Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Liquid Nostalgia #4

The Nintendo Entertainment System: A Look Back

 

If there's anything that dominates retro gaming sites, video blogs and memories of 25-35 year olds, it's the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Simply put, videogames wouldn't be where they are today if this little Japanese device didn't emerge from Japan upon the desolate wasteland that was America's videogame culture in 1985. 

The 1980s were the best of times and the worst of times of videogames. Arcades were popular and, at the time, were the one thing that was scraping along but offering new and fun things to play. Home consoles, however, were dead by 1985 thanks to the "videogame crash" in 1983/84 which put everything back to square-one.

Yet, in 1987, nobody knew that kind of stuff and by then didn't remember. There weren't game magazines just yet, those were a few years off, and stuff like videogame companies going bankrupt and the consumer market falling weren't making headlines. It was far from the multi-billion dollar industry it would eventually become. So, when I asked my parents for an NES in 1987, their response was like many: don't you already have one?

You see, the late 80s is when Nintendo really started to kick it into high-gear. Ad campaigns, TV shows, toys, various Nintendo products and Nintendo Power magazine made it a part of every child's life.

Every child's life.

There was not a single kid that did not play Nintendo or didn't knew who Mario was, and the big surge wouldn't hit until a year or two later with new Mario games, Zelda games and all the massive media bombardment from Nintendo I just mentioned from cereal to toys to happy meals. As someone still playing Atari at the time, I was feeling left out in 1987. The NES had already been out for a little over a year and its popularity was slowly building. Playing games the likes of Tecmo Bowl, The Legend of Zelda and Contra at other kids' houses only caused me to salivate about the thoughts of it sitting there in my bedroom and hooked up to the little TV I had.

As we all know, explaining to your parents why you need (kids always needed these things) a new videogame system is like explaining to the Pope why he should give Islam a try. "We're fine with what we have, thank you, move along." 

Then Christmas rolled around, and alas, without expectation, there was a present awaiting me. My family had a tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve, so I went with the box that looked like it had clothes in it so I don't have to worry about pretending I'm excited about clothes Christmas morning. 

To my parents, it was just more videogames. To me, it was a new world. Colors and graphics (yes, people loved better graphics back then too), sound and music (Atari games rarely had music) and a cool new controller...one even looked like a gun. The leap from the Atari to the NES was astronomical back then, but not necessarily because of the technology and games, but because of what Nintendo made their brand.That brand is what people were sold into, not the games themselves. By owning an NES, you were a part of the group, and as we all know, acceptance is the most important part of childhood because kids are superficial little punks that would point and laugh if you were still playing Dig-Dug on the Atari 2600. 

While the brand made it popular, it was also Nintendo and their third party developers (Capcom and Konami especially) that gave us new ways to play and put games into history of iconic pop-culture.

 


 

 A Brief History of the Nintendo Entertainment System

-In 1983, the "videogame crash of North America" occurred due to companies flooding the marketplace with numerous consoles and a high amount poor quality games from start-up developers. The industry, still young, was not prepared for this massive surge and thus caused many companies filing for bankruptcy, unable to sustain themselves, and many consumers turning away due to lack of quality and game improvement. The effects were most notable in 1984 (1984 especially) and 1985 where most companies collapsed and few, if any, games were even released. By that time, it was simply believed videogames were a passing fad. 

-In Japan, where the crash was not relevant, the Famicom (Family Computer) had been gaining in popularity since 1983, following Nintendo's success with arcade games, and was the best selling console in 1984. The Famicom was designed by Masayuki Uemara (whose R&D2 team also went on to create the Zapper light gun and little thing called the Super Nintendo

-Nintendo had planned on releasing the Famicom in North America in a joint venture with Atari, however the videogame crash put much of that on hold. Despite the risks of introducing yet another console in a flooded (and bankrupt) North American market, Nintendo felt their quality and design would over come it. They were right.

-On October 18, 1985, Nintendo released their Famicom in North America, named the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in limited release in select markets. This is considered the legitimate launch date, however the rest of the country wouldn't be able to purchase it locally until February 1986.There was the"deluxe set" for $249 (which came with two controllers, the zapper light gun, ROB the robot, and the games Duckhunt and Gyromite), and the far more popular "action set" for $199 (which came with two controllers, the zapper and a Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge).

 -Their advertising and marketing strategy with Worlds of Wonder allowed the NES to be the leader of the videogame market for the next six years before Nintendo's release of the Super Nintendo in 1991. Even then, games would continue to be released on the NES until 1995 and Nintendo discontinued their repairs of NES consoles in 2007.  

