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Encyclopedia > Famicom
The Nintendo Entertainment System (U.S., Europe, and Australia)
NES redirects here. For other uses, see NES (disambiguation).

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, is a video game console released by Nintendo in North America, Europe and Australia. In Japan and South Korea it 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). In Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union, an unlicensed hardware clone of the system was marketed under the name Dendy Junior.



The Nintendo Family Computer

The Nintendo Family Computer (Japan)

The video game market experienced a period of rapid growth and unprecedented popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Consoles such as the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision proved to be wildly popular, and many third party developers arose in their wake to exploit the growing industry. Nintendo was one such development studio, and, by 1982 had found success with a number of arcade games, such as Donkey Kong, which was in turn ported to, and packaged with, the Colecovision console in North America. Around this time, Nintendo announced their intentions to produce their own console hardware. Spearheaded by Masayuki Uemura, Nintendo's R&D2 team had been secretly working on a system which was originally intended to include a 16-bit CPU and a floppy disk drive, and would retail for an average for $75-100 USD. However, these original specifications proved too unrealistic, and the final product was substantially scaled back: launched in 1983, the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom) was an 8-bit machine that was limited to cartridge-based games.

The Famicom was released in Japan on July 15, 1983 for 14,800 yen. Among the launch titles for this console were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Popeye. The console itself was intentionally designed to resemble a toy. Its bright red and white color scheme and two hardwired controllers were unusual, though not unprecedented, for consoles of this era. In order to accommodate add-on peripherals, the system included a 15-pin expansion port which could be used to attach a light gun, Power Pad, keyboard for BASIC programming, and other specialized controllers. Many such devices were produced for the console, though many of them, such as a karaoke machine, true 3D glasses, and the Famicom Disk System, which incorporated the floppy drive dropped from the original specifications, were never released outside of Japan.

During its first year, many criticized the Famicom as unreliable, prone to programming errors and rampant freezing. Nintendo soon recalled all sold Famicom systems, and temporarily suspended production of the system while these concerns were addressed. The Famicom was subsequently reissued with a new motherboard. Following this, the Famicom's popularity soared, easily outselling its primary competitor, the Sega Master System. About 470,000 units were sold in 1983, and 1.65 million were sold in 1984.

The NES goes international

The title screen of Super Mario Bros. has gone down in video game history.

Bolstered by its success in Japan, Nintendo soon turned its attention to the larger American market. However, in the wake of the video game crash of 1983-1984, many American pundits viewed video games as a fad which had already run its course. As a new console manufacturer, Nintendo had to convince a skeptical public to embrace its system. To this end, Nintendo entered into negotiations with Atari to release the Famicom under Atari's name as the name "Nintendo Enhanced Video System." This deal eventually fell through, and Atari decided to concentrate on its own 8-bit console, the Atari 7800, once again leaving Nintendo on its own.

In June 1985, Nintendo presented their console, renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to skeptical gamers and industry insiders. As part of its strategy to win over their potential critics, Nintendo promised to buy back any unsold consoles from retailers. Nintendo sought to distance their product from the traditional American video game system: the new name emphasized that the broader entertainment potential of the system, one which used "packs" as opposed to the traditional "cartridge" (a technically meaningless distinction). The console itself was completely redesigned, losing the hard-wired controllers and opting for a front loading cartridge slot which would hide the inserted cartridge from view. A new, more subdued gray case served to make the unit much less "toy-like" in the eyes of its designers. Unfortunately, the revisions had the side-effect of making the NES more prone to breakdown, as the loading mechanism became notorious for slowly failing, requiring gamers to use a variety of methods of getting their games to run properly (such as blowing on the contacts, partially inserting the cartridges, etc.) The root cause of many of the problems is the 72-pin connector that seats the cartridge. Replacing this connector, although not officially condoned by Nintendo, restores many "dead" NES units to near-new condition. There are wide variety of alternate sources for this connector (some have even reported getting them straight from Nintendo) and the replacement is a fairly simple operation.

The Dendy Junior II, the unlicensed Famicom clone released in Russia and the former USSR

On the other hand, and again as a side-effect of the video game crash, it was clear that for the NES to succeed in the American market, it could not be seen exclusively as a gaming system. Many major American retailers had seriously cut back, or stopped entirely, their sales of such devices. To reach these places, Nintendo again chose to distance itself from other game developers. As part of this strategy, the NES unveiling at CES included R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), a plastic robot that connected to the NES and was moved around as part of an on-screen game. R.O.B. convinced retailers that the NES' possibilities went far beyond traditional video game systems, and helped to gain support among toy stores willing to take a chance on Nintendo's product. Finally, Nintendo hired Worlds of Wonder, makers of Laser Tag and Teddy Ruxpin, to handle the NES's marketing.

