Nintendo Entertainment System

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For other uses, see NES (disambiguation)
The Nintendo Entertainment System (, , and )
The Nintendo Entertainment System (North America, Europe, and Australia)

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, is an 8-bit video game console released by Nintendo in North America, Europe and Australia. The equivalent in Japan and South Korea is known as the Nintendo Family Computer (任天堂ファミリーコンピュータ), or Famicom (ファミコン). The most successful gaming console of its time in Asia and North America, it helped revitalize the video game industry following the video game crash of 1983, and set the standard for subsequent consoles in everything from game design (the first modern platform game, Super Mario Bros., was the system's first "killer game") to business practices. The NES was the first console for which the manufacturer openly courted third-party developers.



The Nintendo Family Computer (Japan)
The Nintendo Family Computer (Japan)

Main article: History of the Nintendo Entertainment System

Following a series of arcade game successes in the early 1980s, Nintendo made plans to produce its own console hardware. Designed by Masayuki Uemura and released in Japan on July 15, 1983, the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom) was slow to gather momentum: during its first year, many criticized the system as unreliable, prone to programming errors and rampant freezing. Following a product recall and a reissue with a new motherboard, however, the Famicom's popularity soared, becoming the best selling gaming console in Japan by the end of 1984. Encouraged by their successes, Nintendo soon turned their attentions to the North American market.

In June 1985, Nintendo unveiled its American version of the Famicom at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). With a completely redesigned case and a new name, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) proved to be just as popular in America as the Famicom was in Japan, and played a major role in revitalizing interest in the video game industry following the video game crash of 1983.

A year later in June 1986, the Sega Master System (SMS) entered the US market. The SMS faced a very tough time in the US, due to Nintendo's virtual monopoly on US software developers. Without domestic software support, the SMS failed to make any impact in the US. However in Europe, the NES would face much tougher competition, where the SMS was the market leader, prompting Nintendo to license popular SMS titles for the NES.

For the rest of the decade, Nintendo was the undisputed master of the US and Japanese gaming market, and its game titles were smashing sales records. By 1990 the NES had become the best-selling console in video game history.

As the 1990s dawned, however, renewed competition from technologically superior systems such as the 16-bit Sega Genesis (also known as the Sega Mega Drive) marked the end of the NES's dominance. Eclipsed by Nintendo's own Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the NES's user base gradually waned. Nintendo continued to support the system in America through the first half of the decade, even releasing a new version of the console designed to resemble the SNES. By 1995, though, in the wake of ever decreasing sales and the lack of new software titles, Nintendo officially discontinued the NES.

In the years following the official "death" of the NES, a collector's market based around video rental stores, yard sales and flea markets led some gamers to rediscover the NES. Coupled with the growth of console emulation, the late 1990s saw something of a second golden age for the NES. The secondhand market began to dry up after 2000, and finding ROMs no longer represented the challenge it had in the past. Still, developments continue, and the NES, alongside the SNES, appears likely to live on in some form into the future.

Differences between the Famicom and the NES

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Famicom controllers (Japanese) were simple in design

Although the Japanese Famicom and the international NES included essentially the same hardware, there were certain key differences between the two systems:

