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.
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