Ah, 1984. The year that Big Brother was invented (or something like that), and – more pertinent to this article – a year after the Nintendo Famicom was invented. If you don’t know what the Famicom is, shut down your computer, call your parents and apologize for how much of a failure you are, turn your computer back on, read the previous article, call your parents back and tell them you’re on a path to personal betterment, and then come back to my welcoming arms.
1984 was, of course, the year before Nintendo released the NES in North America, and while that may seem like it could render this article as something of a ‘filler episode,’ it’s interesting (trust me) to take note of the steps the company took in preparation for its global assault on the social lives of millions. Also interesting is the state of the industry Nintendo was gearing up to join, as the fallout from 1983’s crash of the North American games industry was very much being felt throughout ’84.
All of that, and more, are coming up, but first let’s have a little chat about a promotion for a certain genius, shall we?
Gettin’ Shiggy With It
Miyamoto was riding high in 1984 (in fact, he probably has been ever since 1981). Fresh off his arcade successes, he was rightly set to swap the barrel-bombarded ladders of Donkey Kong to the bastard-bombarded ladders of the executive corporate world. Yamauchi had previously split his R&D departments into three divisions. Division 1 was run by the hero of the previous article, Gunpei Yokoi; Division 2 was under the control of Famicom designer Masayuki Uemura; and future inventor of battery-saves, Genyo Takeda, was boss of the third. Shiggy was about to get jiggy all over Division 4.
Now in charge of his own division, the Shigmeister was tasked solely with creating games for the Famicom. No more literal monkeying around in the arcade market, this was Nintendo’s new generation of game development, and luckily there was a genius at the helm. One of Miyamoto’s first acts was to hire Takashi Tezuka – who had just finished up part-time work on the graphics of arcade title Super Punch Out!! – as a designer on his first Famicom game: Devil World.
Tezuka graduated from the Osaka University of Arts, where I’m assuming he majored in bullshit, because, despite Devil World playing a lot like Pac-Man, the cheeky git claimed he had no idea what Pac-Man was prior to the development of his own game. And people say millennials are clueless, eh? Apparently, after being the last person in the games industry to play Pac-Man, Tezuka was able to use what he learned for Devil World. If you have no idea what Devil World is, you’re probably from the US. Your lot decided it was a little too ‘Bibley’ for them, so it was never released. And to think the Portuguese got kicked out of Japan for all their Jesus stuff. If anything, it was really progressive for the Far East.
It was a relatively modest beginning on the Famicom for the great Miyamoto, but if you stick around there are definitely some better times for him ahead.
I Got This New Console, Fam
By 1984, the Famicom was pulling up some serious cherry blossom trees, having sold three million units. Not bad for just over five months, especially considering that the console was basically serving as a hub for arcade ports at the start of the year. It was still some ways from unveiling a killer app, and its output of games in 1984 is a veritable ‘who cares’ of sports games, shooters and arcade ports. You know, the type of shite Nintendo has flooded the NES Online Switch library with so far.
It’s probably a little spiteful to shit-talk the early Famicom titles too much, as they clearly represent a company warming up and setting the stage for an immensely popular console. Among the ‘highlights’ were Clu Clu Land, Urban Champion, ports of Donkey Kong 3 and Pac-Man, and Miyamoto’s second Famicom title Excite Bike. It’s interesting to look at the earliest console video games, because so many of them were firsts in their genre that they required almost little-to-no salesmanship. 1984 boasted titles with such linguistic acts of poetry as Tennis, Pinball, Golf, and F1 Race. Truly unforgettable.
All was going well at home, but Nintendo was looking to join the big American party, so it needed to put the feelers out. Nintendo had sought to tempt Atari to bring the Famicom to the US the previous year, but Atari couldn’t cope with it in the aftermath of the ‘83 crash. Their next steps to breach the US market was to tour the Famicom – ‘cunningly’ titled as the ‘Advanced Video System’ – across American trade shows. In the wake of the market crash, Nintendo decided that it should try to advertise it as a home computer rather than a dirty, stinkin’ console. To complete the disguise, they unveiled it alongside a keyboard peripheral; most likely to compliment launch title Family Basic. Naturally, this ruse was about as convincing as a giraffe in dark glasses trying to get into a “Polar Bears Only” golf club, and the Advanced Video System was laughed out of each and every building.