  • Different case design. The Famicom featured a top loading cartridge slot, an expansion port located on the unit's front panel, and a red and white color scheme. The NES featured a front loading cartridge slot (often jokingly compared to a toaster), and a more subdued gray, black and red color scheme. The expansion port was also relocated to the bottom center of the unit, and the cartridge connector pinout was changed.
  • 60-pin vs. 72-pin cartridges. The original Famicom and the re-released AV Family Computer (a.k.a. AV Famicom) both utilized a 60-pin cartridge design, which resulted in slightly smaller cartridges than the NES (and the NES 2), which utilized a 72-pin design. The additional 12 pins were used for the lockout chip. Many early games (such as StackUp) released in North America were simply Famicom cartridges attached to an adapter (such as the T89 Cartridge Converter) to allow them to fit inside the NES hardware.
  • Lockout circuitry. The Famicom contained no lockout hardware, and, as a result, unlicensed cartridges (both legitimate and bootleg) were extremely common throughout Japan and the Far East. The original NES (but not the top-loading NES) contained the 10NES lockout chip, which significantly increased the challenges faced by unlicensed developers.
  • Hardwired controllers. The Famicom's original design include hardwired, non-removable controllers. In addition, the second controller featured an internal microphone for use with certain games. Both the controllers and the microphone were subsequently dropped from the redesigned AV Famicom in favor of the two seven-pin controller ports on the front panel used in the NES from its inception.
  • Audio/video output. The original Famicom featured an RF modulator plug for audio/video output, while the original NES featured both an RF modulator and RCA composite output cables. The AV Famicom featured only RCA composite output, and the top-loading NES featured only RF modulator output.
  • Famicom Disk System (FDS). Although not included with the original system, a popular floppy disk drive peripheral was released for the Famicom in Japan only. Nintendo never released the Famicom Disk System outside of Japan, citing concerns about software bootlegging, but many FDS titles were subsequently ported to cartridge format for overseas release. Notable games released for the FDS include Doki Doki Panic (adapted for North American release as Super Mario Bros. 2), Konami's Castlevania series, Metroid, and the original Super Mario Bros. 2, which was eventually released overseas for the Super NES as The Lost Levels as part of Nintendo's Super Mario All-Stars collection.
  • Famicom BASIC was a BASIC version for the Famicom. With the addition of the Famicom Disk System and a keyboard it could actually be used as a computer. It also allowed you to program your own games. Many programmers got their first experience on programming for the console this way.

Game controllers

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The NES game controllers were sturdy by necessity, and many survive in good condition after over 20 years of use.

The game controller used for the both the NES and Famicom featured a brick-like design with a simple five-button layout: two red buttons labelled "B" and "A," a "Start" button, a "Select" button, and a cross-shaped D-pad which had been designed by Nintendo employee Gunpei Yokoi to replace the bulkier joysticks that most earlier gaming consoles had utilized.

The original model Famicom featured two game controllers, both of which were hardwired to the back of the console. The second controller lacked the "Start" and "Select" buttons, but featured a small microphone. Relatively few games made use of this feature. The NES dropped the hardwired controllers, instead featuring two custom 7-pin ports on the front of the console. Also in contrast to the Famicom, the controllers included with the NES were identical to each other - the second controller lacked the microphone that was present on the Famicom model, and possessed the same "Start" and "Select" buttons as the primary controller.

A number of special controllers designed for use with specific games were released for the system, though very few such devices proved particularly popular. Such devices included, but were not limited to, the NES Zapper (a light gun), the Power Glove, the Power Pad, and the ill-fated R.O.B. The original Famicom featured a DB-15 expansion port on the front of the unit, which was used to connect most auxiliary devices. On the NES, these special controllers were generally connected to one of the two control ports on the front of the unit.

Near the end of the NES's lifespan, upon the release of the AV Famicom and the top-loading NES, the design of the game controllers was modified slightly. Though the original button layout was retained, the redesigned device abandoned the "brick" shell in favor of a "dog bone" shape reminiscent of the controllers of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. In addition, the AV Famicom joined its international counterpart and dropped the hardwired controllers in favor of detachable controller ports.

Hardware design flaws

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A redesigned NES 2 released late in Nintendo's life cycle

When Nintendo released the NES in the United States, the design styling was deliberately different than that of other game consoles. Nintendo wanted to distinguish their product from those of competitors, and to avoid the generally poor reputation that game consoles had acquired following the video game crash of 1983. One result of this philosophy was a front-loading zero insertion force cartridge socket designed to resemble the front-loading mechanism of a VCR. Unfortunately, inadequate testing of this design prior to release resulted in one of the NES's most infamous problems: the blinking red power button. The ZIF connector worked quite well when both the connector and the cartridges were clean and the pins on the connector were new. Unfortunately, repeated insertion and removal of cartridges caused the pins to wear out relatively quickly, and the ZIF design proved far more prone to interference by dirt and dust than an industry-standard card edge connector. Moreover, the 10NES lockout chip was quite finicky, requiring precise timing in order to permit the system to boot. Since both the NES console and the game cartridges were commonly handled by young children, contamination of the cartridge contacts was quite common, and the low error tolerance of the design often resulted in a cartridge's lockout chip failing to communicate properly with the console, causing the red power LED on the console to flash repeatedly and the boot process to halt. Often, this could be temporarily resolved by blowing on the cartridge to remove dust (but the moisture from the user's breath would often act like a cement for more refuse, actually making the problem worse), but stubborn or badly contaminated games sometimes needed more extensive cleanings with isopropyl alcohol. (Nintendo sold an official cleaning kit for this purpose.) In many cases, the connector became too unreliable for use after several years of heavy play, thus resulting in the console being repaired or replaced. Even today, it is quite common to see "broken" NES consoles at yard sales or thrift stores that can be fixed by cleaning or replacing the damaged cartridge connector.

