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FAMICOM

Nintendo brought arcade games into homes 30 years ago

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

On July 15, 1983, Kyoto-based Nintendo Co. launched the Family Computer video game console, or “Famicom.” Priced at ¥14,800, more than 63 million units of the iconic white, red and gold machine were sold worldwide, laying the foundations for today’s gaming industry.

Here are some questions and answers about the game console widely known as “Famicom.”

What are the characteristics of the original Famicom?

The original Famicom had an 8-bit CPU that ran at a speed of 1.79 Mhz and 2 kilobytes of RAM. To put it in perspective, Sony’s PlayStation 3 has 256 megabytes of RAM — 100,000 times more than the Famicom.

Some of the Famicom’s signature character designs stemmed from the limitations of the hardware. The big challenge for game creators was to draw a character in as few pixels as possible, Shigeru Miyamoto, an executive at Nintendo who began as a designer, has said.

Most of the characters were given large faces and big noses to make it easier to distinguish them. To lessen the need to program facial movements, Miyamoto came up with the idea of adding a mustache to the main character. The completed image was thought to resemble an Italian man. Hence, one of his most famous creations was named Mario, Miyamoto said.

How did Nintendo get involved in the video game industry?

The company was founded in 1889 and had success in selling traditional “hanafuda” playing cards.

Its first electronic venture into home gaming consoles was a 1977 product called Color TV Game 15. It also launched a series of handheld electronic games known as Game & Watch. It was former President Hiroshi Yamauchi who decided to invest these profits into developing the Famicom.

“(Yamauchi) made the best decision under limited resources and options, at the right time,” current President Satoru Iwata said in an interview in “The Philosophy of Nintendo,” published in 2009. “If I were told to do the same thing, I don’t think I’d be able to do that,” he added.

Did Famicom face competition when it was released?

Yes, because other home video game consoles had already hit the market by the time Famicom was launched. In fact, the July 15, 1983, edition of The Japan Times does not even mention Famicom’s debut but covers a similar product that was released by Tomy Co. called the Pyuta Jr. System.

Still, pundits point out that Famicom changed the industry for a variety of reasons.

One was price. The Pyuta Jr., for instance, sold for ¥19,800.

And whereas Pyuta Jr. and other systems also offered multiple functions, including the ability to record data on a cassette, Famicom trimmed its tasks down to just playing games on TV. It also continued to release new software and lured users who simply wanted to enjoy the gaming experience at home rather than the arcade.

How did Famicom become a global success?

Before Nintendo there were many console makers in play, including frontrunner Atari Inc. But the U.S. market was still recovering from a recession in the mid-1980s, when Famicom was released.

The Atari 2600, released in 1977, was a huge success. But within years the industry “was flooded with new game software mostly of poor quality,” former Nintendo chief Yamauchi explained in a 2003 interview with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. “We learned that the quality of the software can determine the success or failure of the business, through Atari’s missteps,” he added.

Famicom was designed specifically to make it easier for game makers to turn their visions into reality, Yamauchi said.

What were some of the key products and people behind the Famicom?

“Super Mario Brothers,” created by Miyamoto and released in September 1985 for Famicom, went on to sell 6.81 million units domestically and over 40 million worldwide. Guidebooks for the game became best-sellers at the time, and the franchise is still updated today in Nintendo’s latest hardware.

“Dragon Quest III,” released in February 1988, also became a phenomenon.

“In Tokyo, police took into custody 283 children, including six elementary schoolchildren, 77 junior high school students and 192 high school students who cut classes to line up for the computer software,” The Japan Times reported after the game was released.

“The Tokyo metropolitan board of education issued warnings on Feb. 4 to boards of education, telling them to watch that children don’t cut classes to buy the software,” the report said.

People like Toshiyuki Takahashi, better known as “Takahashi Meijin” (Master Takahashi), also helped expand Famicom’s following. The former game company executive made TV appearances and even had his own anime series, game, record deal and feature film after gaining fame with his ability to shoot 16 rounds per second in Famicon shooting games.

Takahashi, who was widely worshipped by young gamers, is still involved in the gaming industry today.

How did Famicom evolve?

Nintendo followed Famicom with Super Famicom in 1990, the Nintendo 64 in 1996 and the Nintendo Game Cube in 2001. However, competition grew fierce when electronics giant Sony Corp. joined the race in 1994 by launching the high-tech PlayStation console.

PlayStation had many advantages over Nintendo’s hardware, including the ability to use the less expensive and easier to use CD-ROM discs to deliver its software.

In 2002, software giant Microsoft Corp. entered the gaming business with the Xbox console in Japan. All three companies continue to compete strenuously to this day.