Nintendo released its system in the United States in 1985 to test markets in New York City, where its 100,000 systems quickly sold out. A nationwide release soon followed, coming in two different packages: a full-featured "Deluxe Set" which came packaged with the R.O.B., the Zapper light gun, two game controllers, and three games (Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Gyromite), available for $249 USD, as well as a scaled-down "Action Set," which omitted the R.O.B. and Gyromite, and was sold for only $199. While the NES would ultimately meet with unprecedented success, R.O.B., despite its role in building retailer support for the system, was already failing in Japan, and did not fare much better in the U.S. Only two games, Gyromite and Stack-up, were ever produced for the unit.

The NES was also released in Europe, where it received a much less enthusiastic response from European gamers. A latecomer to the market, many third party publishers went with the technically superior Sega Master System, and Nintendo lagged in market and retail penetration. The NES did outsell the Master System in Australia, although by a much smaller margin than it did in North America.

Never officially released by Nintendo in Russia, an unlicensed third-party hardware clone named the Dendy Junior was produced in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Aesthetically, it was an exact duplicate of the original Famicom, with only the color scheme and labels changed to reflect its different name. In addition, the hardwired controllers of the original console were omitted in favor of removable controllers which connect to the front of the unit using DE-9 serial connectors, identical to those used in the Atari 2600 and the Atari 8-bit family of computers.

The later years (1987-1995)

The redesigned AV Famicom/NES 2 was more compact than its predecessors, and was modeled after the Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The successful launch of the NES catapulted Nintendo to the forefront of the video game industry. For the remainder of the 1980s, Nintendo was the undisputed king of home video games. Buoyed by the success of the system, NES game packs were similarly smashing sales records: Super Mario Bros. 3, released in 1989, would gross well over $500 million, selling over 7 million copies in America and 4 million copies in Japan, making it the most successful home video game in history. In 1990 the NES had reached a larger user base in the United States than any previous console, easily surpassing the previous record set by the Atari 2600 in 1982. Reaping the benefits of that success, in that same year Nintendo surpassed Toyota as Japan's most successful corporation. By the end of its production run, over 20 million NES units had sold in the U.S. alone, outselling its primary competitors, the Atari 7800 and the Sega Master System in North America by a wide margin. The NES could be found in more than a third of all households in America and Japan.

In 1989, Sega released the Sega Mega Drive (renamed the Genesis in North America) in Japan. When this proved technologically superior to the Famicom, Nintendo saw their market share start to erode. Nintendo responded in the form of the Super Famicom (Super NES in North America), the Famicom's 16-bit successor, in 1991. Although Nintendo announced their intention to continue to support the Famicom alongside their newer console, more and more gamers and developers flocked to the newer offering, and the original Famicom's decline accelerated.

A redesigned Famicom, called the AV Famicom, was released in Japan in 1993. The original Famicom hardware featured an RF modulator output plug, but by the early 1990s, more and more Japanese television sets had dropped RF jacks in favor of superior quality RCA composite output. The AV Famicom replaced the original model's RF modulator plug with RCA composite AV cables, eliminated the hardwired controllers, and included a new, more compact case design. Retailing for 4,800 to 7,200 (equivalent to approximately $42 to $60 USD), the AV Famicom remained in production for almost a decade before being finally discontinued in 2003. In North America a new NES model (called the NES 2) was also released, using the same design as the AV Famicom. Unlike the AV Famicom, which featured only AV output, the NES 2 omitted the RCA composite output that had been included in the NES since its initial American release, and sported only RF output capabilities.

After a full decade of production, the NES was formally discontinued in the U.S. in 1995. The NES had survived for a long time, and 50 million consoles and more than 350 million games had been sold in all. The NES has been credited with resurrecting the video game market after the disaster of the video game crash of 1983, an event which has not since been equaled.

The NES after 1995

The NES was in popular decline from 1991-1995, with the Sega Genesis and Nintendo's own Super Nintendo Entertainment System eating away at its market share, and next-generation CD-ROM-based systems on the horizon. However, even though the NES was discontinued in North America in 1995, it had left the mark of many millions of game cartridges. The secondhand market - video rental stores, Goodwill, yard sales, flea markets, games repackaged by Game Time Inc. / Game Trader Inc. and sold at retail stores such as K-Mart - was burgeoning. Parallel to, or perhaps because of this, many people began to rediscover the NES around this time, and by 1997, many older NES games were becoming popular with collectors.

