The Video Game Critic Presents the

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)


NES system
Launch Date: February 1986
Manufacturer: Nintendo
Format: Cartridge
Controller ports: 2
Save Capability: None
Number of Games: Over 800
Video Output: RF, Composite
Original Price: $199.99

After the video game crash of '83 most retailers and electronic manufacturers left the home video game market for dead. A small Japanese company by the name of Nintendo saw this overration as an opportunity. While their initial efforts to get their console stocked were met with resistance, Nintendo cleverly managed to get their foot in the door by marketing the system as a toy. This was accomplished by packaging the console with a light gun and robot accessory.

With a wide-open market and a runaway hit in Super Mario Bros, the NES took off immediately and would dominate the home market for the rest of the decade. In fact, during the mid-80's the terms "video game" and "Nintendo" were practically synonymous. The NES even maintained strong sales well into the 16-bit generation, prompting Nintendo to release a redesigned top-loading model.

NES system
NES system

Console design: C. Looking more like a Fisher Price toy more than a game console, the original NES sported a plain, breadbox design with a cream and gray color scheme. A power button (with light) is located on the front of the console, along with a reset button and two controller ports. One curious feature is the front-loading, spring-equipped cartridge slot with a hinged cover. The system boasted a composite video output in addition to coax.

A second "top-loader" model appeared on the tail end of the system's life cycle, in 1993. More compact and easy to "load", this system lacked the composite output ports that made the games look extra sharp.

Console durability: C-. The NES system was known for having problems loading games. This resulted in the "blow-into-the-cartridge-first" phenomenon, which many NES die-hards swore to be effective. Fortunately it is possible to clean or replace a dirty cartridge slot.

contra screenshot
Contra (1988)

Graphics: B+. Compared to the Atari 7800 or Sega Master System, NES visuals appear more colorful and vibrant. This was partly due to the system's composite video output. The system could produce fast, smooth animation, allowing it to run frantic arcade-style games. There were limitations however, as when too many objects crowded the screen at one time, slow-down, flicker, or "break-up" could occur. Still, these were only a minor annoyance.

Audio: C. The NES was not known for its sound capabilities but it could produce some memorable harmonized music. Attempts to digitize speech resulted in sounds that were comically scratchy.

NES controllers
Original NES control pad (left) and "dog bone" (right)

Controllers: A. Perhaps the greatest NES innovation was its compact controllers, boasting four buttons (including Start and Select) and the first modern, eight-way directional pad (instead of a joystick). These comfortable controllers proved very durable and well-suited to long playing sessions.

In 1991 Nintendo replaced its original rectangular controllers with a new rounded design, affectionately known as "dogbone controllers". A few novelty controllers were released as well including the "Power Glove" and "Power Pad" (for Track and Field).

NES carts
NES cartridge

Media: B. Although far larger than they needed to be (there's mostly air inside), NES cartridges have a nice rectangular shape that makes them easy to organize on a shelf. The label on the front of the game contains a small section for artwork, and the sticker extends to the top edge where the name is displayed.

One shortcoming of the NES cartridge design is its wide-open bottom with its numerous exposed pins that easily attract dust and dirt. To mitigate this the cartridges were sold with a black plastic "sleeve".

Most licensed NES cartridges sport a gray design, although a few (like Zelda) featured a flashy metallic finish. Cartridges manufactured by Tengen are black in color with their own unique shape.

Packaging: B. NES games were sold in boxes a bit smaller than those for Atari 2600. In fact, they are only slightly larger than the cartridges themselves! Cartridges came with protective black plastic "sleeves" which were promptly discarded most of the time.

Super Mario Bros. screenshot
Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Pack-in Game: A+. Most NES system came with a combination cartridge that included Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. Let's face it; Super Mario Bros. alone would sell any system in droves. Duck Hunt was kind of a throw-away title included to support the light gun, but this endearing shooter made quite an impression and has become iconic.

Launch titles: A-. A whopping 17 titles were ready at the American launch, covering a wide cross-section of genres. They include Excite Bike, Hogan's Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, and Soccer.

Castlevania screenshot
Castlevania (1987)

Library: A. The NES boasts an absolutely HUGE library of games, including numerous classics like Contra, Metroid, Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and of course the Super Mario Bros series. With its bright graphics and fast gameplay, the system excelled in practically every style of video game, from sports to arcade to RPGs.

Although the system had its share of old standards like Pac-Man and Galaga, many titles were innovative and pushed the limits of 2D gameplay. It's also interesting to note that Nintendo closely controlled third-party game developers by reserving the right to manufacture the cartridges for the system (hence the Nintendo "seal of quality").

Collectability: A. The NES is a terrific system to collect for, thanks to its great selection of fun, readily-available games. Since most are 2D and simple to play, they tend to hold up very well over time. Although boxes and instructions are hard to track down, most manuals are available online, and many don't really require them. The hardest part is finding a reliable console.

Innovations: Directional control pads, included light gun, robot accessory, first game with battery backup (Legend of Zelda).

Pros and Cons:
+ Huge selection of popular titles to choose from.
+ Games cheap and easy to find.
+ Durable, comfortable controllers.
- Front-loading cartridge mechanism.

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