-Launch titles were mediocre, with the best games being Mario Bros. Duck Hunt and Ice Climbers, however  developers slowly began to emerge, such as Konami (Castlevania, Contra), Capcom (Mega Man, Bionic Commando) and of course Nintendo themselves (Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid). 

-The NES introduced the biggest influence on videogames: the controller. No longer sticks or knobs, the NES boasted a four way direction pad on the left, two "action" buttons on the right and a select and start button. This basic design has remained unchanged since. Numerous other peripherals would arise, from the NES and on, but the basic controller and layout would remain the top design, even to today.

-Nintendo's licensing and infamous "Seal of Quality" had both good and bad consequences. Although it helped limit who could and could not develop on the NES, allowing for better quality software from high-quality their party developers (notably in Japan). However, due to Nintendo being the manufacturer of consoles, their parties had to have agreement with them on game content and sign contracts that obligate them to make games only for the Famicom/NES. Small companies could not thrive and Nintendo held a monopoly over the entire game industry. This caused numerous antitrust lawsuits in later years from competitors such as Atari.

-The NES's design also ran into numerous problems, notably connectivity of the game cartridge and the console "pins" inside. This caused many flashing power lights, blank screens and repairs to ensue. Eventually, Nintendo released a "top loading" version in 1993 that corrected these problems but by then the NES was on its last legs. 

 -The NES's run ended in 1995 with console manufacturing  fully discontinuing in 1996 (2003 for the Famicom). The final result: 60 million units sold. Until Wii Sports was released in 2006, the original Super Mario Bros. was the highest selling game of all time at 40.24 million copies.

 


 

 Top 10 NES Games

How can you limit the massive NES library to only 10 titles? Well, you can't. So instead I put in the 10 games I remember most fondly. So sit back and enjoy the trip:

 


10: Batman

(Sunsoft, 1990)

Sunsoft is one unappreciated NES game developer. Sure, they might run the gamut on quality, but the good ones are considered some of the best games released. For the NES, they gave us Blaster Master, Spy Hunter, Lemmings, Journey to Silius and two Batman games. The first Batman, though, is by far their best. 

This game is also a perfect example of how NES games were just brutal to the player. Games today like to coddle you, hold your hand and give you as many tires as you want. Games back then were simple: you're dead, start over. If you're lucky you might get one with a continue code, or at least continue options, but even then you have to start the level all over again. It had great graphics, dark and moody like the movie, and...It's friggin' Batman.

My Experience: This is a game that I put the most effort towards and probably got nowhere in. I was at least able to get pretty far in another (more) brutal series, Ninja Gaiden, even Castlevania was something I could handle (Medusa heads...you know what I'm talking about) but Batman was a whole new level for me. Yet, it's a masterpiece of game design. The platforming was far more complicated than what Mario had done and it was an art to utilize your fists and weapons simultaneously. An art, sadly, I never quite mastered. Batman was the biggest thing since, well, Nintendo. Movie-licensed games were often hit or miss, I'd learned my lesson by the time this came out, yet I could not resist and I'm glad I succumbed. It's friggin' Batman.

  


9: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game

(Konami, 1990)

Why is there a "2" in the title? In case you don't remember, Ultra games (which was actually Konami) releaesd a Ninja Turtles title before publishing this one, which is universally accepted as god-awful. Then they gave us this one which was developed by Konami and based on Konami's arcade game...of course that wasn't called "The Arcade Game." So to prevent confusion (too late) it was dubbed a sequel.

While graphically inferior, and only allowing two players at once, the basic gameplay was still there in all its beat-em-up glory. For an 8-bit rendition of a superior arcade machine that ate millions of kids' quarters, it was a fair trade off to have it in your home. Plus you had levels added, which lengthened the gameplay. The music was solid, the controls arcade-perfect and...it was the Ninja Turtles!....and you get a free personal pizza from Pizza Hut when you buy it! 

My Experience: Two things will be remembered from the 1980s for kids: Nintendo and Ninja Turtles. Who didn't like Ninjas back then? After failing with the first game on the NES, which I've concluded was made by a special needs kid in Jersey, we got the game that pretty much every single child owned at some point. Playing it with your friends was always the best. I originally played it at a friends house, I had no idea it was even out, and we stayed up late on Saturday just chugging through it, eating pizza and fumbling the greasy controllers. At the time, I was in heaven. 

