Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 8

We continue our look at Nintendo's best and worst systems. Click to read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6 and part 7.


History: Console gaming was on the ropes in 1985. The console crash of 1983 had almost taken out gaming as we know it. It was so bad that retailers didn't want to stock videogame systems anymore, lest they be stuck with inventory they couldn't move and couldn't send back due to the company folding.

Into this breach walked Nintendo. While we may look back at Nintendo's run of success in the last thirty years and view it as inevitable, it's hard to forget that there was no guarantee that they would be able to pull off a console. Nintendo had never made a home console, cutting its teeth on arcade machines and Game & Watch handhelds.

Would Nintendo be able to make a successful game console in a time when retailers didn't like them, consumers were sick of them, and the country was in a recession?

Results: The NES was an instant success, selling 60 million units. It revived the fortunes of the video game industry, released several classic video games, and became a staple of households all over.

They did this by basically tricking stores into selling it. Remember, after the crash of 1983, no one wanted to stock video game systems. Nintendo called their system the "Nintendo Entertainment System," downplaying its video game roots. The console was a "Control Deck," and the game pad was a "Control Pad." It shipped with a toy robot, so it would be confused for a toy.

The ploy worked as people bought the system for its toy roots, then realized that it was a pretty awesome video game system too. For many (including this writer) the NES was the first system they ever played.

What Went Right: Nintendo launched with one of the best launch games of all time in Super Mario Bros. Reading interviews about the making of Super Mario Bros., it's amazing to see how much thought was actually put in to things we take for granted. Nintendo knew they weren't just making an introduction to the NES, but also to video games as well.

Nintendo laid down the pattern for multiple franchises during this period with games like like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Kirby's Adventure and Tetris. Once the NES became popular, other companies leaped into the fray and started pushing out games like Mega Man 1-5 (we won't talk about Mega Man 6), Metal Gear, Tecmo Bowl, Bases Loaded, Blades of Steel, Castlevania, Contra, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior (released as Dragon Quest in Japan) and on and on.

Nintendo also pioneered the control pad. Most previous systems used wonky joysticks that could break, and some used weird remotes that needed plastic overlays over the keys. Nintendo laid down the template for the Control Pad that almost every single controller has followed.

While some houses might have had an Atari or a system like it, video game systems weren't a need until the NES. The NES made video games a part of the culture. It didn't take long until every video game system became a "Nintendo" to moms and clueless grandparents. The console industry revved up in 1985 and never looked back.

What Went Wrong: Look, let's be honest. We all love the NES. We do. We have fond memories of blowing on cartridges and renting games from the local video store, and the first time we played Super Mario Bros. We were entranced.

But it's time to face the facts: A lot of these games were only good because we didn't know any better.

We were mostly dumb kids who had never picked up a controller, so we would play literally any game just because it was a game. Kids are stupid like that, and game companies took advantage of that fact, pumping out poorly-made licensed games by the truckload.

Not only that, but a lot of the "great" games are horribly primitive by modern standards. Now, I know that's like judging cave paintings by the standards of the Renaissance, but we need to be honest here. For example, Final Fantasy is a boring grind-fest. It's monotonous battle after monotonous battle. Same with Dragon Quest. Metroid isn't very good. Ditto Kid Icarus. Metal Gear is laughably primitive ("I FEEL ASLEEP!").

There are several games that still hold up. Mario 3 works, as well as almost all of the Mega Man series. Tecmo Bowl holds up too. Of course, Super Mario Bros. is still one of the best gateway games of all time.

Still, if we're totally frank, we only liked the NES because it's inextricably linked to a time and place, memories of giant tube TVs, shag carpeting, sleepovers with your friends, poring over strategy guides, arguments on the playground about doing the hair-pull kick in Double Dragon, waiting for that issue of Nintendo Power to come in the mail, having your mom turn off the system so that you'll "go outside and get fresh air," and getting completely lost in a virtual world for the first time ever and realizing that you'd like to do this for the rest of your life.

Nintendo also had issues with the 72-pin connectors in the NES. How the cartridge system works is like this: A cartridge gets inserted into the connector. The pins on either side of the 72-pin connector separate slightly to allow the game in. When a game with a slightly larger size gets pushed in to the connector, that widens them ever so slightly, making it harder for them to snap back in place.

So which game had a slightly wider size? Only one of the most popular games for the system, Super Mario Bros. 2. That, in turn, led to the infamous "blinking NES syndrome," where your screen would blink blue and black instead of playing a game. And, no, no amount of blowing on the cartridge could help you.

Lessons Learned: First all, Nintendo found out that people would be playing their systems for a long, long time. To that end, future systems had to be durable, more durable than the NES. Every system that Nintendo released after the NES pretty much works as well today as it did when it launched. I've used a Super NES that I had to clean dried cat vomit off of, and it still powered up like a champ.

Most importantly, though, Nintendo's advantage during the NES years didn't come from superior hardware or sound. It came because Nintendo understood what people wanted to play. Their games were just plain better than everyone else's, and that's what made Nintendo into the juggernaut that they became.

They took that to heart. No matter how good your hardware is, it needs good games or else it won't sell. In the years since, Nintendo has hammered that home, which is what's made them the best and most consistent gaming company in the last 25 years.

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