Nintendo's Road to the NES
How a series of strange clone machines gave birth to the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System
Nintendo is the most famous video game company in the world today. Much like “Hoover” became synonymous with vacuuming, and “Google” with online search, “Nintendo” — at least for a time — was the synonym for video games. The company’s rise as a video game powerhouse is legendary. The iconic Nintendo Entertainment System is generally recognised as a catalyst for the rebirth of an entire industry, especially given its role in helping video games to overcome the disastrous crash of 1983.
But did you know that the famous and much-loved NES is actually not Nintendo’s first home video game console?
In fact, Nintendo took several tentative steps into the field of electronic entertainment prior to the NES’s arrival. These steps marked the company’s transition from its traditional hanafuda playing card business to dominance of the video game industry.
NINTENDO ESTABLISHES A “GAMES” DIVISION
Nintendo had greatly diversified its business throughout the 1960s, famously offering a wide range of products and services — from instant rice to a taxi service and even a “love hotel”. None of these ventures provided the explosive growth the company hoped for. It wasn’t until Hiroshi Imanishi — a bright young graduate from Doshisha University — arrived at the company that it made one of the most important moves in its history. Imanishi regularly managed key projects delegated to him by Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s president. His task in 1969 was to form a brand new department simply called “Games”. This department contained Nintendo’s first ever research-and-development site, located in a warehouse in the Kyoto suburbs.
This new Games department was responsible for producing Nintendo’s first electronics products, thanks to its new komuki — engineering — division. The division was led by none other than Gunpei Yokoi, the man who would go on to create products such as the Game Boy and Virtual Boy.
Nintendo’s first breakout electronic game was the “Nintendo Beam Gun” game. It was the first example of the company leveraging a specific technology that had never been intended for entertainment purposes (in this case, Nintendo were shrinking down a solar cell developed by Sharp — they realised that they could shrink it down to the size of a coin and it would still detect light). The idea behind the Beam Gun toys was simple. The gun emitted a beam of light (the “bullet”), which would hit a censor and trigger a reaction. These reactions could be used for all sorts of fun applications — like blowing a part a plastic beer bottle, or smashing a stack of toy barrels. The toy included several “targets” packed in and sold more than 1 million units in the early 1970s.
The runaway success of the Nintendo Beam Gun prompted Hiroshi Yamauchi to dramatically expand the company. Nintendo built a brand-new headquarters: a large, white rectangular building that is still in use today. It retained its previous head office largely due to nostalgia, and its hanafuda heritage.
THE WORLD’S FIRST LASER CLAY RANGE OPENS
Hiroshi Yamauchi was known for being a product visionary. According to many of his colleagues, he had an uncanny ability to predict which new products were likely to be successful. The enormous success of the Beam Gun toys prompted Yamauchi to wonder if the same technology could be re-purposed even further for something far grander.
In the early 1970s, skeet shooting was a popular sport in Japan. At the same time, bowling alleys all around the country were going out of business (there had been a “bowling boom” in the 1960s, but interest was waning by the early ‘70s). Yamauchi decided to purchase several bowling alleys at rock-bottom prices and convert them into, essentially, light-gun shooting ranges. The idea was to fly digital clay pigeons across the end of a lane — these were essentially the same solar cells used in the Beam Gun games. Players could shoot at the clay pigeons and feel as though they were really firing a gun. The idea was to create an experience that felt far more realistic than amusement park shooting games that relied on cork bullets, and which only barely approximated the sensation of shooting.
There were, famously, several problems getting the technology up and running. Yokoi and his engineering team struggled to coordinate the movement of the clay pigeons with the firing of the beam guns and the associated sounds that would play upon a successful hit. To make matters worse, the beam guns malfunctioned at the worst possible time — right when television news crews had their cameras trained on the action for the first Laser Clay Range’s big public debut. Genyo Takeda — a young engineer on the team (who would ultimately become one of Nintendo’s most famous figures) — had to crawl behind the board at the end of the lane and manually move and fire-off the clay pigeons. The illusion certainly worked at the time; nobody knew any different, and the technology certainly appeared to be running without a hitch.
Throughout the early 1970s, Nintendo’s Laser Clay Gun Ranges became a huge hit and a staple of evening entertainment throughout Japan.
Sadly, though, the success was short-lived. The oil crisis of the early ’70s hit Japan hard, drying up consumer spending to a trickle and ultimately leaving Nintendo’s new ranges empty of customers.
