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Science Behind the Fiction: How Nintendo saved and redefined the game industry

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Jun 5, 2019

It may be hard to believe now, at a time when the sale of blockbuster video games dwarfs that of blockbuster movies, but in the mid-'80s, things were dire for the video game industry.

When gaming made the jump from arcades to home consoles, manufacturers flooded the market with shoddy ports and loads of infamously bad games. Consumer confidence was low, especially since newfangled computers offered buyers the chance to play video games and do a lot more, as William Shatner famously noted in a Commodore VIC-20 commercial.

All of this led to the famed North American Video Game Crash of 1983. Companies like Atari had invested too heavily and were now taking big losses. Revenues dropped from more than $3 billion to $100 million a year.

Enter Nintendo. While the home gaming industry in the United States was experiencing its death throes, Nintendo was gearing up to fill the void. In 1983, the same year as the crash, Nintendo released their Family Computer, commonly called Famicom, in Japan. It suffered a few speed bumps, but by the following year, it was the most popular game console in the country. By 1995, Nintendo had sold more than 60 million consoles worldwide, becoming synonymous with home gaming in the same way that Coke became synonymous with soda.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was known in the United States, was far from the first home console, but to most people, it might as well have been. To this day, regardless of what hardware is actually being used, some segments of the population refer to gaming as "playing Nintendo." The NES achieved this status and successfully saved a failing industry by virtue of good timing and a whole lot of innovation. Here are just a few of the ways Nintendo re-imagined home consoles.

THE LOCKOUT CHIP

In a 1986 issue of The Vindicator, Nintendo's president, Hiroshi Yamauchi said, "Atari collapsed because they gave too much freedom to third-party developers and the market was swamped with rubbish games." This was a fate Nintendo intended to avoid, and they did so by introducing the 10NES.

Because previous consoles were made with common parts, it was both easy and legal to allow interplay between competing manufacturers. In fact, prior to The Crash, ColecoVision offered a converter which allowed consumers to play Atari cartridges on Coleco consoles. While this was undoubtedly a win for consumers, it was a symptom of a larger problem.

The complete lack of control exercised by console manufacturers, over software content, meant that just about anyone could produce a game for play. This sort of creator free-for-all might seem utopian but it was a death blow for an industry already plagued by decreasing consumer confidence. When your Pac-Man port tanks and your E.T. adaptation fails, the situation isn't helped by a game produced by a dog food company.

This is the problem Nintendo set out to fix. By controlling what games were available for the NES, Nintendo was able to enforce a certain level of quality. Consumers knew that when they bought a game with the Nintendo seal on it, they weren't going to be disappointed.

This tradition of quality control has continued into the modern age. Even now, you can't buy a game for Nintendo, PlayStation, or Xbox, without it having the company logo on it. That's not to say that all games are well-received, but it's been almost forty years since millions of units were buried in a dump beneath a layer of concrete like so much nuclear waste.

R.O.B.

The Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B., was a direct response to The Crash, and one of Nintendo's more inventive attempts to rebrand their entertainment system as something other than a "video game console."

Released in the United States in October of 1985, R.O.B. came as part of the deluxe set, which also included the NES, a light gun (zapper), two controllers, and two games: Gyromite, and Duck Hunt.

R.O.B. was an important part of Nintendo's rebranding strategy. When the NES was introduced to the U.S. market, it was advertised as a high-end toy, instead of a game console, and R.O.B. was the face of that transformation.

Ultimately, however, the admittedly cool-looking robot was exposed as the gimmick it was, as it was only functional with two games, and only barely at that. R.O.B. was quickly abandoned, but by then the invasion of the NES into the U.S. market was complete.

While R.O.B. might be relegated to the video-game-graveyard, there was another peripheral accessory which was more successful…

THE ZAPPER

In another attempt to differentiate the NES from its predecessors, Nintendo introduced their light gun, The Zapper. In the late '80s and early '90s, this seemed like a landmark piece of technology. Somehow, this accessory was able to sense where you were pointing on your screen and accurately determine if you fired on a target successfully.

The technology was actually pretty simple. The Zapper is, essentially, just a light sensor which interacts with the images presented on the screen. While The Zapper functioned with more than a dozen games, it was most popular when paired with Nintendo's Duck Hunt.

Never was shooting pixelated ducks more fun. When the screen was fired upon, it was followed by one frame of pure blackness, and a subsequent frame which presented a white square where the duck had been. The Zapper then determined if it was pointed over white or black pixels. If it sensed the white square, you successfully targeted your duck. If it sensed black, you failed.

When multiple ducks were present, your TV would present the black screen followed by a screen with a white square over one duck, then a screen with a white square over the second duck. In this way, The Zapper could sense not only if you hit a duck, but which duck.

This had some benefit over modern accessories in that it required no calibration. The Zapper simply sensed whether there were white pixels in a specific location or not.

All of this was dependent on the way CRT TVs create images and, if you were to hook up your NES and Zapper on a modern TV, it wouldn't work. This explains why modern equivalents require more tedious calibrations than the NES. It's not that the guns got worse, it's that our TVs got more complex. Still, the NES succeeded in bringing a new, more tactile element of gaming, which had previously existed only in the arcade, into our homes.

POWER PAD

Nintendo doubled down on marketing their hardware as more than a game console, that was never more apparent than when considering the bundles they offered over those first few years. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these bundles hit the market in 1989 with the Power Set.

At purchase, you were given the control deck (console) two controllers, a Zapper, a triple game pack including Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and World Class Track Meet, and a Power Pad.

Developed by Bandai, the Power Pad functioned as large floor-mat controller complete with twelve pressure sensors.

Eleven games were produced to be played with the Power Pad, which allowed you to control gameplay with your feet, instead of a standard controller.

With one ridiculously unexpected peripheral controller, Nintendo took gaming from a sedate activity to one that could get your heart pumping. World Class Track Meet had us all pretending to compete in the Olympics and bragging about our virtual hurdling skills.

The pad might have been a gimmick, but would inspire more modern games like Dance Dance Revolution.

NES LEGACY

While many of the peripheral functionalities of the Nintendo Entertainment System were initially short-lived, most of them have survived in some respect into the modern age. Nintendo's current console, offers an array of LABO kits which move the gaming experience from the screen to the real world. Even competitors are offering virtual reality kits and peripheral accessories, all of which were pioneered by Nintendo in those early days.

As the home console industry has evolved, over the course of the last thirty-plus years, Nintendo has shown a singular talent for innovating in a way that other console companies just don't. While Sony and Microsoft might overshadow Nintendo in technical terms, we're still keeping an eye on the company that brought us Mario to find out how games will be played in the future.


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