The lights are on
Nintendo has been involved in the video game industry for nearly four decades, and the company hasn’t remained as popular as it has by following other people’s lead. Nearly every generation, Nintendo has led a charge of innovation that has fundamentally reshaped the gaming world. These innovations haven’t always been well received, but Nintendo’s fingerprints are so firmly etched into our industry, that the company is arguably the most important figure in it. In honor of Nintendo’s official confirmation that it will reveal its next video game system at this year’s E3, we thought it was time to look back at the company’s innovative history.
1980: Game & WatchMattel may have beaten Nintendo to the punch with its 1977 release Auto Race, but Nintendo is credited as the company that made handheld gaming popular. Unlike other handheld electronics of the day, Nintendo’s Game & Watch systems were highly portable, had great battery mileage, and – most importantly – were entertaining. Where most electronic games used LED displays, Game & Watch systems used LCD screens, which gave players a higher level of screen detail and allowed Nintendo to use compact watch batteries. Later versions of Game & Watch even featured dual screens and compact foldaway designs – both iconic features of Nintendo’s popular DS and 3DS systems.
1985: NESThe NES’s greatest achievement may be the fact that it brought the video game industry back from the brink of death. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were the Wild West of the video game industry. Video game publishers and manufacturers had no idea what they were doing, and many of them had only gotten involved in the industry because they believed there was a great deal of money to be made in this new form of electronic entertainment. As a result, tons of cheap, low-quality, unlicensed software began flooding the market. The NES’s greatest innovation, therefore, might not have been hardware related; Nintendo reinvented how software was managed – thereby changing how video game makers approached their craft.
When the NES arrived on the scene in the mid-‘80s, Nintendo started putting a Seal of Quality badge on their games. Thanks to the NES’s region lockout chips, the publisher was also able to begin managing the amount of third party software released on its console. When Nintendo started to care about the games released on their system, suddenly so did their consumers.
The problem was that Nintendo had to first convince some early adopters to purchase their machine. In doing so, Nintendo all but invented the peripheral market. When Nintendo first started marketing their NES system, many believed that the video game fad had run its course, and retailers were reluctant to put another video game system on store shelves. To combat public opinion, Nintendo packaged their NES consoles with a robotic accessory named R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy). Many retailers ordered the NES on faith that the market for toy robots would always be strong. R.O.B. was only compatible with a few sub-par titles, but by the time consumers were playing those titles, the robot had already done his job. R.O.B. acted as a kind of Trojan horse to get NES systems into people’s homes in the first place. Furthermore, Nintendo’s robotic accessory acted as a kind of precursor to all the other guitar, skateboard, and Power Glove peripherals that have saturated the market throughout the years.
One of the final NES innovations was the system’s controller. It may be hard to believe now, but 30 years ago no one understood how players should interact with their video game systems. Many of the early controllers were a mess of dials, roller balls, and knobs. The NES controller, on the other hand, fit neatly into players’ hands. Gamers could easily hit every button on the controller without moving adjusting their grip or twisting the controller underneath them.
Even the unit’s d-pad seemed novel at the time. While joysticks of the day have a lot in common with modern analog sticks, Nintendo’s directional pad was the most elegant way to play 2D titles of the era. Nintendo went so far as to patent the technology behind its d-pad, so that all of its competitors would have to come up with their own cross pad designs. This is why most other d-pads pale in comparison (we’re looking at you Microsoft).
Further advances followed in the years to come. For example, Nintendo began experimenting with manufacturing cartridges with built-in batteries, allowing players to save their games for the first time. But you hardly need stronger evidence to prove that the NES was one of the most – if not the most – important pieces of gaming hardware in history.
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