The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was the game system that revived the moribund North American video game market following the 1983 crash. Based on the Nintendo Famicom and released in North America, Europe, and Australia, it ushered in the modern age of console gaming, its influence strong to this day.
Nintendo's Big Plan
In the aftermath of the home video game crash in 1983, nobody in North America seemed to want anything more to do with video games. Having been burned by the atrociously bad Atari 2600 games flooding the market and the rise of the home computer, both retailers and parents, and to a lesser degree gamers, were reluctant to risk their hard-earned money on another console. Analysts claimed that video games were yet another fad in an infamously faddish time that came and went and now are gone. At the same time, in Japan, the Nintendo Famicom was sweeping away all comers and establishing a domestic control over the video game market that nobody since has managed to crack.
Nintendo knew that, despite what people were saying, North Americans still wanted to play video games. At the same time as the console industry was failing, 1983 was a banner year for arcade games, and the popularity of video games at their previous peak was too great to fade away so quickly. Thus, it formed a large untapped market that Nintendo was equipped, and thus eager, to enter.
At first, they tried to partner with Atari, who rebuffed them in favour of developing their own system, the Atari 7800, which was eventually shelved due to the failing market and later released during the NES's heyday to little success. They then tried to shop the Famicom directly to retailers, who as a group wanted nothing to do with video games and the toylike red and white Famicom.
Nintendo thus hatched a clever plan to crack the market open, and then lock it up for themselves. There were three groups they needed to win over to do this: the game retailers (mostly toy stores), the game buyers (mostly parents), and the game players (mostly children). Each group had a portion of the strategy directed towards them.
To win over the retailers, Nintendo redesigned the visual appearance of the system. The large, squared-off "Control Deck" in sober grey and black was intended to look like a component of a 'serious' entertainment system, similar to a VCR. The VCR analogy was continued by replacing the top-loading small cartridges of previous systems, including the Famicom, with the large 72-pin 'Game Paks' that are inserted into the front of the system and are completely enclosed while it is operating. The controllers were redone with a severe black and red colour scheme.
In addition, Nintendo introduced the R.O.B. (Robot Operating Buddy) accessory and made it front and centre in its pitches to the retailers. The R.O.B. was intended to convince retailers that the NES wasn't really a video game system but rather something else entirely. In the test markets which received the NES in the fall of 1985, Nintendo further assured retailers by offering to buy back any returned units at full price. They never needed to fulfill this promise.
The parents and other game buyers were the target of another famous Nintendo tactic: the Nintendo Seal of Quality, backed by the infamous NES lockout chip (described above in detail by BrooksMarlin). The seal was intended to imply that the game bearing the seal was certified by Nintendo as a good game, but the reality of the seal was more subtle. The failure of the Atari 2600 was brought about in part by faulty game cartridges and widespread crapflooding by whomever could hire developers and wanted a piece of the video game pie. Nintendo licensed third-party developers and manufactured their cartridges, ensuring both high hardware quality and their control of the market. Nintendo also rationed game companies' publication rights, curtailing crapflooding and leading to oddities such as the creation of ULTRA Games.
The Seal of Quality wasn't the only part of Nintendo's plan that fought against crapflooding. The other was targeted more at game players than game buyers and consisted mainly of producing a long string of quality first-party games. Throughout the NES era, a long string of classics emerged from Nintendo's own game development groups: Super Mario Brothers, Kid Icarus, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda, for example. To compete, third-parties had to produce good games also, and the strict limits on quantity allowed them to devote the resources necessary to make it happen.
Nintendo's cunning and ruthless plan succeeded, with the new design and the R.O.B. easing retailers' worries, the Seal of Quality convincing purchasers that what they were buying was worth the money, and the classic gameplay of Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt selling the system to a generation of gamers. Soon, they had a lock on the North American console market that nobody was able to crack until the release of the vastly superior Sega Genesis several years later. Elsewhere, the NES lost ground to the technically stronger Sega Master System, but remained a force even then.
The Hardware Inside the Big Grey Box
The NES was the most advanced system on the market when it was released, like most game consoles before and since. Its innovations came in the form of internal hardware, input hardware, and software. Originally the NES came in two bundles: the "Deluxe Set" ($249 US), containing the system, two controllers, the NES Zapper, the R.O.B., and two games (Duck Hunt, and Gyromite); and the "Action Set" ($199 US) that omitted the R.O.B. and replaced Gyromite with Super Mario Brothers. (Contrary to popular belief, the original package did not contain the well-known Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt double cartridge; that was introduced later as a cost-saving measure, nor did the Deluxe Set include Super Mario Brothers). Almost every component of this package was a step above what came before.
