Happy 35th, NES: The Console I Always Wanted and Am Glad I Never Got

Gaming
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Yesterday marked the 35th birthday of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s launch in North America. On October 18, 1985, the NES went on sale in limited markets across America (a broad launch would follow in September 1986). To say that initial expectations were low might be an understatement. The North American market was still reeling after the video game collapse of 1983, and plenty of pundits had limited expectations for Japan’s first game console.

Nintendo was sensitive to the risk of introducing a new video game console just two years after the market’s implosion, and it took specific steps to make the NES look more like a VHS player than a then-traditional top-loading console like the Atari 2600. Large, bulky cartridges and a front-loading device were intended to distance Nintendo from Atari and earlier competitors, while devices like ROB (Robotic Operated Buddy) positioned the NES as a unique toy rather than just a video game player.

A 1985 CES brochure, uploaded as fair use to Wikipedia. ROB is remembered for being a brilliant marketing fakeout much more than for its actual contributions to gaming.

In terms of technical specs, the NES is powered by a 1.79MHz (NTSC) or 1.66MHz (PAL) Ricoh 2A03 CPU with a second-source MOS 6502 inside and a whopping 2KB of onboard RAM. Most NES games are between 8KB and 1MB, with 128KB to 384KB being most common. The system also contains an onboard Picture Processing Unit (PPU), again developed by Ricoh. The PPU offered 2KB of dedicated video RAM and a color palette of 48 colors and six shades of gray. The machine can display up to 64 sprites on-screen at a time and displayed images at a standard 256×240 pixels. The actual guts of the NES were quite similar across the world, though the console’s loading mechanism, shape, and game controllers varied by region.

Image by Bololabich, CC BY-SA 4.0

All of this, I learned later. When I actually encountered the NES in real life, my reaction was immediate: I wanted one. Unfortunately, or so I thought at the time, my parents did not.

PC Gaming in the Mid-to-Late 1980s Kinda Sucked

Now, before anyone takes my head off, let me be clear: I love the computer games of the mid-to-late 1980s: Space Quest, Hero’s Quest Quest for Glory, King’s Quest, Zork, and Ultima IV would be just a few examples. There were some all-time great games produced in this era — but none of them realistically compared with what Nintendo could achieve.

Today, PC gamers pride themselves on having access to hardware consoles can’t match. Thirty-five years ago, it was the other way around. Nintendo shipped seven million NES systems in 1988, nearly matching the number of Commodore 64s that had been sold in its first five years. By 1990, 30 percent of American households owned an NES, compared with 23 percent with a PC.

Playing on the NES was fluid in a way that no IBM PC or clone equivalent of the time could deliver. Characters could move quickly across screens, and games transitioned nearly instantly from one area to another. Compared with the slow, disk- or hard-drive-based games that ran on PCs, the NES felt positively zippy. In a game like The Legend of Zelda, you could theoretically move continuously through each area, dodging enemies in real-time. Games like Commander Keen would finally begin to close the gap with Super Mario Bros. (Captain Comic doesn’t count), but SMB was a much faster platformer than CK, and it had shipped five years earlier. Super Mario World on the SNES actually came out the same year as the Commander Keen series and was clearly the better, more complex game.

There were a few years where I was pretty unhappy about not being allowed to own a console. My parents were not fond of gaming of any kind, but PCs at least held the potential for educational uses. Consoles, at least in my parents’ eyes, did not.

I doubt they realized the long-term impact of their own decision. I learned to tinker with MS-DOS because being a gamer required it. I learned to upgrade my own hardware and eventually build my own systems for the same reason. My love of gaming drove my interest in hardware, and my interest in hardware drove my career. Even my desire to game on better hardware was once driven by wanting a way to match or exceed console performance as opposed to forever playing second fiddle.

Happy birthday to the console that changed my life, even though I never got to own one.

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