Now You're Playing With Power

Nintendo Entertainment System

When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in the U.S. it was to a market that was and wasn't ready for video games. It quickly became a big seller showing that consumers were ready for the right console marketed the right way, but considering that the U.S. market had undergone a major video game crash just two years earlier, tanking the prospects of every major console maker at the time, companies (and more importantly toy stores) were leering of a new console right when Nintendo wanted to release theirs.

That's not to say that Nintendo bringing their console to the U.S. was a risky gamble. The console had, in essence, been out in the wild for two years before it finally came overseas, having been release (to wild success) in Japan as the Nintendo Famicom (as in "Family Computer"). While it was a console that allowed for different games to be played on its hardware, Nintendo built the red and gold box (as those were it's colors in Japan) to play one game specifically: Donkey Kong, and it played it really well. The NES version was, in fact, the best home conversion of the game at the time, and the big ape was huge with gamers. Nintendo sold their console on the back of ol' Kong, and then kept selling it for years to come.

But by the time the NES was ready to come out in the U.S. (after a failed attempt to partner with Atari to produce the Famicom as the "Nintendo AES", which fell through because Atari was mismanaged all to hell at the time), Donkey Kong didn't have the same luster anymore. What felt special and interesting back in 1983 was already starting to be upstaged by better experienced by 1985. Nintendo need to pack a better killer app in with the NES to make it fly off the shelves. A single-window arcade experience wouldn't cut it. So they took the game that was just getting ready for release in Japan and they made it an instant must-have in the U.S.: Super Mario Bros..

It's hard to overstate how strong Super Mario Bros. was when it came to selling the NES. It wasn't the first platformer by any stretch (you could look back to Pitfall, and games that came before, for that glory), but Super Mario Bros. was refined in a way that other platformers weren't. It had perfect jump mechanics, physics that felt solid, and game play that just worked. This was game that perfectly showed off the Nintendo way of doing things. Even though it looks primitive now the game was revelatory back in the day.

That was the promise of the Nintendo library. When you looked at the games that were coming out on the NES and then looked back at the released from Atari, Coleco, Intellivision, it was night and day. The future had arrived in 1985 and it had come from Japan. The little grey, unassuming box was something every kid wanted for a solid six years (right up until the Super Nintendo was the new hotness, not to mention competitor Sega and their Genesis). This was video gaming.

Selling the console, in retrospect, was easy. Still, Nintendo had to get buy in from toy stores (the primary outlet for video games at the time) and from parents. Having seen the U.S. gaming crash of the 1983, these groups were reticent to let yet another game console onto shelves. That's why the NES went through such a drastic redesign from the Famicom. The colorful, toy-like red and gold was ditched, replaced by a more subdued grey. The console itself was redesigned to be front-loading, to liken it to VCRs, so it would look like a natural part of any home theater system. And it even downplayed its own purpose. It wasn't a game console but an "entertainment system". This was something new and different and it wasn't just for playing video games.

That was part of the reason why Nintendo put the console out in an edition with R.O.B., the mechanical robot that could be used for interactivity. Education was part of the sales pitch for the console and R.O.B. was a key part of it. Naturally, everyone remembers every great educational game that came out on the console like... well there was... ah, yes. None of them were good. The educational aspect, and R.O.B.'s interaction, were ignored by most kids and the little robot was quickly shoved aside once the NES became a huge seller in the U.S. entirely on the back of its sinful video games.

Nintendo's strategy, and the way they handled the video game market in the U.S. (tying game companies down to exclusive contracts, and making sure their console couldn't be hacked so third-party cartridges wouldn't work) gave them a near strangle-hold on video games in the U.S. For that solid six year window you didn't "play video games", you "played Nintendo". All the old consoles of past generation -- the Atari 2600, the ColecoVision, that poor Intellivision, along with the Magnavox Odyssey, and even the Sega SG-1000 (if you could get it) -- were just forgotten refuse on the trash pile of history. It was all Nintendo until someone else could come along and dethrone them.

Notably, no one did, not until the SNES replaced the NES naturally. Only then did the console war really heat up between Nintendo and Sega when it was SNES versus Genesis. But for the NES no one came close. Atari tried to put out their 7800 but they spent two years too long figuring out how to get the finished console out the door and by the time it actually debuted in 1986 it was already outclassed in every way by the NES and Nintendo's dominant game library. Sega upgraded their SG-1000 into the SG-Mark III, released in the U.S. as the Master System, and while that console was a capable contender for Nintendo when it came to hardware it never gained the traction to be anything more than a decent also-ran.

For six years Nintendo was the absolute king of video gaming, proving that their vision was what consumers wanted. They had the games, they had the hardware, and that had a tap right into the collective consciousness of their market. They were video gaming, and they dominated everything with it, putting their logo (and Mario's face) on everything. Big games would come out, like Super Mario Bros. 3, and the world went absolutely nuts. (Anyone remember The Wizard, a two hour theatrical film that was basically one long Nintendo commercial?) This was the first time Nintendo could literally print money and they knew it. The world was theirs.

Eventually that would shift, of course. Sega found the first chinks in the armor, putting out the Genesis at the right time to be a true contender for the SNES. And then Nintendo's own mismanagement, and bad deals struck with soon-to-be-rivals (Sony) would leave to a seismic shift in the game market. For six years, though, Nintendo ruled the world and they had the hearts, and minds, of every grade school kid in existence. If you didn't have Nintendo in the mid-1980s then you weren't shit.