. Problems started when a bad chip set would cause the system to crash. Because of this, Nintendo had to issue a recall and replace all motherboards. The Famicom only launched with three titles as well. (For comparison, when the NES launched in the US it had 17.) The three games were: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. Although all three are great games, they were also all ports from the arcade. This hindered the launch of the Famicom since most gamers wanted something new to experience.

Even with the draw-backs listed above, by the time 1985 arrived, the Famicom was the bestselling system in Japan. By the end of its life cycle, it had sold 19.35 million units in Japan (61.91 million worldwide) and had a library of almost 1,000 games. Definitely no small feat.

With the success of the Famicom in Japan, Nintendo would soon turn its eyes on the world. In the US we would receive a redesigned version called the Nintendo Entertainment System, and I’m pretty sure most of you know how the story unfolds from there…