When Nintendo released a top-loading NES, they fixed the problem by switching to a standard card edge connector, and eliminated the lockout chip. The controllers were also reminescent of the more recent Super Nintendo. All of the Famicom systems used standard card edge connectors, as did Nintendo's subsequent game consoles, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Nintendo 64.

Third-party licensing

This  was placed on every officially licensed NES cartridge released in North America, with a similar design used in Europe
This Nintendo Seal of Quality was placed on every officially licensed NES cartridge released in North America, with a similar design used in Europe

Nintendo's near monopoly on the home video game market left it with a degree of influence over the industry exceeding even that of Atari during its heyday in the early 1980s. Many of Nintendo's business practices during this period were heavily criticized, and may have played some role in the erosion of Nintendo's market share throughout the 1990s. Unlike Atari, who never actively courted third-party developers, and went so far as to go to court to attempt to force Activision to cease production of Atari 2600 games, Nintendo had anticipated and encouraged the involvement of third-party software developers — strictly on Nintendo's terms. To this end, a 10NES authentication chip was placed in every console, and in every officially licensed cartridge. If the console's chip could not detect a counterpart chip inside the cartridge, the game would not be loaded. Nintendo combined this with a marketing campaign introducing the Nintendo Seal of Quality. Commercials featured a purple-robed wizard instructing consumers that the Nintendo Seal of Quality was the only assurance that a game was any good — and, by implication, that any game without the Seal of Quality was bad. In reality, the seal only meant that the developer had paid the license fee; it had nothing to do with the quality of the game.

Missing image
Some unlicensed games released in Australia used a dongle to circumvent the NES's lockout chip

The business side of this was that game developers were now forced to pay a license fee to Nintendo, to submit to Nintendo's quality assurance process, to buy developer kits from Nintendo, and to utilize Nintendo as the manufacturer for all cartridges and packaging. Nintendo tested and manufactured all games at its own facilities (either for part of the fee or for an additional cost), reserved the right to dictate pricing, censored material it believed to be unacceptable, decided how many cartridges of each game it would manufacture, and placed limits on how many titles it would permit a publisher to produce over a given time span (five per year). This last restriction led several publishers to establish or utilize subsidiaries to circumvent Nintendo's policies (examples including Konami's subsidiary Ultra, and Acclaim Entertainment's subsidiary LJN).

These practices were intended not only to keep developers on a short leash, but also to manipulate the market itself: in 1988 Nintendo started orchestrating intentional game shortages in order to increase consumer demand. Referred as "inventory management" by Nintendo of America public relations executive Peter Main, Nintendo would refuse to fill all retailer orders. Retailers, many of whom derived a large percentage of their profit from sales of Nintendo-based hardware and software (at one point, Toys "R" Us reported 17% of its sales and 22% of its profits were from Nintendo merchandise), could do little to stop these practices. In 1988, over 33 million NES cartridges were sold in the United States, but estimates suggest that the realistic demand was closer to 45 million. Because Nintendo controlled the production of all cartridges, they were able to enforce these rules on their third-party developers. These extremely restricted production runs would end up damaging several smaller software developers: even if demand for their games was high, they could only produce as much profit as Nintendo allowed them to.

Unlicensed games, such as Wisdom Tree's Bible Adventures, were often released in cartridges which looked very different from typical NES game packs
Unlicensed games, such as Wisdom Tree's Bible Adventures, were often released in cartridges which looked very different from typical NES game packs

Several companies began producing unlicensed games, either refusing to pay the licensing fee or manufacturing their own cartridges after having been rejected by Nintendo. Most of these companies created circuits that used a voltage spike to knock out the authentication unit in the NES. Atari created a line of NES products under the name Tengen, and took a different tack: the company obtained a description of the lockout chip from the United States Patent and Trademark Office by falsely claiming that it was required to defend against present infringement claims in a legal case. Tengen then used these documents to design their Rabbit chip, which duplicated the function of the 10NES. Nintendo sued Tengen for these actions, and Tengen lost because of the fradulent use of the published patent. Tengen's antitrust claims against Nintendo were never finally decided.

