“Now you’re playing with power!”
Nintendo’s NES-era slogan became an inescapable refrain of the late ’80s. The promise of empowerment through videogames was appended to television commercials and comic book ads and even formed the kernel of the company’s magazine. Nintendo Power was a masterstroke of genius, even more so than the Fun Club News: Rather than giving gamers enticing glossy game catalogs for free, Nintendo disguised them as magazines and sold them through annual subscriptions.
Nintendo Power’s circulation at its peak reached heights that other game magazines can only dream of. The only way modern magazines can even come close to reaching those lofty pinnacles is by pushing subscriptions on shoppers at the country’s monopolistic game speciality franchise. But there were no such shenanigans for Nintendo Power; outside the somewhat questionable nature of the publication itself, it sold through ardent fan fervor. NES owners wanted nothing more than to be immersed in blurry photos of games from Japan and entirely too-kind reviews of mediocre games. It was culture of a sorts, a rite of passage for NES fans.
Nintendo promoted power as a byproduct of NES ownership, a boon granted to fans for their prudent purchase of Nintendo’s games. But the real power belonged to Nintendo itself. For roughly half a decade, the company owned the U.S. videogames industry -- and, in fact, the entire toy market itself. For several years straight, the most profitable toyline in America was the NES. One suspects that the subsequent reclassification of videogames as their own separate retail category had less to do with the legitimization of the medium and more to do with competing manufacturers putting up a fuss, similar to how young adult novels were disallowed from the New York Times bestsellers list after the first few Harry Potter book shut out everyone else for months at a time.
Nintendo was the king of squatters, a carpetbagger who got lucky. They found the American home gaming market in shambles, moved in, fixed up the place, and refused to budge when the eviction notices came along. Simply resuscitating the industry was no great accomplishment; someone was bound to do it eventually, as the sustained popularity of games elsewhere in the world was ample proof that they were far more than just a mere fad. Nintendo’s true victory came in the way the company took the high ground and shut out the competition.
The company’s strategy revolved around its licensing agreements. To publish on NES, third parties had to agree that those titles would be exclusive to the system. There were workarounds for this, of course; often developers would create NES-specific versions of games, as seen with Ninja Gaiden and Double Dragon. The trend of loose arcade-to-NES conversions was probably less a matter of working around the home hardware’s limitations than the simple need to differentiate the NES game enough to satisfy Nintendo and keep from poisoning the well for other home conversions.
Alternately, Sega’s solution for dealing with Nintendo’s attempts to suffocate competition was to license properties and develop Master System conversions in-house. (In Japan, the only Master System/Mark III titles not developed and published by Sega was a pair of Tecmo games, one of which was a home adaptation of Rygar that omitted the free-roaming exploration of the NES game.)
Nintendo’s licensing rules prevented a glut of substandard third-party products. Publishers were reportedly restricted to a mere five releases per year, and the actual production process was handled from start to finish by Nintendo. Unlicensed games didn’t enjoy the company’s stamp of approval... and, more importantly, support for the console’s 10NES security lockout chip and the company’s retail distribution network. Games not manufactured by Nintendo couldn’t be sold by “authorized” retailers, and they ran the risk of shorting out the console every time they booted up.
These tactics walked a thin line between self-protection and outright monopolism—and in fact Nintendo never actually proved it wasn’t a monopoly, settling most of its class action cases off the record. Ultimately, the case was solved by the fullness of time, and eventually Nintendo’s 90% market lock was reduced to a struggle to split things down the middle with Sega. But until the Genesis made its own headway, Nintendo absolutely played with power... and played to win.