The NES console itself was built around the 2A03 (2A07 in PAL markets) processor, a variant of the common 6502 used in most 8-bit home computers including the Apple II. The 2A03 lacked the 6502's mostly superfluous decimal mode and added integrated sound hardware. The sound hardware was simple by modern standards but advanced by 1985 standards; it contained a simple synthesiser with two square wave generators, one triangle wave generator, a noise generator, and a single-channel DAC. The resulting sounds replaced the bland beeps and bloops of the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries with simple music and distinctive sound effects, which developers were able to leverage to considerable effect.
More advanced than the NES CPU was its graphics chip, the NES PPU, backed with 16 kB of VRAM. It contained a 52-colour palette of which three could be used for each tile or sprite. The sprites could be either 8x8 or 8x16, and most developers combined them to produce larger sprites, such as the 16x32 Super Mario. Backgrounds were made by combining 8x8 tiles in a 32x30 matrix, resulting in a total resolution of 256x240 pixels. Scrolling was supported using pairs of linked virtual screens, but the NES hardware only had enough video RAM for one of horizontal or vertical scrolling, and no native support for parallax scrolling. Nevertheless, the combination of these elements replaced the stark, sterile worlds necessitated by earlier video game hardware with (relatively) detailed, colourful worlds, with reasonable background detail.
The NES processor could address 64 kB of memory, of which half (32K) was dedicated to cartridge ROM. Naturally, as is obvious to anyone who's dabbled in NES emulation or development, the small size became a barrier for game developers, who developed 'mappers', which allowed blocks of memory to be swapped in and out of the CPU's address space (and the PPU's, too) through writes to 'magic' memory locations. The largest official cartridges, such as Kirby's Adventure, contained 768 kB of ROM. The system came with a mere 2K of RAM, but, as it had no need to load executables into RAM, the limited memory was not generally a hindrance to the amount of state games could keep track of.
The most revolutionary component of the NES hardware was its controller, the archetype of all video game controllers for the last twenty years. It replaced the joysticks and paddle controllers of earlier system with the now standard two-hand controller, with directional controls on the left, trigger buttons on the right, and game control buttons in the middle. Gumpei Yokoi's invention of the D-pad fit perfectly onto the NES controller, with the quick movements it allows improving gameplay over the long-throw joysticks it replaced. The D-pad would be the de facto standard directional control until the introduction of the analog thumbstick a decade later.
In addition to the controller plugs, the NES sported RF and composite outputs for connection to a TV, and an expansion port on the underside which was never used. The expansion port was rumoured to be used for an equivalent of the Famicom Disk System, or for the Telegames modem for remote multiplayer (direct link only, no central server or networking). Neither device made it to market.
The Life and Times of the Original Nintendo
Following its introduction throughout North America in early 1986, the NES quickly became one of the biggest-selling toys on the continent (although the word 'toy' is a bit of a misnomer). Soon, Nintendo got what they wanted; "playing Nintendo" became synonymous with playing video games. 1986 saw the release of such games as Metroid, Kid Icarus, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, and the NES port of Donkey Kong; these were mostly first-party games but third-party games were also around. The NES's chief competitor, the Sega Master System, was also released in 1986; its main selling point was the more powerful hardware, but it stumbled against Nintendo's draconian exclusivity agreements in North America, and only had major success in Europe.
1987 was the year that the NES reached the top of the sales charts, propelled by the million-strong sales of The Legend of Zelda, with its then-innovative use of battery-backed save memory. Many more games were released in 1987 than in 1986, particularly from third-party developers who finally were able to warm up to the market outside Japan. A number of major third-party franchises had their first release in 1987, including Castlevania, Mega Man, and Bomberman. 1987 also saw the debut of the NES Power Pad.
1988 and 1989 were the heyday of the NES. The modern 'franchise' concept had sunk in by this point, with the 1988 sequels Castlevania II (whose frightening artwork sent parents up in arms), and Super Mario Brothers 2, and the 1989 sequels Zelda II and Mega Man 2. Other franchises begun on the NES in these years, most notably Dragon Warrior and Contra, the former aided by a massive promotional giveaway in connection with Nintendo Power magazione. Nintendo was on top of the world at this point, with Mario and Link said to be as well-known among children as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. At this point, the NES's software was both broad and deep, including along with the youth-targeted franchises ordinary game conversions such as the Chessmaster and more mature (but still squeaky Nintendo-clean) titles such as Ninja Gaiden.
