How Nintendo Revolutionized Pop Culture 38 Years Ago

At the start of the 1980s, video games were mostly confined to arcade machines that devoured coins. However, their immense popularity prompted Time Magazine to feature a cover story in January 1982 with a cringeworthy warning: “GRONK! FLASH! ZAP! Video Games are Blitzing the World!” This surge in popularity was largely driven by the Baby Boomer generation, who were between 20 and 40 years old at the time and constituted the dominant group of consumers. The media fueled panic about gaming addiction and portrayed arcades as seedy establishments for lowlifes. Meanwhile, an oversaturation of home consoles and a flood of mediocre games led to the crash of the entire American game industry in 1983.
Nintendo emerged as the savior of the gaming industry with the release of the NES (see on Amazon) in 1985, forever transforming pop culture. Originally launched in Japan as the Famicom (“Family Computer”), the NES was redesigned specifically for western markets. It was not just a video game console, but an “Entertainment System” with a “Control Deck” that used “Game Paks.”
The creation of the NES was a risky endeavor. Masayuki Uemura, the creator of the NES, recalls that it all started with a phone call from Nintendo’s President Yamauchi in 1981. Uemura thought nothing of it when Yamauchi asked him to create a video game system that could play games on cartridges, as the president often called him after having a few drinks. However, the next morning, Yamauchi approached him while sober and reiterated the request, making it clear that he was serious. Uemura, who had joined Nintendo from Sharp to develop light-gun technology for toys, then spent six months studying the circuitry of rival consoles like the Atari 2600 and Magnavox by breaking them down and reverse-engineering them. The resulting 8-bit Famicom surpassed its competitors in terms of power and its toy-like color scheme was chosen based on a scarf that Nintendo President Yamauchi favored (the same red and white colors that Mario wears on the cover of Super Mario Bros.). The timing of the Famicom’s release was also ideal, as changes in Japanese legislation in 1984 had led to the inclusion of arcades in an act that regulated entry to places such as bars and casinos, due to concerns over “public morals.” Consequently, younger Japanese individuals turned to home consoles, making the Famicom a hit.
However, capitalizing on the American market required a different approach, which ultimately paid off tremendously. In a lecture at New York University, Uemura revealed that the front-loading design of the NES was inspired by the popularity of VCRs, which were a booming form of at-home entertainment in America at the time. The Game Pak cartridges, measuring 5.25 x 4.75 x 0.75 inches, had significant weight to them and the simple, boxy grey design became iconic. The cartridges were inserted into the front of the system and the user had to press them down so the brass-plated nickel connectors would connect with the cartridge slot’s connector pins. Frequent use would result in the wearing down of these pins, which could lead to a flawed connection. Gamers perpetuated the myth that blowing into the Game Paks would clear out dust and solve this issue, but in reality, this only made matters worse due to the moisture from their breath. Nevertheless, the process of sliding the cartridges in, pressing them down, pulling them out, and repeating became a game in itself.
One of the most memorable and successful accessories for the NES was the NES Zapper, a light gun that was launched alongside the console in America. Uemura attributed the success of the NES in the western market to Nintendo’s astute decision to appeal to Americans’ love for guns. Many gamers will remember the cartridge that included both Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, where shooting ducks and watching the delighted dog retrieve them provided endless entertainment. For millennials, the Nintendo Entertainment System served as the gateway to a lifelong gaming hobby that continues to this day. I have cherished memories of playing The Legend of Zelda with my grandmother, and I’m certain she would have adored Tears of the Kingdom.
The NES was also responsible for the birth of some of Nintendo’s most iconic franchises. Just take a look at the company’s recent major releases, such as Super Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Fire Emblem – all of which can be traced back to the NES. By 1990, Nintendo held over 90 percent of the video game market in the United States, largely due to a strict third-party licensing agreement that set a precedent for the industry. Game developers who wanted to publish games for the NES had to enter into an exclusive licensing deal that prevented them from porting games to other consoles. Additionally, Nintendo directly approved each game to ensure a certain level of quality. Developers such as Konami, Capcom, Taito, and Namco participated in this arrangement and they remain prominent companies in the industry today. Castlevania, for example, owes its existence to both Nintendo and the NES. Square and Enix, which later merged into Square Enix, achieved great success with their Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises on the NES. Two decades later, both franchises are still going strong.
Despite its tremendous success and rapid sales over a short period of time, the NES does not rank in the top 10 best-selling video game consoles of all time, with roughly 62 million units sold to date. Even the widely criticized PlayStation Portable has outsold it. Nevertheless, the Nintendo Entertainment System remains one of the most significant pieces of technology ever created. As Masayuki Uemura stated in an interview with Used Games magazine in 2000, “When console games became popular and accessible to everyone, it felt as if we were all embarking on a new frontier of dreams together. While some may have occasionally wasted money on a bad game here and there, both creators and players were obsessed with games at the time. I believe there is still a sense of wonder to be found in that previous generation of games.” He was absolutely right. The NES Classic Edition, which is a dedicated emulator featuring 30 NES classics, sold out immediately when it was released between late 2016 and 2017. The relaunch in 2018 saw similar demand. However, the lasting legacy of the NES lies with the Nintendo Switch, which has sold over 129 million units to date. With patents for a potential successor to the Switch, there is no better time to remember and appreciate what the Nintendo Entertainment System did for gaming 38 years ago.


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