At the same time, something else was happening: computer programmers who were also NES enthusiasts began to develop emulators capable of reproducing the internal workings of the NES on modern personal computers. When paired with a ROM image, a bit-for-bit copy of a NES cartridge's program code, the games could be played on a computer. Illegally copied ROMs were traded on various BBSs around the country, and as it became more popular and accessible, on the Internet. ROMs were hard to come by, and emulators were often plagued by bugs - sometimes they were designed to play one specific game.

Bloodlust Software's NESticle revolutionized the console emulation scene

However, emulation provided access to many rare and hard to find games that otherwise would have been lost. This provided gamers with a much wider selection than ever would have been possible with the original console. Emulators also came with a variety of built in functions that changed the gaming experience, such as save states that allowed the player to save at an exact spot in the game and resume later at that exact spot.

On April 2, 1997, Bloodlust Software released NESticle 0.2 - an emulator that was remarkably stable, compatible, and easy to use by the standards of its day (the product, according to its creator Sardu, of "two weeks of boredom") and can be said to have revolutionized the game emulation scene, spawning many imitators and competitors. After this, emulators quickly became more refined and ROMs more easily available, which brought more people into NES emulation, which in turn served as a catalyst for further development, both for NES and other console emulators.

Nintendo did not take to these developments kindly; becoming one of the most vocal opponents of ROM trading. Nintendo and their supporters claim that ROM trading represents little more than blatant software piracy. Proponents of ROM trading argue that emulation preserves many classic games for future generations, outside of their more fragile cartridge formats.

The NES revival settled back down, to a degree, in 2000, after the secondhand market began to dry up or charge collector's prices, 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 command throngs of fans for years to come. There is also strong independent community of developers dedicated to producing demos and games for the NES.

Differences between the Famicom and the NES

Famicom controllers (Japanese) were simple in design
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 (which was often jokingly compared to a toaster), and a more subdued gray and black color scheme. The expansion port was also relocated to the bottom rear of the unit.
  • 60-pin vs. 72-pin cartridges. The original Famicom and the rereleased 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 reason for the change is unclear, and it seems to have had little or no effect on the games themselves. Many early games 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.
  • 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 NES 2 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. Because floppy disks were less expensive than Nintendo's proprietary cartridge format, and for the additional features offered by the Disk System's hardware, many developers produced titles for the system that were sold cheaply at kiosks in retail stores. Nintendo never released the Famicom Disk System outside of Japan, citing concerns about software piracy, 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, 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.

Licensed titles vs. unlicensed titles

The Nintendo Seal of Quality was placed on every officially licensed NES cartridge released in North America

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 their business practices during this period have subsequently been heavily criticized, and may have played a 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 force Activision to cease production of Atari 2600 games, Nintendo had anticipated the involvement of third party software developers, and were willing to work with such companies, albeit on terms dictated by Nintendo. To this end, 10NES authentication chips were 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.

The business side of this was that game developers were now forced to pay a license fee to Nintendo. As part of the agreement, Nintendo tested and produced all games at its own facilities (either 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: Konami's subsidiary Ultra; 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 dissimilar to typical NES game packs

Several companies began producing unlicensed games, either refusing to pay the licensing fee or being refused by Nintendo. Most of the unlicensed games in the US used a dongle that would be connected to a licensed game, in order to use the licensed game's 10NES lockout chip for authentication. Some companies created circuits that used a voltage spike to knock the authentication unit in the NES offline. In what has to be one of the more brazen acts of piracy in video games, Tengen quite literally stole the 10NES code from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, allowing them to produce bootleg authentication chips. 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 whose religious themed games under the subsidiary name Wisdom Tree prevented Nintendo from suing due to a fear of public backlash.

Following the introduction of Sega's successful Mega Drive/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 AV Famicom and 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

By virtue of its fame and longevity, the NES would become one of the world's most cloned video game consoles. In some locales, especially South America and the former Soviet Union, where the NES was never officially released by Nintendo, such clones were the only readily available console gaming systems. Such was the case with the previously mentioned Dendy Junior, a particularly successful NES clone which achieved widespread popularity in Russia and former Soviet republics in the early 1990s. Elsewhere, such systems could occasionally even be found side by side with official Nintendo hardware, often prompting swift legal action. Many of these early systems were similar to the NES or Famicom not only in functionality, but also in appearance, often featuring little more than a new name and logo in place of Nintendo's branding.

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

The NES clone market has continued to exist, and even flourish, even 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 Mega Drive, the Super NES, 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 display. 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.

