Games | NES | Nintendo Famicom: The Older Sibling from Japan

Article by Jeremy Parish? | August 17, 2010

Without the Famicom, there would have been no NES.

ďWell, obviously,Ē you sneer. ďThe two systems were the same thing, so of course one couldnít have existed without the other. Itís elementary existentialism, smart guy.Ē

And fair enough. Perhaps it would be more interesting to say that without the success of the Famicom, there would have been no NES. Nintendo launched its system in Japan in the summer of 1983, where it faced direct competition from a number of other console gaming hopefuls. Within days of the Famicomís debut, Sega launched the SG-1000, and the MSX computing standard was officially unveiled. While the NES arguably edged out either of its competitors very slightly in terms of power, the trio arrived on practically equal footing.

Yet for reasons only Japan will ever properly understand, it was Nintendoís system that ended up dominating the market, and third-party publishers with the perspicacity to back the Famicom enjoyed stunningly brisk sales. Clumsy, obtusely-designed games like Milonís Secret Castle and Tower of Druaga became million-sellers revered with affection by a generation of Japanese nerds, simply because they were on the right platform at the right time.

The Famicom had been initiated by direct order from company president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who presumably saw the home market as a potentially more stable venue for selling games than the volatile arcade. Designed under the direction of Masayuki Uemura of Nintendoís R&D2 division, the Famicom was perfectly in keeping with the companyís charter for hardware design, a perfect balance of capability and affordability. The console was profitable for Nintendo from the moment it debuted, yet its components made it competitive with many more expensive systems. The Famicom hit Japan less than a year after the ColecoVision debuted in the U.S., yet there was little question which system was more powerful. Even the consoleís earliest games, largely first-party arcade ports, were crisper and faster than their counterparts on Coleco.

The Famicomís swift rise to heaven made it the de facto game platform for Japanese publishers. While MSX retained fairly healthy support, developers poured more creativity and ambition into their Famicom software. The consoleís support for practical add-ons -- most notably the Famicom Disk System and the various Memory Mapper Chip sets -- kept it viable throughout the Ď80s even as more robust competition such as the Sega Mark III (better known as the Master System) and the NEC PC Engine (alternately known as the TurboGrafx-16) provided programmers with new avenues for their work.

The timing, popularity, and endurance of the Famicom created a vast fan culture around the system, one which survives to this day. The Famicom was the console that fully introduced the concept of home gaming to Japanese audiences, and as a result it holds the same place in the nationís collective memory as both the Atari VCS and the NES do in the U.S.

Combined with the fact that the Famicom saw twice as many official releases as the NES -- more than 1400 versus about 750 -- and that, unlike their American peers, Japanese audiences didnít have to wait a year or more for games to be localized, itís easy to understand that even though the two systems are inextricably linked, the Famicomís legacy is even more deeply ingrained than the NESís.

Famicom Disk System

By far the most successful peripheral add-on in gaming history -- yes, weíve heard your jokes about the Wii being a GameCube peripheral, and we think theyíre stupid and annoying -- the Famicom Disk System was an integral component of the Famicom experience. At the time of its debut, the FDS greatly expanded the systemís basic capabilities, offering richer sounds and a larger yet cheaper format than early cartridges. The FDS never launched in the U.S. simply because it was unnecessary; by the time the NES properly caught on, the FDS format was completely outstripped by newer high-capacity carts. Still, the FDS endured into the Ď90s in Japan, finding a comfortable niche as a disposable format predicting modern digital distribution: FDS owners could take blank disks to participating convenience stores to download back-catalog Famicom games for the equivalent of a few bucks.

Memory Mapper Chips

The earliest NES and Famicom games were largely indistinguishable from those of competing systems, with simple sprites, blank backgrounds, and single-screen stage designs. This was as much a function of limited technology as of limited design ambitions, but once Super Mario Bros. and its smooth-scrolling levels arrived, the genie was out of its bottle. Everyone wanted to develop similarly complex games. Unfortunately, early NES tech wasnít really up to the task, even with the better tech offered by the FDS.

Thus, Nintendoís R&D2 and R&D3 departments came up with a solution that would expand the systemís capabilities without the need for expensive peripherals: Enhanced cartridges that inherently extended the systemís power with built-in memory-management chips. The earliest of these super-chips simply enabled the inclusion of more and varied graphics, but later chips allowed complex feats like split-screen scrolling, richer colors, and enhanced audio and sampling functions. Japanese developers (Namco and Konami in particular) went hog-wild with their special chips, although Americans only ever saw Nintendoís own internally developed chips -- mostly UNROM, MMC1, and MMC3 -- meaning the best versions of many games were exclusive to Famicom.


Because everything in Japan needs a mascot, the Famicom Disk System had Disk-kun. He was a yellow diskette with eyeballs, and he was gol-danged adorable. He also lent his image to a handful of rare and highly sought-after giveaway prizes that sell for crazy money these days.

Super Mario Bros. 2

The two-year-plus difference between the Famicomís debut and the NESís American launch played havoc with game release schedules. By the time Americans had enjoyed their fill of the original Super Mario Bros., for example, their Japanese peers had been screaming in anger at the gameís sequel for a good year. So, had it come to America on its intended release schedule, Super Mario Bros. 2 would have arrived in the U.S. late enough that its visuals would have seemed painfully dated. Nintendo decided to pull a quick substitution and gave us a better-looking (and arguably just plain better) game called Super Mario Bros. 2 which was in fact nothing of the sort. The ďlostĒ Mario 2 was hardly the only game to suffer this fate, but the infamy of being attached to the two best-selling NES games of all time made it a sort of poster child for all the promising Famicom games that never reached the U.S.

Dragon Quest III

Few games more dramatically demonstrate the difference between Famicom and NES fan culture than the disparity between the popularity of Dragon Quest III and its American counterpart, Dragon Warrior III. The former was a tremendous blockbuster that cemented the Dragon Quest series as one of Japanís most popular series; the latter was practically invisible. Granted, the game didnít make it to the U.S. in a translated form until several years after its Japanese debut -- which is to say that the Super NES had already gained a fair amount of traction by that point -- but it was ultimately symptomatic of the failure of the role-playing game to catch on with NES owners. Which of course meant that most Famicom RPGs werenít localized. Which is annoying, since they were the most dependent on translated text.

Controller II Microphone

One of the interesting quirks of the Famicom is that its controllers were hard-wired into the console. Also interesting: The player-two controller had a microphone built in. This was almost completely useless, since the vast majority of games it was used in were really terrible (Takeshi No Chousenjou, for example).

The sole notable exception was The Legend of Zelda, which let players destroy Pols Voice monsters by shouting. Lacking the microphone, the U.S. version of the game was modified to make Pols Voice vulnerable to arrows.... which left American players slower to catch on when they showed up again in Phantom Hourglass where they could be destroyed by shouting into the DS mike.

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