 


8: The Mega Man Series

(Capcom, 1987-1994)

It's hard to choose just one of the Mega Man games to say was the best. They're all pretty similar, however, offering some of the best platforming on the system, but most will attribute Mega Man 2 and 3 as the pinnacle of the series. Perfect and tight control, easy to pick-up and play but hard to master. The series is entirely based on a trial-and-error format. You keep trying until you reach the next area until, finally, you can make it all the way to the boss without dying. It was a talent few could master.

Of course, the one thing that Mega Man is best known for isn't the fantastic game design, but the music. It's easier to think of Capcom games that had great soundtracks than those that didn't and Mega Man is the perfect example of that. The music was complex for 8-bit cartridges, catchy, memorable and influential. Mega Man would go on to become an icon.

My Experience: I would love (and I mean LOVE) to hand a kid today and say "so...you think you're great at games?...let me give you something I used to play." Yet another example of the brutality and masochistic nature of game developers during the NES era, the Mega Man games were hard, frustrating and would make you break many controllers. Yet, we loved it. It was a challenge, not "oops, you died, try again." Once you die, you're done. End of story. Better write down those insane long continue passwords, or you're screwed. The jumps, man...the jumps. 

I would play Mega Man in spurts. Usually until I died which was often in rapid-fire after school and I'd stop after 15 minutes or so. Then usually just give up. As a result, I've actually only beaten two Mega Man games despite there being a dozen or so of them.

 


7: Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt

(Nintendo, 1986)

Packed in with most new Nintendo Entertainment Systems was this cart: Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt. Mario was something new. A sidescroller with an actual goal and fun controls, something you didn't see too often. You had various enemies, power ups and, man did that Italian plumber like to jump. This was all pretty new as most games worked on the player trying for the highest score in something. Mario took elements of other games and more or less streamlined and structured it into something that was actually fun to play. 

Duck Hunt was something many played as well, if anything for the novelty of the light gun, the Nintendo Zapper. Lightguns were pretty new at the time. Consoles had variations before but nothing that really caught on. Nintendo, though, pretty much forced it on the market and, as a result, it became popular even though few games utilized it. Duck Hunt did what it needed to do. It was simple and easy for anyone to play: a philosophy Nintendo still holds true today. This one cart is the groundwork for everything Nintendo was, is now and will always be. 

My Experience: While not necessarily one of my favorites, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt was an incredibly memorable experience. It was most peoples' first game for the NES and I'm willing to bet most can recall the first time they hooked it up and the screen came up. Better games came and went, but nothing was quite like your first time playing Mario for hours, sometimes neglecting breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Oh, and screw you dog.  You laughing little bitch. Who didn't point their Zapper at that thing and pull the trigger?

 


6: Ducktales/Rescue Rangers

(Capcom, 1989/1990)

The Disney Afternoons were perfect example of everything right about childhood. At the same time, so was Nintendo. Capcom and Disney then formed a partnership to create games for Nintendo platforms and gave birth to two of the best games on the NES: Ducktales and Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers. (I know you're humming the songs right now).

Both were produced by one of Capcom's top producers, no doubt the reason why both are so well-crafted, Tokuro Fujiwara (Mega Man series, Commando, Ghosts N' Goblins). As a result, we have two distinctly different games. One a Mega Man style platformer with open ended quests and multiple endings (DuckTales) and another that is a fast, albeit easy, run through platformer that allowed two-players. Both had beautiful 2D graphics, fantastic music and were just fun to pick up and play, something Fujiwara was best at making. Both were also must-owns.

My Experience: These games are listed together for the sole reason I received both on the same Christmas. Both are synonymous with each other: the TV shows aired everyday back

to back, both games are on the NES, both developed by Capcom and both relatively easy and just fun to play. For Ducktales, I remember taking forever to get the pogostick controls down, then it was easily sailing.

For Rescue Rangers, though, the best attribute was the co-op two-player mode which was a rarity in those days. The trick was to work together, but usually it all ended up the same. You throw a box. It hits your partner knocking him out. He then gets hit by an enemy. Your partner gets pissed, picks up your character and goes to an area where you die if you touch the bottom (games back then did it all the time, Contra most notably). More often then not you toss aside your controllers and start throwing down only to have your parents come in and break it up due to a bloody nose. Ah, memories. 

 


 5: Metroid

(Nintendo, 1986)

Metroid was a one of a kind game, there was really nothing quite like it. To someone merely watching, it seems to be a basic sidescroller with shooting elements and platforming. It was so much more than that. You had a sprawling world where you could go anywhere and the more items and upgrades you got, the more areas you could explore. It was a dark game as well, far from the more light-hearted Mario games. It gave the player such a sense of isolation with the black backgrounds and little to no music. Just you, your gun and a goal that was somewhere, you just had to search for it.

