Why the NES is the Greatest Console of All Time

A few months ago Nintendo announced they were releasing the Nintendo Classic Mini: NES. This sent long-time fans, and anyone over the age of twenty-five, into a frenzy of nostalgia that was reminiscent of a newly crowned couch potato who just finished binge watching Stranger Things.  Everyone else was left scratching their heads and asking, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) is the most important console released, ever. Before you badger me about how the Xbox One S that your mum bought you for your birthday is the greatest console ever because Forza looks so damn sexy with HDR, just hear me out. For a long time Nintendo dominated the gaming industry, and it all started with the NES. They were able to dominate because they had some of the best games out there, most of them quickly becoming classics, as well as cutting edge hardware and licensing and exclusivity contracts. All this, rolled into one package, makes the NES one of the most badass consoles out there. But the biggest reason that this console is the most significant console released ever, is that it single-handedly brought the whole gaming industry back from the crash of 1983. It changed the landscape forever, and without it gaming today would look very different indeed.

What’s in the box?

The Nintendo Entertainment System was originally released in Japan, in July of 1983. It was quick to become a bestseller, prompting Nintendo to push for an international release. In February of 1986 it was released to the American market, were it quickly received commercial acclaim. From there Nintendo pushed to the European and Australian markets and succeeded in becoming the dominant power in gaming, ascending to the throne built by the likes of the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 and the lesser known Mattel Intellivision. This was mainly due to the very strong line-up of launch titles (which included games that are now synonymous with the NES, such as Duck Hunt, Excitebike and Super Mario Bros), but also in no small part due to the accessibility of the console itself. While the original model of the NES in Japan (where it is known as the Famicon) was read and white, with red and gold controllers, and looked closer to something like the ColecoVision in its build, the western version had a simple black and grey colour scheme and looked closer to an unassuming box. Former generations of consoles had usually used a controller with a joystick and a heap of buttons weighing it down, but the NES kept it simple and sleek with two action buttons designated as A and B, a D-pad and your now standard select and start buttons. It was light, it was easy, and the player had an idea of how a game would work just by looking at it.

Glorious 8-bit gaming!

The initial design for the NES was for a 16-bit home computer styled console, similar to those seen in the previous generation. Scrapping that idea for a cheaper, more appealing, 8-bit, cartridge-based machine, Nintendo were able to entice a new client base that weren’t as tech-savvy as those who were familiar with keyboards and disks (unwittingly starting the never-ending flame war between PC and console users). It was with this simple, but effective system, that Nintendo launched several now iconic games, namely Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. Super Mario Bros has become the poster boy for the Nintendo franchise, showing how the system tailors to exciting gameplay and adventure, but Duck Hunt was iconic for a different reason. Sure it was fun and the gameplay was excellent, but it showed off Nintendo’s experimental side in the form of an accessory, that of the Zapper. The Zapper was a light gun, shaped like a pistol, which allowed you to shoot the ducks in Duck Hunt as if you were actually a hunter. The Zapper, along with other unique controllers and accessories such as R.O.B (Robotic Operating Buddy), the Power Pad and the Power Glove (if you want a good time, type in ‘Power Glover demonstration’ into YouTube) showed off Nintendo’s quirkiness and willingness to expand and experiment.  This, along with that great piece of cinematic history starring a young Fred Savaged called The Wizard, helped Nintendo tap into people’s imaginations and also put them well ahead of any possible competition out there.

Asides from the console, the games and the hardware itself, the NES also dominated the market for another reason. In an unprecedented move, they initiated licencing and exclusivity contracts with their products and developers. Whereas Atari had never approached third-party developers, which is why they spent so much time in court trying to stop other people making their products and eventually going bankrupt, Nintendo encouraged the idea. How they stopped unlicensed third-party developers is with an authentication chip in every console and every legitimate cartridge. Essentially if you had a game on a cartridge that wasn’t made by Nintendo, it wasn’t going to play on the NES. Controlling the production and supply of the cartridges meant that Nintendo were able put heavy restrictions on third-party developers in their contracts. To develop games for Nintendo, a third-party developer could only make games for the NES and could only make five games per year. Because of this Nintendo had an iron-clad grip over the market and pretty much dictated everything about it.

The Power Glove of doom

All this lead to Nintendo being able to drag the games industry out of the financial ruin of the 1980s. By the second generation of consoles, the market was flooded with video games, consoles, PCs and arcade machines. This was notably due to the widespread success of Atari and its two consoles, the 2600 and the 5200. The issue started when companies such as Mattel and Coleco released machines that could play 2600 games, as well as outright cloning of Atari’s own consoles. At the time, game publishes didn’t credit individual developers making the game. If the game was made by an Atari employee, it was made by Atari. This lead to several high level developers to leave Atari and form Activision which, after a long court battle, would become the first legitimate third-party developer, ensuring that developers got the credit for the games. With their products being cloned and outright ripped off and developers jumping ship to the newly established Activision, Atari and other companies quickly lost publishing control over their products. This lead to cheap knock-offs of well-known games that were poorly made flooding the market. With the market flooded, major companies soon saw a massive dip in revenue and it wasn’t long before many filed for bankruptcy and eventually allowed the video game market to crash completely.

On top of the world

Stepping into this landscape, Nintendo took a massive leap of faith in the NES. It wasn’t until its success in the American market that the NES was able to shoulder the weight of the gaming crash and pull it up from the depths of where it lay. Without Nintendo’s sharp business eye, and learning from Atari and other companies’ mistakes, video games wouldn’t be where they are today. They set the bar for the industry, and while others eventually reached and surpassed it, everyone knows that without the Nintendo Entertainment System there wouldn’t be a place for that shiny new Xbox One S for you to gush over Forza on. No other console has been able to capture a generation’s imagination so well, no other console has had so many classic games in their line-up, no other console has single-handedly been able to change the course of history and bring back a dying breed. If you never had a chance to play this bad boy, make sure you pick up the Mini Classic in November. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Samuel is a writing and philosophy student based out of Brisbane. When he’s not writing or theorizing about the depiction of time travel in Star Trek he is a constant gamer, willing to play nearly anything anywhere. All disagreements can only be settled by Mortal Kombat.

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