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VERSION 1.12
JULY 19 2015

THE NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
THE VIDEO GAME THAT WASN'T A GAME CONSOLE, BUT AN ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
Way back in 1985, Nintendo, known at that time for it's Game & Watch LCD and Arcade games, released what we got to know as the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is the American/European version of the Japanese Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom). The development was carried out by Masayuki Uemura RD team, who retired from Nintendo Co. Ltd (NCL) in 2004.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, now former president of Nintendo Co Ltd. and completely retired from Nintendo as of 29th June 2005, wanted the Famicom system to be in as many homes as possible, so the system had to be cheap enough for everyone to afford it. YAmauchi also wanted it to do what no other system had done until then, when it came to movement of characters and backgrounds. Nintendo's engineers went for the less powerful and less expensive 6502 8bit Central Processing Unit (CPU) though, while a 16bit processor could've handled the job easily.

But the low-cost 6502 couldn't do the job alone, a second chip was needed, what was to be known as the Picture Processing Unit (PPU), used to generate colors, process pictures/characters and move them around on the screen. At that time most other videogame units had 6 to 8 colors, the Famicom ended up with 52 colors, of which 24 colors could be used on the screen at a time.


Family Computer, aka. Famicom

In 1983, July 15, the Famicom was released, retailing at about US$100, and sold 500,000 units the first two months.

Time then came to conquer the American market. Minoru Arakawa, who became president of Nintendo of America (NOA), had married married Yoko Yamauchi, Hiroshi Yamauchi's daughter in the mid 1970's and left for a job in Canada in 1977, building condos. On a trip back to Tokyo in 1979, Hiroshi Yamauchi asked Minoru Arakawa to join Nintendo and open a manufacturing plant in Malaysia. But Minoru Arakawa left Tokyo without giving Hiroshi Yamauchi an answer. Minoru Arakawa's business in Canada grew and became very healthly and he finally turned down Hiroshi Yamaushi's offer to open the plant in Malaysia.

But Hiroshi Yamauchi wanted Minoru Arakawa to join Nintendo and therefore gave him a second offer. Another visit to Tokyo in 1980, Minoru Arakawa was offered to open up a Nintendo office in the United States. In May 1980, Minoru Arakawa left Canada to start Nintendo of America (NOA). In 1984 the big videogame crash happened in the US, and the home videogame business was declared dead, the consumers had grown tired of videogames and the market was overstocked with various game machines. Gigantic Atari was broken into pieces and sold off.

But Minoru Arakawa was determined to bring the Famicom to the States. The system was not to be sold as a toy, but as a "more sophisticated electronics product". The system should be more than just a game system, it should have the capabilities of a small computer. Engineers at NCL were given the task of developing pheripals such as a light gun, keyboard, music keyboard and a tape recorder.


Advanced Video System Data Recorder design sheet

The engineers came up with high-tech infared controllers, a lightgun called Zapper. While the R&D people at NCL in Kyoto modified the Famicom system at Minoru Arakawa's wishes, he had a team of people in Seattle designing the housing and packaging for what was to be known as the Advanced Video System (AVS).


Early Advanced Video System design

A designer by the name Lance Barr was assigned to make the system look more "high-tech". Today Lance Barr still works for NOA as Product Desin Director. The mainboard of the AVS was nearly identical to the one in the Famicom. The AVS was to debut at the January 1984 Consuumer Electronic Show. A booth was designed by Don James. A brochure was handed out at the show saying "The evolution of a species is now complete".


Final Advanced Video System design

Recently someo of the Advanced Video System was shown to the public for the first time since the CES days back in 1984. Nintendo recently opened their Nintendo World store in Manhattan and on the second floor a large historical display was set up. Sadly the final design main unit was missing in action. A huge thanks goes out to Matthew Hawkins of www.fort90.com for letting me use some pictures he took at the store.



AVS on display at Nintendo World in Manhattan, click on the pictures to view a larger one

The Advaced Video System wasn't well received at the CES show and after another try at the June 1984 CES show, Arakawa decided to scrap the AVS and start over. American kids were not interested in writing small programs in Basic, they wanted fun, not basic programming and cassette storage devices. So the cassette recorder, keyboard and remote control were all scrapped along with the name. The keyboard, cassette recorder and basic cartridge was later released in Japan for the Famicom.


Famicom Basic

Again the R&D team in Kyoto was put in charge of developing a pheriperal which should make the system something more than just a game system. That was when the Robot Operating Buddy, also known as ROB, came to life. Flashes on the screen would trigger sensor in ROB's head and make him move. ROB was the coolest robot ever, but never quite made it and was removed from the market in 1986. Two ROB compatible games were made, Gyromite and Stack-Up. While the US market was flooded with Gyromite carts, Stack-Up seems to be much more rare, good luck finding one complete. ROB was last seen playing a small role in games such as F-Zero on the GameCube and in the WarioWare games.

Lance Barr and Don James once again worked on a design for the new system, still supposed to look high-tech.


Early NES design ( aditional picture here )

The infared controllers were scrapped aswell and the early NES model, seen above, was designed with two controllers attached permanently. On the back of the system a extra port could be found, so a Zapper or other joysticks could be attached, just like the Famicom.

