Masayuki Uemura; a mild mannered, friendly engineer from Kyoto, Japan is the brains behind the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES is just over 30 years old and still seems to be going strong within the retro gaming community. To commemorate the esteemed 8bit console Uemura travelled to the NYU Game Centre last year and presented a talk about the development of the Nintendo Entertainment System. That very same talk was presented to a small group of individuals, including myself on Tuesday 29 January 2016 at The National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham, England. A few hours before the seminar began myself and Retro Gamer Magazine had the pleasure of a more intimate affair in an exclusive interview which can be viewed above.
Uemura (with the aid of his remarkable translater, Aki) presented a two hour talk that began right at the beginning with a few slides that reminded us at just how important Nintendo are as a company. Beginning in 1889, Nintendo began to develop Hanafuda cards, Japanese playing cards that could be used to play numerous games. Nintendo went on to develop other kinds of toys and games (including a form of Lego called Block). Slightly before the Game & Watch craze swept across Japan, Nintendo were busy making a range of Plug and Play. The company was eager to create TV Games to allow families to have their own gaming experience from the comfort of their own living rooms but as with everything, nothing lasts forever. It seemed to me that the Plug and Plays were limited and Nintendo wanted to push their creative juices further in to the consumer market.
By 1978 Taito had developed Space Invaders in Japan and were due to penetrate the American markets. Uemura noted that this was a very important learning curve for Nintendo as it increased their desire to make video games. Rather than conform the the Space Theme (Star Wars was also popular at this time too) Nintendo tried to separate themselves. What was the result? Donkey Kong. Not only was the Princess, the plumber and Kong a step away from the Space Invader craze Donkey Kong would become an imperative element for Nintendo to capture the hearts of the North American markets and also influenced the core elements of the Famicom.
President Yamauchi (Nintendo President 1949 - 2005) wanted a console that would enable families to play Donkey Kong in their homes. He collated a team of highly specialised engineers to ignite this project in to action. We now know that this was the Famicom which started development in 1981 and had a Japanese release in 1983. Uemura talked about what influenced the design of the Famicom:
In 1982 President Yamauchi was instructing retailers not to purchase anymore Game & Watch. Uemura chuckled on stage as he said "he wanted retailers to save their cash to buy the Famicom". This didn't seem like a bad move as Uemura pointed out that Game & Watch sales had dived during 1981.
The Famicom was released to the Japanese market in July 1983 and by the end of 1983 Nintendo had sold only 440,000. In January of 1984 Nintendo started to sense failure in the Famicom so started to collaborate with Nintendo of America. As Atari had started to fail it seemed like the perfect time to get the Famicom in to the North American markets. How was the done? I found this part of the seminar incredibly fascinating. Uemura said the Nintendo already had a huge presence in the arcades in North America. By 1985 Nintendo arcade machines claimed three out of the four top spots in the charts. What made them so popular? Why Nintendo? The Famicom technology was embedded in these arcade cabinets. The American's were already playing the Nintendo Entertainment System without even knowing it! Nintendo realised this very quickly and knew that the market research had already been done. The rest is history. By 1985 the Nintendo Entertainment System hit North America hard. Mario Bros was released and the gaming industry started to regain composure again.
Clearly there are huge differences in the outer casing's and peripherals between the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System. According to Uemura this was done on purpose. Here's why:
The Zapper was developed as the perception was that American's liked guns
The name Nintendo Entertainment System was also chosen in the hope that it would seem more appealing to consumers. R.O.B, the Zapper and the NES Advantage Joystick were important in projecting the notion of Entertainment to people. Uemura said that the NES was not pushed as a Videogame console but as an Entertainment console. Personally I believe this is genius given the nature of Western Culture being swamped in entertainment and materialism. We've never looked back! The NES truly is remarkable.
Thank you to Uemura and Aki for the amazing insight and work.
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