The accepted wisdom of the modern console industry is that hardware generations last five years. The current lineup of consoles is challenging this convention, largely because it’s taken Microsoft and Sony nearly that long to stop hemorrhaging cash. Nintendo, of course, remains perfectly profitable and, as history has proven, will never rush toward ostensible progress when there’s money to be made by standing perfectly still.
Case in point, the NES. By the time the hardware turned five, its software was just becoming good. By its fifth anniversary in the U.S., two years later, its lineup had matured to downright great. Around that time, two technologically superior machines had become available for American gamers to enjoy, but neither Nintendo nor its developers nor its customers were ready to abandon the NES just yet. There was just too much money to be made, and thus plenty of great software to enjoy.
It was basic economics in action: The NES was ubiquitous enough that publishers could still turn a healthy profit by producing products that were no longer at the leading edge of technology. In turn, the system remained popular among gamers because it hadn’t yet faded to irrelevance. Industry and consumers provided mutual incentive, and the NES survived well beyond the sell-by date of subsequent generations.
Of course, no one knew what the natural life of a console would be back then, because Nintendo was pioneering new territory. Previous hardware generations had burned themselves out in a blaze of unmanageable limitations or fatal greed. Nintendo was the first console maker to establish a viable equilibrium of technology, software diversity, and manufacturer-level control over the marketplace—the test case.
The fact that the NES didn’t up and vanish at the five-year mark betrays the system’s prototypical nature... and the immaturity of the industry hype machine. The triumvirate of tastemakers—publishers, the press, and the gaming community—have developed into an echo chamber that drives the hardcore to the next shiny thing. Two decades ago, however, the hype machine was still imperfect. Sure, we saw Genesis screenshots, and they were amazing enough. But they didn’t convince us—not right away.
Meanwhile, with the NES clearly in no danger of fading away, developers took inspiration from the burgeoning 16-bit generation for their NES games. Formerly unthinkable tricks like parallax scrolling and improved color depth became common. Sometimes these advances were achieved with pricey specialized ROM chips, but sometimes the secret was skilled programming and the simple realization that these things could be done. The NES was no longer the platform for fresh new ideas, but its iterative imitations were perfectly engrossing for millions of fans who had spent countless hours with their Nintendo Entertainment Systems and had every intent of investing countless more.