Happy 30th, Nintendo Famicom: Maybe You Didn’t Save the Industry, but You Set the High-Water Mark

The Japanese forerunner of the Nintendo Entertainment System launched 30 years ago this week.

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Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll read a lot about the U.S. video games industry’s financial nosedive in 1983, as if that crash — when U.S. consumers walked away from a glut of lackluster games and billions of dollars in revenue evaporated — almost killed gaming in its cradle. But for Nintendo, gaming might have gone the way of Tupperware parties, shell suits and fondue.

That’s a shortsighted way of viewing the past: Industries wax and wane, and technology has a way of circumventing financial downturns. Computer technology was always bound to revolutionize a global, millennia-long obsession with play. If not Nintendo’s Famicom, something else would have emerged, and though gaming’s grammar would parse differently in a world without the company Hiroshi Yamauchi transformed, we’d still have one, just as we’d still have arrived at printed books and longer lasting incandescent light bulbs without Gutenberg or Edison.

But give Nintendo its well-earned due: When Masayuki Uemura devised what Nintendo called the Family Computer, or Famicom for short, he wound up unexpectedly catapulting consumer expectations, and the industry as a whole, forward. Without Nintendo, who knows when or where a designer like Shigeru Miyamoto might have emerged to galvanize game design, but with Nintendo, specifically the Nintendo Famicom and it subsequent Western incarnation, we can be grateful for a cosmology of gaming’s most iconic characters, design tropes and visual motifs.

Nintendo’s Famicom launched in Japan 30 years ago this month on July 15, 1983. It was a cherry red, vanilla and gold 8-bit game system originally designed to compete with the Epoch Cassette Vision, another dedicated game console released in Japan two years prior. Uemura’s original vision for the Famicom was for a device that better resembled the “computer” in its moniker: a CPU with a keyboard, disk drive and modem. But Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi wanted the Famicom priced lower than Epoch’s system, forcing Uemura to discard the peripherals and focus on the essentials: a set-top, souped-up game machine cable-connected to a dedicated controller sporting the innovative d-pad devised by Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi for the company’s 1982 handheld Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong.

Yamauchi selected Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye for Famicom’s launch  – all Miyamoto titles — and the console flew off shelves, passing half a million in sales by the two-month mark and one million by year’s end; by the close of 1984, still 10 months out from Nintendo’s U.S. launch, the company had sold nearly 2.5 million systems. Needless to say, Nintendo was flush with success and brimming with cash when it cast its gaze across the Pacific at gaming gun-shy U.S. consumers.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, as Nintendo re-branded and redesigned the console for Western markets, won’t celebrate its 30-year anniversary until July 2015, but its owes everything it was to the Famicom. The Famicom/NES went on to sell over 60 million units worldwide, making it the 10th bestselling games platform of all time (counting handhelds) and the undisputed record-holder for years until Sony‘s PlayStation came along.

No, electronic gaming wouldn’t have settled into the sediment had the Famicom fizzled or the NES never been, but without those systems — and Nintendo’s visionary transformation from a century-old playing card company into the foremost provider of interactive entertainment on the planet — no Mario, Zelda or Donkey Kong, no Game Boy, no Super Nintendo, no Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii or Wii U. Whatever shape gaming might have taken in a Nintendo-less world, I’m grateful I don’t have to live in it, and that I got to grow up with Contra and Castlevania, Metroid and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!!, Final Fantasy, Mega Man and Wizards & Warriors – yes, Wizards & Warriors – instead.