Other scrapped designs can be seen below.

Lab testing of the of the design above revealed a problem with the slim design. Dirt could get inside the pak slot easily, but we all know that this wasn't fixed in the final design of the NES.

Designers were getting closer to the goal and at the Consumer Electronics Show in June 1985, Arakawa displayed their re-designed system, now renamed to the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Nintendo Entertainment System technical Specs:

CPU: 8-bit 6502 NMOS (1.79MHz)
RAM: 2KB (16Kb), 2KB Video RAM
Colors: 52 (24 on screen)
Sprites: 64
Sprite Size: 8x16 pixels
Resolution: 256x240 pixels
Sound: PSG audio


Final design, the Nintendo Entertainment System

The goal was reached, the dirt problem wasn't as bad as the earlier design and controllers were now detachable. The reaction at the CES show was much better than the year before, ROB was a true attention magnet. But potential buyers were still not too interested and it got to a point where Nintendo had to offer to stock and set up displays stores and accept a 90 days credit, just to have stores carry the product. The official release date was Friday, October 18, 1985.

Everything was made to make the NES different from the rest, such as Atari's consoles. A Nintendo Entertainment System wasn't supposed to be called a video game, but instead an entertainment system. Game cartridges were called game paks and the NES wasn't to vbe described as a console, but a control deck.

Time came to introduce Europe to the Nintendo Entertainment System and a guy called Ron Judy was put on carge of that operation. In 1986 Nintendo launched the Nintendo Entertainment System European Version. Australia followed a year later in 1987. Europe wasn't that easy to conquer though, the Sega Master System had already been released there, and Nintendo of Europe wasn't nearly as agressive in it's marketing as Nintendo of America, even to this very day.

One of the differences between the Famicom and NES is someting called the "lock-out system". Japan had already seen a good share of counterfeit cartridges produced in Taiwan. To prevent the the american version from the same fate, NOA decided to create and patent the 10NES chip which was a security system to stop counterfeits from working, but also prevent companies without a license to manufacture games for the NES. Actually the Nin10 was created way back when the AVS was in development.

A few companies tried to by-pass the 10NES, but they all gave up eventually. One was Tengen, a subsidiary of Atari Games, had started out as a licensed developer, releasing classics such as PacMan, Gauntlet and RBI Baseball for the NES, first displayed at CES in 1988. But around this time the world was in a chip shortage and Tengen only received about 25% of their cartridge order. Tengen and a company called Acclaim went to look for another source to buy the chips from, which was okay as long as Nintendo accepted the quality of the chips. In 1989 Acclaim was eventually allowed to manufacture the carts themselves, while Tengen's chip supplier was found to be unacceptable. Other companies such as Konami and HiTech Expressions were eventually also allowed to manufacture carts themselves.

So Tengen began inventing a system to by-pass the 10NES lockout, known as the "Rabbit" and by August 1988, Tengen was already producing their own, unlicensed, cartridges and file a $100 million lawsuit against Nintendo for violating antitrust laws. Nintendo started sending letters out to retailers, threatening to sue if they carried Tengen's unlicensed products.

To prevent Tengen's games from even working, Nintendo also changed the code in the 10NES chip from time to time, and even more frequent in Europe for some reason. After a few lawsuits, where Tengen won, Tengen had to recall all of their unlicensed games in September 1992. Other companies went in Tengen's footsteps, American companies Color Dreams, ShareData (American Game Carts Inc.), Active Enterprises, Caltron (Myraid Games) and American Video Entertainment, Taiwanese Thin Chen Entertainment (Sachen), Australian Home Entertainment Suppliers and British Codemasters, which games were sold by Camerica in the US and Canada, all manufactured unlicensed game carts for use on the NES. They all eventually gave up due to Nintendo tight grib on retailers. They did however succeed in creating some great curcuits that could by-pass the 10NES.


A collection of unlicensed cartridges.

But that wasn't the only problem Nintendo had to face, also counterfeits were starting to show up.


A collection of pirate cartridges.

To prevent the widespread famicom counterfeits, which also counted console counterfeits, NCL decided to release an Asian Version of the Nintendo Entertainment System for use in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Tailand, a copy of the European PAL model. The change from Famicom 60pin to NES 72pin cartridges sure made it a bit more difficult for counterfeis, but atapters for the Famicom boards were soon made and it was all packed nicely in a NES cart shell. Nintendo themselves also used this idea in the early NES days in America, you are therefore able to find these adapters in some Excitebike and Gyromite cartridges.


Nintendo Entertainment System Asian Version

When the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1991, NES sales started to decline, but in it's time it sold more than 60 million systems and 500 million games worldwide and even saw an update in 1993, known as NES 2, to toploader from frontloader, released in the US and Australia. The Famicom was also updated to a design much like the American, and is known as Famicom AV. Europe somehow never got the NES 2 deck.


Nintendo Entertainment System redesigned

It's said that the toploader version of the NES is capable of playing European NES games as the 10NES no longer was used, but I have not yet been able to confirm this. The AV hookup was also removed. Another change was the controller which was given a more ergonomic grib and got the nick name "dogbone".


Dogbone Vs. Original

The system was retailed at no more than $49.99 during Christmas 1993.