My Experience: I was probably too young to really "get" Metroid, much less play all the way through it, but once I saw a friend playing it, I had to give it a shot.

Despite owning it, I actually barely touched it until years after its release. Only then did I finally understand what it was all about. It wasn't a game that was going to give you instant gratification. It was about patience and pacing yourself, not defeating enemies and killing bosses (although that was there too). Similar games would emerge, such as Kid Icarus, but Metroid just did it better.

I would come to become a bigger fan with Super Metroid, which perfected everything Metroid set up, but those quiet nights at home with the odd sense of dread that Metroid was able to present actually made it one of the more frightening game experiences I went through, there was this sense of anxiety with the game, and that stuck with me.



4: Mike Tyson's Punch Out

(Nintendo, 1984/1985/1987)

A huge hit in arcades years before, Punch Out was finally released on the NES, now with the endorsement and appearance by "Iron" Mike Tyson. Tyson was huge by 1987 and having the champion of the world to take down at the end of Punch Out was a huge event. This wasn't just an endorsement, he was in the actual game as a fighter.

The game gave you well-animated and large sprites, something pretty unique at the time, with various gags and humorous personalities. It retains the arcade feel and ease of a player to pick up and play. You observe your opponent, scan for weaknesses, and exploit. It was a trial and error style, but if you were good you could eventually get through without even taking a hit (and in the arcades, on just one quarter)

My Experience: Goddamn you Tyson, you cheap bastard!

There is no worse feeling than slugging through bout after bout with King Hippo, Soda Popkinski, Super Macho Man and Piston Honda only to to fall in one friggin' punch by the final boss, Mike Tyson. I only got to him a handful of times- each time I thought I was ready, and each time he repeatedly knocked me down like a little bitch. Why show all those training montages only to fall in less than 10 seconds to Iron Mike? Yet, I kept going back for more. I never learn...

 

 


3: Contra

(Konami, 1987/1988)

Known for it's outlandish difficulty, the only way anyone could get anywhere is inputing the "Konami Code" (quick, what it is!?....yeah, you just thought of it in your head, didn't you?) Contra was a fast-paced action game for one or two players that basically had generic Rambo's shooting everything in sight, killing everything in sight, then shooting and killing a boss at the end of the level. You're granted three lives (the code allows more) and various powerups for your gun, the most popular being the Spread which would do exactly as its name implies and take up a good portion of the screen.

My Experience: This is two-player gaming at its finest. Very few games had both players on the screen at the same time, but Contra (and it's equally great sequal, Super C), was the game most friends played together and, most likely, caused the end of those friendships.

Why, you ask? Let me tell you: vertical levels. It was always the same story: one guys knows the level, knows where to jump and keeps moving up while the other guy is stuck scrambling, dodging bullets and soldiers, trying to jump but usually getting stuck at the bottom. The result: death. Then arguments begin. "You should have waited!" "You should just jump faster!" Then you steal one of the other character's lives or take a powerup they needed, then you might as well dig your own grave.

 


2: The Legend of Zelda

(Nintendo, 1987)

A brand new era of videogames emerged with the Legend of Zelda. There were adventure games before, sure, but most were muddy little blocks flickering and items that didn't look anything like what they were supposed to represent. The Legend of Zelda offered exactly what the adventure/puzzle solving genre needed: polish. The controls were spot-on, sword and shield play easy to grasp, it was non-linear but structured to where it sent you out in the world with your wits and your sword and it's up to you to figure out where to go, what to do first and where to find items to continue on your journey. It set the foundation that would later be perfected in numerous sequels and copycats. 

The music, too, was legendary. Koji Kondo, the composer, would go on to do the rest of the series as well as every Mario game known to man. The Zelda series is his pinnacle and the first little 8-bit melody probably the most famous videogame composition of all time.

My Experience: I first encountered the Legend of Zelda at my Cousin's house when visiting family in Kansas City. It had just been released and man, did he love to show it off. This is what cousins do: find something you don't have and flaunt it in front of you. It's an innate ability that is only observable in the wild during childhood. This game pretty much solidified my need, not want, to get an NES (which I would get in a few months that year) and to play the hell of Zelda. Up to that point I got by fine with just playing the NES at friends' houses while I got by on Atari, but this was an entirely new level with a new gameplay stytle and depth. With Punch Out, Castlevania, Spy Hunter, RC Pro Am, Ikari Warriors, Kid Icarus, Metroid, Mega Man, and Rygar, it's safe to say that 1987 was a good year...

