Released a couple of years ago in 1983, the Famicom (the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System) has gone on to sell around 10 million units with no end in sight. The videogame market is still going strong in Nintendo’s home country of Japan. It didn’t feel the crushing effects of the gaming crash of late 1983 and early 1984 that plagued the United States. With retailers declaring videogames a fad, the U.S. market quickly transitioned to computers, like the Commodore 64 and Apple Macintosh. Nintendo, however, feels that it can replicate the success of the Famicom on this side of the Pacific and has launched a small number of consoles in New York City and some surrounding neighborhoods. Time will tell if they can rekindle America’s love affair with videogames.
In the meantime, I finally got my hands on Nintendo’s little gray box. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is quite different looking from the top-loading cartridge systems we’re used to. The games go inside the system by opening a flap on the front and inserting the cartridge. Then you press the cartridge down and it clicks in, and you’re set to power-up the control deck. The overall design reminds me a little bit of a top-loading VCR (place the tape in and press the mechanism down), and indeed, Nintendo is trying to shy away from looking too much like a computer or a toy, but more of an entertainment device. In this way, I feel the look succeeds, and I’ve had more than a few people ask what it was over the past few days.
The strangest parts of the system are its controllers. They are rectangular and flat and must be held with two hands. The left thumb is used to press the cross pad and is used to move up, down, left, and right. The right thumb has access to the red “B” and “A” action buttons, which will have different uses depending on the game being played. Playing some of the launch games was a bit of a challenge due to the unique nature of these controllers. I’ve become accustomed to using joysticks and paddles (and even the occasional trackball) for my games, not a digital pad. To Nintendo’s credit, the pad seems to register all of my commands just fine and I’m sure it’s something I can get used to over time. Still, I can’t help but miss the smooth control typically found with a joystick.
One other aspect that might trip some veteran gamers up is that the cross pad is on the left side of the controller, which can be off-putting if you’re right handed. For years I’ve used my right hand to move around on the screen and my left for the action button. This is obviously reversed with the NES controllers. This may not be a huge deal to most of you, but for many it could really take some practice to overcome this change. Then again, arcade veterans are probably used to this configuration by now since many games, like Donkey Kong, have the joystick on the left and the action button on the right. Perhaps Nintendo will release additional controllers that are reversed, or maybe a joystick peripheral to satisfy all users?
The cartridges, officially called Game Paks, are fairly large when compared to those found on systems like the Atari 2600. The launch games that I’ve had a chance to try out all look crisp and colorful, so perhaps they’re using the extra space to pack in more chips? Although I haven’t had a chance to try all of the games, Kung Fu and Duck Hunt both have some really nice animations and detailed landscapes. Also, looking at pictures of Super Mario Bros., a game that came out in Japan last month and should arrive any day at stores over here, it’s evident that the NES has some serious graphical power under the hood. Many of the games look slightly better than what I’ve been playing on my Commodore 64, but nothing released thus far is leaps and bounds better. Still, it’s nice not having to load the games or switch floppy discs in the middle of a game session.
One other note to mention is that the NES, like past gaming consoles, can be hooked up with an RF adaptor. However, and this is a great feature, you also have the ability to hook it up via an A/V cord for a super crisp and vibrant picture. Pixels have never looked so good on your TV before, assuming you have the proper inputs that is.
Also in the box is the Zapper light-gun and R.O.B. the robot. The Zapper seems very accurate and I had a good time playing Duck Hunt. R.O.B. is another story. He’s so slow moving and tedious that waiting for him to interact with the game can be a snooze. He looks cool, but in practice he’s really not that great of a partner. I’d rather play the games with a second player than try to use the robot. Perhaps the technology just isn’t quite there yet to support this type of device. Or, maybe future games will better utilize him. Either way, he will appeal to little kids, as robots are huge right now (Transformers, Go-Bots, Voltron, etc.), so maybe it was smart including him in the box.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the NES. The games look better than my Atari 2600 did (and rightfully so, since this is coming out years later), and they are on par or even better looking than the vast majority of my Commodore 64 games. It’s early times and I’m excited to try out more games over the coming months. I hope the system is a success and we see a lot of support over the next few years. In the meantime, below are the games that are either out now, or coming soon. I can’t wait to play some Donkey Kong Junior.