It is a remodeled export version of the company’s Family Computer platform in Japan, also known by the Famicom, which launched on July 15, 1983.
In the U.S. the NES was launched through test markets in New York City and Los Angeles in 1985, before being given a full nationwide launch in 1986. The NES was launched in Europe during 1986 and 1987, and Australia in 1987. Brazil saw only unlicensed clones until the official local release in 1993.
The best-selling gaming console of its time, the NES helped revitalize the US video game industry following the North American video game crash of 1983. With the NES, Nintendo introduced a now-standard business model of licensing third-party developers, authorizing them to produce and distribute titles for Nintendo’s platform. It had been preceded by Nintendo’s first home video game console, the Color TV-Game, and was succeeded by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
Following a series of arcade game successes in the early 1980s, Nintendo made plans to create a cartridge-based console called the Famicom, which is short for Family Computer. Masayuki Uemura designed the system.
Original plans called for an advanced 16-bit system which would function as a full-fledged computer with a keyboard and floppy disk drive, but Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi rejected this and instead decided to go for a cheaper, more conventional cartridge-based game console as he believed that features such as keyboards and disks were intimidating to non-technophiles.
A test model was constructed in October 1982 to verify the functionality of the hardware, after which work began on programming tools. Because 65xx CPUs had not been manufactured or sold in Japan up to that time, no cross-development software was available and it had to be produced from scratch. Early Famicom games were written on a system that ran on an NEC PC-8001 computer and LEDs on a grid were used with a digitizer to design graphics as no software design tools for this purpose existed at that time.
The code name for the project was “GameCom”, but Masayuki Uemura’s wife proposed the name “Famicom”, arguing that “In Japan, ‘pasokon’ is used to mean a personal computer, but it is neither a home or personal computer. Perhaps we could say it is a family computer.” Meanwhile, Hiroshi Yamauchi decided that the console should use a red and white theme after seeing a billboard for DX Antenna which used those colors.
During the creation of the Famicom, the ColecoVision, a video game console made by Coleco to compete against Atari‘s Atari 2600 Game system in The United States, was a huge influence. Takao Sawano, chief manager of the project, brought a ColecoVision home to his family, who were impressed by the system’s capability to produce smooth graphics at the time, which contrasted with the flickering and slowdown commonly seen on Atari 2600 games. Uemura, head of Famicom development, stated that the ColecoVision set the bar that influenced how he would approach the creation of the Famicom.
Original plans called for the Famicom’s cartridges to be the size of a cassette tape, but ultimately they ended up being twice as big. Careful design attention was paid to the cartridge connectors since loose and faulty connections often plagued arcade machines. As it necessitated taking 60 connection lines for the memory and expansion, Nintendo decided to produce their own connectors in-house rather than use ones from an outside supplier.
The controllers were hard-wired to the console with no connectors for cost reasons. The game pad controllers were more-or-less copied directly from the Game & Watch machines, although the Famicom design team originally wanted to use arcade-style joysticks, even taking apart ones from American game consoles to see how they worked. There were concerns regarding the durability of the joystick design and that children might step on joysticks left on the floor. Katsuyah Nakawaka attached a Game & Watch D-pad to the Famicom prototype and found that it was easy to use and caused no discomfort. Ultimately though, they installed a 15-pin expansion port on the front of the console so that an optional arcade-style joystick could be used.
Uemura added an eject lever to the cartridge slot which was not really necessary, but he believed that children could be entertained by pressing it. He also added a microphone to the second controller with the idea that it could be used to make players’ voices sound through the TV speaker.
The console was released on July 15, 1983 as the Family Computer (or Famicom for short) for ¥14,800 (equivalent to ¥17,500 in 2013) alongside three ports of Nintendo’s successful arcade games Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye. The Famicom was slow to gather momentum; a bad chip set caused the initial release of the system to crash. Following a product recall and a reissue with a new motherboard, the Famicom’s popularity soared, becoming the best-selling game console in Japan by the end of 1984.
Encouraged by this success, Nintendo turned its attention to the North American market, entering into negotiations with Atari to release the Famicom under Atari’s name as the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System. The deal was set to be finalized and signed at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June 1983. However, Atari discovered at that show that its competitor Coleco was illegally demonstrating its Coleco Adam computer with Nintendo’s Donkey Kong game. This violation of Atari’s exclusive license with Nintendo to publish the game for its own computer systems delayed the implementation of Nintendo’s game console marketing contract with Atari. Atari’s CEO Ray Kassar was fired the next month, so the deal went nowhere, and Nintendo decided to market its system on its own.
In Europe, Oceania and Canada, the system was released to two separate marketing regions. The first consisted of mainland Europe (excluding Italy) where distribution was handled by a number of different companies, with Nintendo responsible for most cartridge releases. Most of this region saw a 1986 release. The release in the Netherlands was in Q4 of 1987, where it was distributed by Bandai BV. In 1987 Mattel handled distribution for the second region, consisting of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. Not until the 1990s did Nintendo’s newly created European branch direct distribution throughout Europe.
The NES contains 2 kB of onboard work RAM. A game cartridge may contain expanded RAM to increase this amount. The size of NES games varies from 8 kB (Galaxian) to 1 MB (Metal Slader Glory), but 128 to 384 kB was the most common.
The NES uses a custom-made Picture Processing Unit (PPU) developed by Ricoh. All variations of the PPU feature 2 kB of video RAM, 256 bytes of on-die “object attribute memory” (OAM) to store the positions, colors, and tile indices of up to 64 sprites on the screen, and 28 bytes of on-die palette RAM to allow selection of background and sprite colors. The console’s 2 kB of onboard RAM may be used for tile maps and attributes on the NES board and 8 kB of tile pattern ROM or RAM may be included on a cartridge. The system has an available color palette of 48 colors and 6 grays. Up to 25 simultaneous colors may be used without writing new values mid-frame: a background color, four sets of three tile colors and four sets of three sprite colors. The NES palette is based on NTSC rather than RGB values. A total of 64 sprites may be displayed onscreen at a given time without reloading sprites mid-screen. The standard display resolution of the NES is 256 horizontal pixels by 240 vertical pixels.