The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1985, but its Japanese counterpart, the Nintendo Family Computer, or Famicom for short, came out July 15, 1983, meaning it'll turn 30 soon. Masayuki Uemura, head of the small hardware staff that created the machine, still can't quite believe it.
"The thing that strikes me the most is that there's no way I could imagine during development that I'd be sitting down for interviews like this one," he said in this week's issue of Famitsu magazine. "In fact, I had forgotten this was the 30th anniversary until someone reminded me about it."
Nintendo's history in home video games begins in 1977 when they released the TV Game 6, a dedicated console that featured a half-dozen variants on Pong and the like. This brought Uemura and then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi to the Consumer Electronics Show frequently, where they began to notice how companies like Atari and Coleco were causing a sensation with their cartridge-compatible systems.
"I suppose those CES visits were him setting up the project for us, looking back," Uemura said. "One day, Yamauchi called me in and said 'Make me something that lets you play arcade games on your TV at home.' Donkey Kong was a huge hit in the arcades by then, and I suppose he wanted to get our name into homes as well. His reasoning was that, after all, we were a company that started with playing cards and got into toys later on, so unless we did something that no one's done before, it wouldn't have much value as a product."
So Uemura and crew went into discussions with chipmakers, the goal being to create a system that let you play Donkey Kong as-is on your TV set. What did Yamauchi think of the results when they were done? "We didn't really have time to find out," replied Uemura. "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. 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."
When did Uemura realize that he might have a hit on his hands? When he began to see how the Famicom invaded Japanese living rooms with his own eyes. "At one point," he recalled, "before Super Mario Bros. had come out, the Famicom had sold about three million units. My personal sales record at the time on a toy I had worked on was about three million, so anything after that was unexplored territory for me. I lived in a big apartment complex in Osaka with around 1000 people in it, and usually if a toy sold a million across Japan, there'd be one family or so in each building of the complex that had it. With the Famicom, though, I'd start having neighborhood kids go up to me and say 'Hey, that video game you made doesn't work on my TV.' They'd ask me for customer service! And that just kept on happening."
Thirty years and around 62 million Famicoms and NESes sold later, the system and its games are an indelible part of popular culture. A vast variety of NES games are available on assorted Nintendo systems right now via Virtual Console. According to Uemera, this is something that fascinates him, especially since his main job right now is conducting play-related research at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
"I think it's great," he said. "It's important to note that universities and such take archiving very seriously. You have the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs taking steps to preserve anime, comics and games. Why do you think that is? In my opinion it's because throughout history, play wasn't something people kept records on very much. You might have the tools for play remaining, but how you actually played was mostly communicated by word-of-mouth. So maybe we can find what appear to be toys from the Indus civilization of 4000 or 5000 years ago, but we have no idea what they did with them. Meanwhile, video games come with instructions. If we can bring that along to the next generation, then not only is that preserved, but we also preserve the feelings of the people that made those games."
What does the Famicom mean to Uemura, then? "It was the seed that got me started on thinking about a lot of different things," he replied. "I used to be just your typical office grunt, but then I ran into toys, and that changed my outlook on life in a lot of ways. I'm doing research right now with some psychologists into why people play video games, but the whole reason I'm thinking about topics like that is because of the Famicom was there. So I appreciate that, but in a way it's also the most formidable opponent of my life, because in a way no one can really figure out why that particular piece of hardware was the one that sold so well. It's an opponent that will continue to give me lots of things to think about."