The Hunt Begins
Not all Famicom games released in 1984 were arcade ports or one-word descriptions of sports, as the biggest title of the year – certainly in terms of pushing the system towards breaking into the American market – was Duck Hunt. Y’know, ‘cause guns. Not my opinion, people, the opinion of Nintendo.
We all know the game by now, you and your doggo pal are out for to cull a flock of ducks, and rightly so, as their numbers seem to have skyrocketed to an almost infinite amount. Your canine chum will dive into the tall grass to flush out the poor bastards, and you lay waste by pointing your light gun at the screen and getting triggered. Literally.
The Japanese version of the game is an interesting one, in that its light gun is very different to the NES Zapper we’re all accustomed to here in the west. Resembling an old west six-shooter, it perhaps spoke to the misjudged impression of rootin’ tootin’, gun-slingin’ American consumers. Someone clearly pointed out that, come time to release the NES in the US, marketing a replica revolver to children was a bit much – especially with the growing number of US cases involving the replica guns being used in actual crimes in the late ‘80s – hence the grey laser blaster we all know and love.
Also, you can shoot the dog in the Japanese version. So, yeah, probably best you don’t give impressionable American kiddly-winks handguns and let them shoot their virtual pets, eh? Either way, Duck Hunt and the light gun began to convince Minoru Arakawa that the Famicom could be marketable in North America, even with its market in tatters. Speaking of which…
A Harsh Mistress
One can’t talk about Nintendo in ‘the year after the year before’ without checking in on the sorry-ass state of the rest of the video games industry, if you could even call it an industry in ’84. Fresh off the ET incident of ’83, Atari was in a right old state. ColecoVision was putting the graphics and arcade ports of the 2600 to shame, and the 5200 wasn’t backwards compatible with 2600 games, even though Intellivision II was. Launching as it did with little more than updated versions of 2600 games anyway, it was a disaster.
As a result, fed-up Warner Communications Inc. were pretty much done with the whole ‘home video game scene for losers’. They got rid of the whole lot – selling off Atari IPs, the Atari logo and trademark, and even inventories of Atari home video game hardware and software to Tramel Technology. This effectively split the company, as while Warner Communications closed its domestic video game and computer divisions, it retained the arcade division – renaming Atari Inc. to Atari Games. Tramel themselves gave Warner permission to do this, while renaming themselves as Atari Corporation. You got all that?
All this buggering about strongly hampered the release of Atari’s upcoming console, the Atari 7800 (originally known as the Atari 3600). After the initial Californian release of the console in June 1984, The Tramel sale meant that plans to mass market-release the console were shelved a month later. The reason for this? If you think it’s not nonsensical corporate silliness, then you’re really underestimating mid-80s Atari.
The 7800 was developed by General Computer Corporation rather than Atari themselves, which was a great cost-saving measure for Atari in that it cost them absolutely nothing… because nobody paid them for it. Tramel owner, and holocaust survivor, Jack Tramiel assumed his initial takeover payment was going to cover the debt, but he was sadly wrong. He ended up relenting and paid GCC in 1985, with the 7800 releasing nationwide in May 1986.
If I Can Make it There…
Nintendo loved their home console, and so did Japanese consumers. The global potential was there, and they were desperate to crack North America. They were ready, but the market, especially the retailers, wasn’t, so they needed a way to dip a proverbial toe into foreign waters rather than adding another passenger to a sinking ship.
Enter the Nintendo VS. System. Initially devised by Yamauchi as a way to update Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. cabinets, these multiplayer arcade cabinets would be fitted with beefed-up versions of Famicom games and shipped to the States. About 30 different games were released from 1984 into the following couple years, including Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Dr. Mario, Ice Climber, and Duck Hunt.
Obviously, releasing games in the arcade before porting to the home wasn’t exactly a lightning-in-a-bottle new idea, as it had been done throughout the decade already, but Nintendo was well aware that North American kids were still ploughing quarters into arcade cabinets, and this was their way to hook them for what was about to come next. To say it worked is an understatement, but we’ll get to that next time.