The technology employed in such clones has also evolved over the years: while the earliest clones featured a printed circuit board containing custom or third party integrated circuits (ICs), more recent (post-1996) clones have utilized single chip designs, with a custom IC which emulates the functionality of the original hardware, and often includes one or more on-board games.

Perhaps not wishing to attract legal attention from Nintendo, few of these systems are openly marketed as "NES compatible." Very often they are sold in very attractive and misleading boxes, featuring screenshots from more recent (and more powerful) systems and adorned with misleading, or even patently false, quotes, trumpeting "...ultimate videogame technlology..." [sic] or "...crystal clear digital sound, multiple colors and advanced 3D graphics." Some manufacturers will opt for a less misleading approach, describing the system generically as a "TV game," "8-bit console," or "multi-game system," but even these examples generally say nothing to suggest any compatibility with NES hardware.

Since none of these unlicensed clones contain the 10NES authentication chip, most are capable of running games which an official NES model would not run. In addition, many modern NES clones come with a built-in selection of games, typically stored on an internal ROM which can range from 128KB up to several megabytes in size. These built-in games are usually designed to supplement, rather than replace, the traditional cartridge slot, although some devices omit such a slot entirely, allowing only the built-in games to be played. Typical numbers for the built-in "distinct" games range from as low as three to as high as fifty or one hundred games for more expensive products. The number of "distinct games" is important, because while many NES clones claim to have as many as 10,000 built-in games, most of these games are usually nothing more than slight graphical tweaks, or hacks that allow the player to start the same game at different levels or with a different numbers of lives. Good quality NES clones do however come with more than 20 different games, even if most of them are under 64KB in size.

As was the case with unlicensed software titles, Nintendo has traditionally taken a rather dim view of unlicensed and often illegal cloned hardware. 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 and Europe.


More screenshots can be found in the Screenshot Gallery.

Technical specifications

  • CPU: Ricoh 2A03 8-bit processor based on MOS Technology 6502 core, running at 1.79MHz, with four tone generators (2 square, 1 triangle, 1 noise), a DAC, and a restricted DMA controller on-die
  • Main RAM: 2 KB
  • Palette: 48 colors and 5 grays in base palette; red, green, and blue guns can be individually darkened somewhat on a particular scanline
  • Onscreen colors: 25 colors on one scanline (background color + 4 sets of 3 tile colors + 4 sets of 3 sprite colors)
  • Hardware-supported sprites
    • Maximum onscreen sprites: 64
    • Sprite sizes: 8x8 and 8x16 pixels
    • Maximum number of sprite pixels on one scanline: 8, switching the lowest-priority sprites on and off during overflow (flicker)
  • Video memory: PPU contains 2 KB of tile and attribute RAM, 256 bytes of sprite position RAM ("OAM"), and 28 bytes of palette RAM (allowing for selection of background color); 8 KB of tile pattern ROM on cartridge (bankswitchable to up to 512 KB)
  • Scrolling layers: 1 per scanline
  • Resolution: Most games used 256x240 pixels; for additional video memory bandwidth, it was possible to turn off the screen before the raster reached the very bottom.
  • 9-pin expansion port on the front (original) or right hand side (NES and AV Famicom) used mainly for special game controllers such as the Light Gun and Family Basic keyboard, and for the Famicom Disk System.
  • NES and AV Famicom only: 2 seven pin controller ports in the front of the machine
  • Original NES: RCA composite output and RF modulator output plugs
  • Original Famicom (Japan) and NES 2: RF modulator output only.
  • AV Famicom: RCA composite output plugs only.

See also


  • Van Burnham. Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971–1984. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. 375. ISBN 0262524201
  • Martin Nielsen. "The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) FAQ v3.0A (http://www.classicgaming.com/museum/faqs/nesfaq.shtml)." ClassicGaming.com's Museum (http://www.classicgaming.com/museum/). October 8, 1997. Accessed on January 5, 2005.
  • Kevin Horton. "The Infamous Lockout Chip (http://www.tripoint.org/kevtris/mappers/lockout/)." Accessed on January 5, 2005.
  • Michael Davidson. "Famicom Clones / Pirate Multicarts and Other Weirdness (http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~pinwhiz/famicom.htm)." Obscure Pixels (http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~pinwhiz/index.htm). Accessed on January 5, 2005.
  • Dark Watcher. "Nintendo NES / Famicom (http://darkwatcher.psxfanatics.com/console/nes.htm)." Dark Watcher's Console History (http://darkwatcher.psxfanatics.com/console/). Accessed on January 5, 2005.
  • GaZZwa. "History of Videogames (part 2) (http://www.gamingw.net/articles/74)." Gaming World (http://www.gamingw.net/). Accessed on January 7, 2005.

External links



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