The history of NES the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) spans the 1982 development of the Family Computer, to the 1985 launch of the NES, to Nintendo’s rise to global dominance based upon this platform throughout the late 1980s. The Family Computer or Famicom was developed in 1982 and launched in 1983 in Japan. Following the North American video game crash of 1983, the Famicom was adapted into the NES which was brazenly launched in North America in 1985. Transitioning the company from its arcade game history into this combined global 8-bit home video game console platform, the Famicom and NES continued to aggressively compete with the next-generation 16-bit consoles including the 1988 Sega Genesis. The platform was succeeded by the Super Famicom in 1990 and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991, but its support and production continued until 1995. Interest in the NES has been renewed by collectors and emulators, including Nintendo’s own Virtual Console platform.
The video game industry experienced a period of rapid growth and unprecedented popularity during the late 1970s to early 1980s, with the golden age of arcade video games and the second generation of video game consoles: Space Invaders (1978) and its shoot ’em up clones had become a phenomenal success across arcades worldwide, game consoles such as the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision became popular in North American homes, and the Epoch Cassette Vision became the best-selling console in Japan. Many companies arose in their wake to exploit the growing industry; one such company was Nintendo. The basis for the Famicom hardware was arcade video game hardware. A major influence was Namco’s Galaxian (1979), which had replaced the more intensive bitmap rendering system of Space Invaders with a hardware sprite rendering system that animated sprites over a scrolling background, allowing more detailed graphics, faster gameplay and a scrolling animated starfield background. This provided the basis for Nintendo’s Radar Scope (1980) arcade hardware, which they co-developed with Ikegami Tsushinki, improving on Galaxian with technology such as high-speed emitter-coupled logic (ECL) integrated circuit (IC) chips and memory on a 50 MHz printed circuit board. Following the commercial failure of Radar Scope, the game’s arcade hardware was converted for use with Donkey Kong (1981), which became a major arcade hit. Home systems at the time were not powerful enough to handle an accurate port of Donkey Kong, so Nintendo wanted to create a system that allowed a fully accurate conversion of Donkey Kong to be played in homes.
Led by Masayuki Uemura, Nintendo’s R&D team had been secretly working on a system since 1980, ambitiously targeted to be less expensive than its competitors, yet with performance that could not be surpassed by its competitors for at least a year. The console began development under the codename Project GAMECOM. Uemura analyzed the innards of rival consoles, including the Atari 2600 and Magnavox Odyssey, sidestepping their primitive technology. Their main competition was the Epoch Cassette Vision, the best-selling console in Japan at the time, with Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi telling employees he wanted them to develop a console both more powerful and cheaper than the Cassette Vision. Nintendo R&D2 engineer Katsuya Nakakawa analized the IC chips of the more powerful Donkey Kong arcade hardware, concluding that it would be possible to use them as a basis for their console. Another Nintendo R&D2 engineer, Takao Sawano, proposed that the D-pad of Nintendo’s Game & Watch handheld devices should be adapted for the console.
Meanwhile in North America, the toy manufacturer Coleco was working on a new home console to compete with the Atari 2600 and which would be capable of handling fairly accurate ports of arcade games, particularly with Nintendo’s Donkey Kong in mind. While developing their new console, the ColecoVision, Coleco staff went to Japan and met with Yamauchi for the North American console rights to Donkey Kong.
At the same time, they demonstrated a prototype of the ColecoVision to Nintendo R&D2 engineers, who were impressed by the smoothly animated graphics. It left a strong impression on Sawano and Uemara, who had the ColecoVision in mind while working on Nintendo’s new console in Japan. However, while the ColecoVision was a significant improvement over the Atari 2600, there was still no console comparable to the original Donkey Kong arcade hardware. Nevertheless, the bundled port of Donkey Kong helped the ColecoVision become a major success in North America.