However, 1989 was also the beginning of the end for the NES; the Sega Genesis debuted in January of that year, with vastly superior graphics and faster processing. Despite this, for the first year or two Sega's much improved technology lost out to Nintendo's vast market penetration, buying Nintendo time to finish the last generation of NES games and prepare a replacement system.
This last generation of NES games pushed the seven-year-old NES technology to the limit, with third-generation sequels like Castlevania III, Mega Man 3, and especially Super Mario Brothers 3 being worlds apart from their predecessors in graphics and sound. Mario 3, in particular, was the most anticipated game of the NES era, drawing crouds to see the movie The Wizard for its sneak peek at the new Mario game, and becoming the fastest-selling video game of all time (yes, even faster than Halo 2), eventually selling more copies than any other game but the original SMB. (SMB had the unfair advantage of coming with almost every NES ever sold, though) RPGs on the NES came into their own with the release of Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior II, and Crystalis, and Maniac Mansion got in trouble for slipping a microwaveable hamster past Nintendo's censors, prompting a panicked halt to production as the change could be made.
1991 was the year that the NES was truly superseded by newer machines; the Super NES was released in August, featuring vastly improved technology and Super Mario World
The following years exhibited a slow, inexorable decline for the NES. In 1992, it became something of a budget game system, a trend that Nintendo exploited with the 1993 release of a smaller, cheaper redesigned NES, the NES II. Nintendo's last release for the NES was Kirby's Adventure in 1993, and the last licensed NES game was 1994's The Jungle Book. The NES hardware was discontinued in 1995, joining the Atari 2600 in the nostalgic past.
Afterlife of the NES
After the official end of the NES's lifetime, the system and its games continued to be found in garage sales and bargain bins across North America. Prices on NES games sagged, and thrifty gamers used this opportunity to buy dozens of games for the price of a single new Playstation or Nintendo 64 game. This continues even to this day, although, due to the large number of NES cartridges that have failed or that are tied up in older gamers' retrogaming collections, the secondary market is starting to charge higher collector's prices rather than lower rummage-sale prices. Nintendo recognised the demand for NES memorabilia when they released the premium-priced Classic NES Series in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance.
At the same time, emulation of the NES on personal computers was beginning to become a reality. Various buggy, limited, or shareware emulators appeared over the years, with the necessary ROM images hiding on BBSs and in quiet corners of the Internet. The 1997 release of NESticle was a revolution; while it is considered inaccurate and archaic today, it nevertheless was the first NES emulator to be fast, stable, compatible, and free. Over its year-long period of active development, it birthed a much larger NES emulation community, which later produced more accurate and robust emulators such as RockNES and FCE Ultra.
The creation of working NES emulators permitted the existence of a hobbyist development community for the NES. Like the Commodore 64 and Amiga hardware in days gone by, the NES hardware was opened up to amateur developers of games and demos, their work accessible to anyone with a (free) NES emulator. This is similar to the hobbyist groups working on Atari 2600, Super NES, and Game Boy Advance software.
The NES, the system that brought back the North American console industry, is now, in the minds of the general public, just a memory and a relic next to the shiny new 3D game systems and their less-shiny immediate predecessors. Modern systems and computers can fully emulate the once-complex NES hardware in software with power to spare, pseudo-photorealistic 3D graphics are the norm, and video game controls use a complicated combination of triggers, buttons, D-pads, and thumbsticks. Even the portable gaming world has entered the 3D era with the release of the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable. Nevertheless, some people prefer the days where blocky 2D graphics and simple sound required gameplay to be the only differentiator between good games and bad games, and when difficulty, not complexity, was the main option for providing replay value. For these people, then, the NES will never die.
Writeups above by kang, Natrous, Infinite Monkeys, BrooksMarlin, Servo5678, and vadius.
Wikipedia articles: Nintendo Entertainment System, History of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Video game crash of 1983, List of NES Games, Sega Genesis, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and others.
Writeups at nodes: Nintendo Seal of Quality, R.O.B., NES II, Famicom, Gyromite, NES PPU, Dragon Warrior, Super Mario Brothers 3, and others.
The resources at http://nesdev.parodius.com/
Seventeen years of experience with the NES, its games, and its history.
This writeup is copyright 2005 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .