The Nintendo Entertainment System
Posted at 22:15 on 12th March 2006 - permalink


What do you see when you look at the picture above?

If you’re American, you no doubt recognise this as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a console that you probably owned during its commercial lifespan. (There’s even a moderate chance that you have re-purchased one in the intervening period.) It’s also likely that you view the NES as the machine that single-handedly revived the fortunes of the video games market in the wake of the 1983 crash, and revere at least six of its games (at a bare minimum) as being timeless landmarks. It’s probably your favourite games platform of all time and you can’t envision a game industry that was not fundamentally shaped by its influence.

(If you’re Japanese you probably feel something broadly similar, except presumably with the cult status taken less seriously – perhaps resulting in a similar view of the machine as the one Englishmen of a certain age hold towards Chopper bikes.)

If, on the other hand, you hail from the UK or continental Europe, you no doubt recognise this as the NES, a machine that you almost certainly didn’t own during its commercial lifetime (a situation not helped by the fact that it wasn’t officially launched in the UK until 1987), and remember as one of the diverse assortment of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles and home computers that jockeyed for position in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You will be aware of the state of reverence that the key games in which the system’s library are held, although your first exposure to most of these franchises will have been through the Game Boy and SNES sequels, emulation, or subsequent re-releases on the Game Boy Advance. In the face of this cultural alienation, however, you may very well still be willing to accept the general consensus that the NES was for some reason in a class apart from its contemporaries.

This – all of this – is not a particularly healthy state of affairs.

The “IAM8BIT” exhibition features artworks inspired by classic games. The games covered almost exclusively originated on the NES, with a few Golden Age stalwarts (Pac-Man, Q*Bert, Donkey Kong) thrown in.

For the modern American gamer, the Nintendo Entertainment System is the holiest of sacred cows, its software library elevated beyond conventional criticism and wrapped in a self-perpetuating mythology that will ensure it’s classics remains held in higher regard than any modern game, long after meaningful comparisons cease to be possible. (At present the 20th anniversaries of many of the NES’s best titles are being used by American sites as an excuse to churn out yet more hyperbole.) This view, while obviously distorted, can at least be attributed to historical market conditions.

A significant proportion of American gamers who were playing games in the 1980s were exposed to the NES exclusively for the entirety of that decade. The result is ‘Star Wars syndrome’, whereby the defining cultural phenomenon of one’s early youth affects a rose-tinted view that is reinforced far more often than it is challenged. (It took George Lucas’s own craptacular intervention to eventually break Star Wars’s spell.)

The American games market is enormous, and yet as much as Americans cherish the concept of individualism in the abstract, their consumer preferences frequently display extremely conformist traits. Professional sociologists have probably researched this phenomenon in depth, but I can only put forward the lazy armchair theory that the root cause of this behaviour is American society’s deeply-ingrained competitive streak. Americans spurn underdogs (woe betide any company outside of the stock market’s upper echelons who would dare to even consider introducing a new console into the modern American market), and are quick to rally behind the banner of any product touted loudly and persistently enough to register on the cultural radar, often resulting in unstoppable momentum.

So, if it’s a historical fact that the NES was an integral part of the gaming ‘culture’ in the US, then what is the problem with it being popularly romanticised? The main problem is that as this view is passed on to a generation who were not first-hand witnesses of the gaming landscape in the 1980s and 1990s, there is a very real risk of historical revisionism creeping in, a risk that is compounded by gaming’s increasingly conspicuous lack of serious historical research and archiving.

In the US, the fallout from this is most clearly seen in the historical status afforded to the NES’s immediate successor, the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). Although the Mega Drive was an enormous commercial success, spawned numerous classic titles and was the catalyst for an industry-wide shift away from ubiquitous but creatively stifling 8-bit technology, its rise to prominence was directly followed by Sega’s drawn-out decline and, simultaneously, the rapid growth of the cult of the Japanese RPG. Retrospective articles by American authors at the turn of the century were prone to (consciously or not) ‘leapfrogging’ the peak years of the Mega Drive, instead forging a direct link from the key franchises on the NES to their successors on the SNES, and exaggerating the importance and prominence of Japanese RPG series (which in reality only enjoyed mainstream popularity in the West in the wake of Final Fantasy VI and VII), a genre which was chronically under-represented on the Mega Drive. The Mega Drive’s undeniable strengths in other genres (for instance, shmups, scrolling beat-’em-ups, sports games, racing games, platformers and strategy RPGs) are by and large glossed over in favour of inferior but nostalgia-charged Nintendo alternatives.


Gamespot’s ‘Flashback’ series takes a look back at old consoles, and has already enthused about the NES in the manner described above. The Sega Genesis segment is forthcoming, but the fact that they’ve accidentally used a picture of a Neo Geo to represent it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

In Europe, the elevated status of the NES isn’t quite as pronounced, but is still definitely noticeable. As the machine had a somewhat unexceptional commercial track record on this side of the pond, other factors must come into play.

The first is the resounding commercial and critical success of the Super NES. This thrust Nintendo into the spotlight for the first time in Europe, with Street Fighter II and Donkey Kong Country being the two titles to have the greatest impact on the media at large. This would have undoubtedly had a knock-on effect on the way that the NES was viewed.

The other factor was that, unlike in the US, there has been effectively no continuity between games magazines available before and after the lifetime of the NES and SNES. In the early 1990s there was a shift in the way that console games were viewed by the games press in the UK. Mean Machines (an offshoot of CVG) championed the practice of importing new games and hardware from Japan, which quickly established console gaming as a legitimate ‘hobby’ in itself, distinct from a traditional gaming scene then dominated by the 8- and 16-bit micros. Mean Machines was a very even-handed, multiplatform magazine, and its guiding philosophy always seemed to be to seek out the new rather than to poke around in the back-catalogues of the NES or any other machine of that era.

The real tipping point was the arrival of Super Play, Future Publishing’s dedicated SNES magazine, the brainchild (at least, that’s how I’ve always heard it…) of Your Sinclair and Zero veteran Matt Biebly. Super Play was glossy, mainstream and articulate enough to appeal to the more conservative demographic of die-hard Amiga heads and others who for whatever reason hadn’t embraced 16-bit consoles, but were waking up to the fact that games like Zool and Body Blows no longer cut it in a world of Sonic and Street Fighter II. As with Mean Machines, Super Play evangelised importing, and seeing where the SNES’s strengths lay, gave extensive and zealous coverage to the big Square JRPGs.

Fast forward a few years. The home micros and their associated mags have died off, and a lot of the people who read Super Play now read Edge, a magazine which has, in the name of Global Relevance, pretty consistently modelled its historical outlook on the American version of events. The games that most people were actually playing in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK are for the most part roundly ignored, with a few exceptions made for games that can be presented in some context of retro-kitsch fashionability (e.g. the work of Sensible Software, the Bitmap Brothers, Jeff Minter, Matthew Smith, etc.). Even in these cases there is a pervading impression that games on non-Nintendo formats were automatically less significant.

You can get a feeling of this if you peruse the sites dedicated to these ‘mere mortal’ formats (ZX Spectrum, C64, Amiga, Atari ST, etc.) and the recent rash of magazines like Retro Gamer, which paint a picture of a closed, lost world cut adrift from contemporary relevance, a domain of slightly dotty, trainspottery collectors who have retreated into their comforting late-80s bubble and have no interest in impressing on the wider world the true influence of the UK and Europe’s domestic games development scene.

Our best games were as significant as anything on the NES. Okay, so nobody outside of Nintendo has ever made a 2D platform game that trumps Mario, but there’s no way – no way – that this is the only criteria by which our entire output can be judged. To assume otherwise is just a holdover from an era when platforming mascots decided the fate of games systems.

In parallel with the American appraisal of the Mega Drive, the European situation has led to whole genres and disciplines falling into obscurity. For instance the ‘arcade adventure’ (Dizzy, Magic Knight, et al), a hugely active genre on the Spectrum and C64 which predated (and surpassed) the nearest NES equivalents, but which has no modern analogue and is all but forgotten today. Or going back further, interactive fiction (text adventures), a genre which is occasionally still paid lip service by the more high-brow end of the games media, but even then is frequently misunderstood. (Often IF games are lazily painted as never having progressed beyond Colossal Cave and Zork, oblivious to Infocom‘s later efforts, which were exceptional in their own right and also paved the way for Sierra and LucasArts’s point-n-click model.)

Obviously, I’m not trying to detract from the truly influential and innovative games in the NES library. My only concern is that we should not view the NES as a system that existed in a vacuum. The machine (like any other) had very clear technical limitations and a development community with fairly diverse, but not all-encompassing genre expertise. Throughout its life, important developments were also happening elsewhere. We should not assume that specific weaknesses of the format (I’m thinking particularly of the profoundly shoddy translations that plagued many NES games) were ‘just how things were’ for the wider industry at the time. We should not let admiration and respect of the NES’s best games act as a license to overstate the case for it’s more mediocre efforts. For instance, you would surely have to be some sort of dim-witted, entertainment-starved poltroon to claim that Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! was ever fun for more than five minutes, and yet it crops up time and again in U.S.-originated ‘Top 100 Games of All Time’ lists. Even the good games aren’t immune to the ravages of time: For instance, is there any valid reason for someone to play Metroid today, given that Super Metroid exists?

Having identified this problem, I’m unfortunately at a loss to offer a workable solution. The numbers seem insurmountable: I expect there are millions of gamers out there who’ve never held a NES controller and yet are in the thrall of it’s insidious propaganda. The lowest-common-denominator magazines and web portals will always find it cheaper to transcribe the NES-oriented parts of The First Quarter and Game Over than to actually do some research. Perhaps the only hope is to try to implant our forgotten achievements into the public conscious – Way of the Rodent seem to be making some headway on this front, but more needs to be done. Your assignment for this week is to appear on breakfast news dressed as Monty Mole. Or Alex Kidd.

Robin Clarke defies you to name a Master System game other than Phantasy Star.

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