Nintendo — on the brink of collapse at this point — needed a lifeline. It had proven the power of digital entertainment in terms of its electronic toys and its light-gun ranges. The company’s next major product didn’t quite set the world on fire in its own right, but it did set Nintendo’s course for decades to come.
NINTENDO ENTERS THE VIDEO GAME BUSINESS
The microchip was the key. The late 1970s saw radical advancement in office and consumer products; computer technology, once exclusively the domain of Universities and research laboratories, was now making its way into homes around the world. Hiroshi Yamauchi recognised that the technology underpinning these products was now both small and cheap enough to be re-purposed for entertainment.
Both Atari and Magnavox were already producing devices that could play electronic games at home via a television. These two companies were pioneers in the early video game market. Yamauchi wanted in, but there was a problem: although Nintendo had a Games department and a modest in-house engineering division, it lacked the capability to design and produce the microprocessor-based technology that was necessary to create a video game machine. Nintendo got around the problem by a) acquiring a license to manufacture and sell Magnavox’s game console and b) partnering with Mitsubishi to build the product.
The Color TV-Game 6 was Nintendo’s first home video game console. Based Magnavox’s design, it played six versions of Pong (which itself was the first commercial American video game). These versions of the game were entirely built in, so there were no swappable cartridges or other storage media. Players could put different plastic overlays on their TV screens to simulate different flavours of Pong (so, for example, one overlay would be a volleyball field, another would be a tennis court, and so on).
It wasn’t just the overlays that changed the experience. Players could switch between volleyball, tennis, and hockey. Each game could be played in either singles or doubles mode (although strictly speaking, every game was two-player — in singles mode, both players can move the on-screen paddle). The original CTG-6S version is powered entirely via batteries, although a later variant (the orange CTG-6V) can also be plugged into a wall outlet.
There were multiple versions of the Color TV-Game 6, including one released by Sharp. Nintendo then followed up the Color TV-Game 6 with the Color TV-Game 15 and then the Color TV-Game Racing 112 (which contained a large steering wheel built right into the console itself). Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi was the final machine in the “Color TV-Game” series of consoles, and featured multiple versions of the arcade hit Breakout (well, to be more accurate, Nintendo were actually producing a Breakout clone here).
This particular console is incredibly significant in part because it was developed and manufactured entirely in-house by Nintendo. That is to say, they didn’t rely on a Mitsubishi partnership to get this machine to market. It’s partly for this reason that the Nintendo logo can be seen so prominently on the housing. It was also significant for another very important reason: Shigeru Miyamoto designed the housing. Miyamoto was an industrial design graduate and was still new to Nintendo at the time. Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi was one of his first design projects at the company.
“Throw away all your old ideas in order to come up with something new.”
Although the Color TV-Game consoles opened the door to Nintendo’s later domination of the video game business, it’s fair to say that none of these machines became the massive blockbuster hit that company was hoping for. But they did demonstrate a few important points:
- There was a growing interest in electronic home entertainment products.
- Nintendo could leverage existing microprocessor technology to develop novel entertainment applications.
- Nintendo now had sufficient in-house engineering and manufacturing know-how to create its own dedicated entertainment machines.
As a result, Nintendo continued to invest in digital entertainment. Yamauchi had a strong desire for the company to be a powerful player in the arcade market (especially having seen the success of games like Space Invaders in the west). Nintendo also pursued the “home” market with its highly-popular Game & Watch line — these tiny handheld game consoles are essentially re-purposed pocket calculators. They were small, cheap to manufacture, and most importantly: fun.
In 1983, the Nintendo Famicom debuted in Japan. It was radically more advanced than any of Nintendo’s previous machines (and, at the time, was actually an almost impossible project for the company — Genyo Takeda later commented, in reference to the Famicom’s chief engineer Masayuki Uemura, that “He was so much an amateur, that when Yamauchi told him to make this thing, he did not know that it could not be done.”)
The story of the Famicom — and the western NES, which debuted later in 1985 — is legendary. And, I fear, it is too long a tale for this particular piece. Perhaps it needs its own feature (if that’s something you’d be interested in, please leave a comment on this article).
At any rate, it’s tempting to think of the Famicom/NES as being the kick off point for Nintendo’s long and illustrious home console journey. It is tempting, too, to look back at the past and see an unbroken, fateful chain of events that inevitably lead to the creation of Mario, Zelda, Game Boy, Switch, and everything in between. Of course, none of these developments would have emerged without the humble Color TV-Game series. This reason alone makes the Color TV-Game machines among the most historically important consumer electronics devices ever made.
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