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Plugged In

Nintendo’s legendary Famicom turns 30

Plugged In

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(Credit: Nintendo)

Thirty years ago, Nintendo’s rise to the top of the video game console world began.

Sure, Atari may have started the home video game revolution, but it was Nintendo's Famicom that took it to the next level, laying the groundwork for the industry as we know it today. That system, which was released two years later in America under the more familiar "Nintendo Entertainment System," made home gaming cool again.

The Famicom (short for “family computer”) hit Japan on July 15, 1983, right as the U.S. game industry was in the midst of an implosion. With its wildly imaginative games and unique business model of licensing games from third-party developers (instead of letting anyone put out any game for the system, as Atari had), it righted the ship. It's little surprise, then, that the system went on to be named the greatest video game console of all time by IGN.

The Famicom was the birthplace of several timeless franchises, including Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, as well as some classic games that still bring smiles to people's faces today, like Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!

Initially, however, the system carried significant risk for Nintendo. Atari's very public crash and burn, due to poor quality control, caused shockwaves in the retail world. Many stores suspected home video games were nothing more than a fad, whose time had passed.

The feeling wasn't much different in Japan, but Nintendo struck a deal with them to sell the Famicom on consignment. The company didn't have to worry about those terms for too long. Today, roughly 30 million Famicoms and NES systems have been sold.

By the time the system was sunsetted, it had amassed a huge catalog of games. In North America, roughly 700 were released, while Japan saw over 1,000 hit stores. A significant number of those game franchises are still around today.

The console also set the standard for today's controllers, introducing the D-Pad to gamers -- the first real step away from joysticks.

Initially designed as a system that let you play arcade games on your home TV (remember, Nintendo already had a hit on its hands with the quarter-gobbling version of Donkey Kong), it was a tall order for the company, which until then had specialized in trading cards. But Masayuki Uemura, inventor of the Famicom, told Famitsu magazine that employees at the company didn't balk.

"Once it was done, we had to get it mass-produced pretty much immediately. It was a pretty high-spec toy for the time, so manufacturing it was pretty difficult," he says. "Still, this is Nintendo; we had a playing card factory and we had some know-how when it came to mass production. Usually, if you have a team used to making these very traditional products and ask them to make this weird new game machine instead they'd balk at it, but we're lucky that Nintendo is full of people who love doing new and fun things all the time.

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