Nintendo released its newest system, the Wii U, last December. Sony will reveal its PlayStation 4 later this year at about the same time Microsoft will launch its latest offering, the Xbox One.

How does Nintendo’s Yamauchi see the future of the industry?

In the 2003 interview, Yamauchi pointed out that the evolution of the video game hardware “has reached its limits.”

“Games are becoming too complicated to play” so many people have dropped the hobby, he said. Many are also playing games on their smartphones today instead of using video gaming consoles at home.

“The key for the development of the gaming industry lies in whether we can create software that anyone can enjoy, and enjoy easily,” Yamauchi said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

  • 思德

    Since when have games become too complex? UIs have been improving, and for the most part all games have higher and lower difficulty settings.

    The most complex game I have ever played was Pokemon.

    • Kazuhisa Nakatani

      Most gamers can play complex videogames without realizing their complexity (and without reading manuals), because they have already played similar games before.

      Unfortunately, that is not the case for casual and/or first-time gamers — which explains why console game titles are losing ground to simpler smartphone apps.

      • 思德

        Good point on there being a building up of skills.

        Regarding your second point, I would be very interested to see an in depth look into the “losing ground that people are talking about.

        1. Are they “losing ground” or has a new market simply opened up that is being taking advantage of by companies other than the traditional, well known brands?

        2. Is the person who plays Angry Birds the same kind of person who has been supporting consoles for decades now? If so, is that guy really dropping his PS3 game pad to play on his phone, or is he doing both?

        3. Seriously, who is giving up gaming because it is, “too complicated”? The current generation of kids (the current people we buy games for and the people who will be buying them in the future) is more familiar with games than any previous generation. Some of them are phone fiends who will only ever play phone games. Some (probably far fewer) are PC and console gamers. But “stop playing”? Really? I doubt it. If the industry is losing money, it is because of economic downturn and piracy, not because people are playing less. Maybe people stopped playing Wii games. I know I did… it wound up being a Sonic the Hedgehog arcade cabinet, and then it got pawned at a Game Stop so I could buy a system with interesting content (XB360- I like RPGs).

        What it sounds like to me is that a new market has opened up called “the casual gamer” (translation: anybody with ambulatory limbs and an opposable thumb) and because of their higher numbers, companies are willing to cede nuance and depth for some perceived (and also probably real) sense of profitability. Which is better, to sell a $1 thumb tapping game to 100 million people or sell a $60 “complex” game that requires a game pad with more than 2 buttons to 1 million people that costs way more to develop? Not every game needs to be like Virtua Fighter, but do we really need to limit gameplay because some demographic has a (slight) learning curve to get over? Why not play to both crowds?

        Also, if Nintendo wants to tap the casual market, they should sell their games on the App Store and Android and be done with it. I cannot tell you how much money I would spend on Nintendo if they put their games out on the app store. Just buying points and then going through their console to buy and download things was a hassle. Nintendo is essentially a game developer with a console leash for its fans. Sony and MS are console makers with game developers who use their system, and other systems, to produce their games. Maybe they should jailbreak their company from their own hardware so they can actually reach the markets they need to instead of trying to make the market come to them.

  • Kazuhisa Nakatani

    Hi David. Thank you for your comment. I am not going to answer to your questions one by one, but here is what I thought:

    We only have 24 hours a day — and all players on media landscape, not limited to game developers and platformers, are competing for the precious consumers’ time.

    For many people, one of the shortcomings of gaming experience is its time-consuming nature. It is even true when the “complex games” means full-fledged games, like you play on PS3, XBOX and PC. To complete a first person shooter, you have to invest average 10-20 hours (equivalent to 10 feature films) , and if it’s a single player RPG you might put in 40-60 hours — and for MMOs the sky is the
    limit. Plus you have to be in front of the TV screen, since mobile devices cannot, or should not, accommodate the “complex, full-fledged” user interfaces.

    With that in mind, JT’s July 17 article “Japanese adults spend crazy money on cellphone games” is interesting (average gamers in the U.S., Europe and Japan are in their 30’s). Those casual/social games are offering commuters an excuse to spend their precious time on their services — after all the only body parts you can move in jam-packed trains are eyeballs and thumbs. Is it a full-fledged gaming experience? Are they really enjoying the games, or something else? That is another story.

    Nintendo Wii discovered a different, uncultivated time-frame, and opened up a new market 7 years ago — they convinced mams to exercise on Wii Fit, as well as grandpa to play Wii Party with grand kids. But those newcomers are, unlike long-time clientele, satisfied with one or two titles they already have, and do not have slightest intention to buy new one. That was the limit of the demographic, generational frontier.

    Hard-core gamers will continue to invest their time and money on “traditional” games anyway, but the core market alone does not pay off for business giants like Nintendo.