For a device that did its best to disassociate itself with videogames, the NES certainly did a lot to shape gaming’s future.
Even the system’s name -- Nintendo Entertainment System -- was carefully calculated to feign gaming agnosticism. Nintendo of America was gaming the system in 1985, well aware that videogames weren’t some mere passing fad but faced with the reality of a retail system that was terrified to deal with anything that even slightly resembled that foul demon Pac-Man. This was the NES’s burden: To convince the U.S. retail establishment that kids did, in fact, still want to spend money on videogames. There was ample proof elsewhere on the planet, but American corporate buyers could only see as far as the red ink staining their past few years’ worth of sales sheets and the grim memory of remaindered Atari 2600s piled to the ceiling. And so, Nintendo did the only thing they could: They lied.
The fiery demise of Atari and the resulting collapse of the U.S. home console business created a unique crucible for the NES. Where the Famicom practically created the Japanese console market from nothing, and the steady success of 8-bit microcomputers relegated Nintendo to niche-player status in the UK, Nintendo’s role in America was more akin to that of a phoenix. For the market to be reborn, though, its key players first had to be tricked into giving it a chance—no easy feat with Warner’s half-billion-dollar loss fresh in everyone’s minds.
Nintendo’s deception was simple, yet genius: They simply avoided using the term “videogame” in any NES marketing materials. The console was an “entertainment system,” cartridges were “game paks,” and the whole thing was presented as a crazy toy that just happened to hook up to the player’s television. The first iteration of the NES console shipped with a completely useless robot accessory and a far more practical light gun, a kind of stealth camouflage to hide the revolting videogame-ness of the whole affair.
Certainly the NES Console Deluxe Set (featuring R.O.B., the Robot Operating Buddy!) was less extreme than 1984’s “Advanced Video System” prototype of the console, which echoed the Coleco Adam by including a keyboard, BASIC programming tool, and cassette drive. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Nintendo president Minoru Arakawa realized that the company needn’t go to quite such ridiculous extremes to sell the console. It was retailers who needed to be tricked into committing to buy the system; kids were perfectly capable of seeing the system for what it was, which is to say the most impressive videogame console ever to hit the living room. R.O.B. and the Zapper, along with an appliance-like redesign for the console itself, were sufficient to fake out CES buyers and allow the NES a test launch in New York City for Christmas of 1985.
It was a smashing success, which is hardly surprising in hindsight. The U.S. home gaming market imploded right about the time hardware and design were beginning to advance beyond the single-screen arcade experiences of the so-called “golden era,” and kids could only look on in frustration as they played through the best games of 1984 and 1985 and realized that they were doomed to remain arcade exclusives. The arrival of the NES served as a release valve for an entire nation’s pent-up frustration, like the first rain after a years-long drought.
The delay in the console’s transition to America -- it didn’t reach wide distribution until the Famicom was celebrating its third birthday -- couldn’t have worked out better if it had been planned. By 1986, Nintendo had sold the Japanese public on its strong (if admittedly simplistic) first-party titles, creating a sufficient install base to convince third parties to try their luck with Famicom development.
For the most part, it took those licensees a while to get up to speed on the hardware, and the launch gap meant that American gamers were able to skip right past the system’s early years in which the bulk of the material available was genuinely dire. Where the Japanese had to wait patiently for the likes of Super Mario Bros., Wrecking Crew, and Gradius, we had them right out of the starting gate.
The obvious downside to Nintendo’s stealth tactics, of course, is that it did a great deal to fuel the notion -- still alive to this day -- that videogames are synonymous with toys, that they’re only for children, and that they’re superficial diversions at best. Not to say that wasn’t a popular attitude before the console market crash, of course, but the NES helped cement it. Still, you can almost forgive Nintendo for their part in maintaining the childish image of gaming... after all, without the NES’s success and influence, games would have been far slower to recover in the U.S. And where would that leave us? Forced to rely on imported isometric platformers, no doubt.