 


 1: Super Mario Bros 3

(Nintendo, 1990)

Nintendo had already done so much for gamers by 1990. New styles of games, getting better and better as the years went by, and a steady supply on top of that. Add in all the third party titles, and you have a library that would make any kid happy, I was pretty damn satisfied with Mario 2 (although it technically wasn't a Mario game). They could have stopped there, I would have been happy. Then they decide to give us a perfect game. There's no denying it: Super Mario Bros. 3 is a perfect game. Everything that came before it was obsolete. Other platformers, even other Mario games, paled in comparison. The graphics were rich and vibrant, animation more detailed and smooth that before. The music was Kenji Kondo at the top of his game. It had secrets, depth, gameplay variations thanks to the suits you could wear while in the game and thus gaining new powers, the classic "collect everything you see" element and just...hell, what else could be said about it other than that it's a perfect game? 

My Experience: If this isn't your number one, then you simply didn't grow up with Nintendo. Much of its pop-culture infiltration and overall success can be credited to one little thing. One little thing starring Fred Savage.

The Wizard isn't a particularly good film, but it's a memorable one because of what Nintendo represented to kids back then. It's really just one long advertisement for Nintendo, plot and character are secondary and as useless as someone minoring in "art appreciation." It was all a build up to the climatic reveal of Super Mario Bros. 3. A movie today could never get away with this type of thing, and that shows how big Nintendo and its NES was at the time.  It's hard to explain to a person who wasn't around at the time just how epic it was.

Oh, yeah, and then there was the game. I'm proud to say I was the first out of my friends to own it. I knew from the movie it was going to be coming out, so I already had my money saved. Then, on a trip back from Oklahoma City (the comprehensive behemoth of capitalism it was to where everyone in the state would go there on weekends), my excitement through the roof after finding it at a Toys R Us with only one or two of them left. I got home that night and I played...and played...and played. 

Friends were jealous. The title hadn't made it to our town yet. I had finally achieved what Nintendo set out to make me achieve: be accepted and have people bow before me for acquiring their game weeks before anyone else could in my class. So take that, Josh Wilson, you little bitch. You can take your goddamn copy of Super C and shove it right up your ass...oh, if only I had such colorful vocabulary when I was ten.

 


 

Consoles today, and gamers for that matter, are nowhere near to the height the NES and Nintendo reached during its era. There was one console - that's it. Some might have had a Master System alongside it, maybe a few tried their hand at a Commodore 64, but everyone had a Nintendo. The Nintendo Entertainment System was to my generation what Star Wars or Merrie Melodies (Loony Tunes for those who don't know) was for theirs.

There are games I still recall fondly, cheats i can still punch in and music I will get stuck in my head. Consoles and games are taken for granted today. Gaming has now moved into "cool" and "accepted by adults." Back when it was for kids, it struggled to be recognized as viable entertainment. Now developers work to wow the player, putting in as much profanity and blood as the polygons will allow and as a result, I don't think we get nearly as charming, well-designed games with effort. The struggle isn't there anymore for developers, now they can just throw in pretty graphics and a few F-bombs.When games were simple and not as accepted was when you saw the most creativity and imagination. Now, it's all "wash-rinse-repeat."

While I can recall all the good things about the NES, you have to recall the bad as well. No game reviews were really around, the only publication of real note being Nintendo Power, which was published by Nintendo so it, too, was just a marketing tool. You really didn't know much about developers and quality, only now in hindsight can we appreciate the works of Capcom or Konami, so a lot of what we would play was based entirely on what was on the box: the art and screenshots. Many times we would just buy a game because it's based on a movie or was something familiar, like Back to the Future or Ninja Turtles. The quality was always hit or miss. It was a gamble, like playing roulette at Caesar's Palace.

Despite Nintendo's "Seal of Quality," only now do we know that it didn't necessarily mean it was a good game, just that Nintendo approved it to be made for the NES. Everyone had their selection of bad titles sitting in the back of their shelves collecting dust. Usually the first Ninja Turtles game by Ultra was among them.Throw the endless amount of accessories on top of it, and it was sensory overload for most kids...we had to have all of it. Even that Nintendo beanbag chair that the Nintendo merchandise catalog showcased (if you had a Nintendo Power subscription, you probably got the catalog).

Despite the problems, the Nintendo Entertainment System molded the foundation of what we consider gaming today and will go down as one of the best products to ever be created. We can go back a good decade before it to other consoles and games, sure, but the industry just wasn't built yet. Only until the complete destruction of it and the rise from the ashes did videogames emerge to what we know today, all thanks to a little Japanese game company taking a chance with us poor little gameless Americans.

 

 

 

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