A few unlicensed games released in Europe and Australia came in the form of a dongle that would be connected to a licensed game, in order to use the licensed game's 10NES lockout chip for authentication.

Although Nintendo's success at suing such companies was mixed (the case of Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America, Inc. was found in favor of Galoob and their Game Genie device, for instance), most were eventually forced out of business or out of production by legal fees and court costs for extended lawsuits brought by the giant against the transgressors. One notable exception was Color Dreams, who produced religious-themed games under the subsidiary name Wisdom Tree. This operation was never sued by Nintendo, who feared a public relations backlash.

Following the introduction of Sega's successful Genesis, Nintendo began to face real competition in the industry, and in the early 1990s was forced to reevaluate its stance towards its developers, many of whom had begun to defect to other systems. When the console was reissued as the NES 2, the 10NES chip was omitted from the console, marking the end of Nintendo's most notorious hold over its third-party developers.

Companies that produced unlicensed games or accessories for the North American market include:

Hardware clones

Main article: Nintendo Entertainment System hardware clone

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The PolyStation, an unlicensed hardware clone of the NES, is designed to resemble the Sony PlayStation

A thriving market of unlicensed NES hardware clones emerged during the heyday of the console's popularity, and has continued to exist, and even flourish, following Nintendo's discontinuation of the NES itself. Such clones continue to be sold even past the year 2000. But as the NES itself fades into memory, these systems have tended to adopt case designs which mimic the most popular gaming consoles of their time. NES clones resembling the Sega Genesis, the SNES, and even current systems like the Nintendo GameCube, the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox have been produced. Some of the more exotic of these systems have gone beyond the functionality of the original hardware, and have included variations such as a portable system with a color LCD (e.g. Pocket Famicom). Others have been produced with certain specialized markets in mind, including various "educational computer packages" which include copies of some of the NES's educational titles and come complete with a clone of the Famicom BASIC keyboard, transforming the system into a rather primitive personal computer.

As was the case with unlicensed software titles, Nintendo has typically gone to the courts to prohibit the manufacture and sale of unlicensed cloned hardware. Many of the clone vendors have included built-in copies of licensed Nintendo software, which constitutes copyright infringement in most countries. As recently as 2004, Nintendo of America has filed suit against manufacturers of the Power Player Super Joy III, an NES clone system that had been sold in North America, Europe, and Australia.


More screenshots can be found in the gallery of Nintendo Entertainment System screenshots.

Technical specifications

  • CPU: Ricoh 8-bit processor based on MOS Technology 6502 core, with four tone generators (2 square, 1 triangle, 1 noise), a DAC, and a restricted DMA controller on-die
  • PPU: Ricoh custom-made video processor
    • Region differences
    • Palette: 48 colors and 5 grays in base palette; red, green, and blue can be individually darkened at specific screen regions using carefully timed code
    • Onscreen colors: 25 colors on one scanline (background color + 4 sets of 3 tile colors + 4 sets of 3 sprite colors), not including color de-emphasis
    • Hardware-supported sprites
      • Maximum onscreen sprites: 64 (without reloading sprites mid-screen)
      • Sprite sizes: 8x8 or 8x16 pixels (selected globally for all sprites)
      • Maximum number of sprites on one scanline: 8, using a flag to indicate when additional sprites are dropped (to allow the software to rotate sprites, causing flicker)
    • Video memory: PPU is connected to 2 KB of tile/attribute RAM, and contains 256 bytes of sprite position/attribute RAM ("OAM") and 28 bytes of palette RAM (allowing for selection of background and sprite colors); 8 KB of tile pattern ROM/RAM on cartridge (with bankswitching, virtually any amount can be used)
    • Scrolling layers: 1 layer, though horizontal scrolling can be changed on a per-scanline basis (as can vertical scrolling via more advanced programming methods)
    • Resolution: 256x240 pixels, though NTSC games usually used only 256x224, as the top and bottom 8 scanlines are not visible on most TV sets; for additional video memory bandwidth, it was possible to turn off the screen before the raster reached the very bottom.
    • Video output
      • Original NES: RCA composite output and RF modulator output
      • Original Famicom (Japan) and NES 2: RF modulator output only
      • AV Famicom: Composite video output only, via a nonstandard 12-pin connector

See also


External links

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