The Nintendo Entertainment System (often abbreviated as NES or simply Nintendo) is an 8-bit video game console that was released by Nintendo in North America, Europe, and Australia in 1985. In Japan (where it was first launched in 1983), it was released as the Family Computer also known as the Famicom, or simply FC for short. In Southern Asia (such as India), it was known as the Tata Famicom.
The best-selling gaming console of its time, the NES helped revitalize the US video game industry following the video game crash of 1983, and set the standard for subsequent consoles in everything from game design to controller layout. In addition, with the NES, Nintendo introduced a now-standard business model of software licensing for third-party developers.
For the remainder of the NES's commercial lifespan in North America, Nintendo frequently repackaged the console in new configurations to capitalize on newer accessories or popular game titles. Subsequent bundle packages included the NES Action Set, released in November 1988 for $149.99, which replaced both of the earlier two sets, and included the console, the NES Zapper, two game controllers, and a multicart version of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. The Action Set became the most successful of the packages released by Nintendo, and even the Super Mario Bros & Duck Hunt cartridge has become more popular than the seperate carts. One month later, in December 1988, to coincide with the release of the Power Pad floor mat controller, Nintendo released a new Power Set bundle, consisting of the console, the Power Pad, the NES Zapper, two controllers, and a multicart containing Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and World Class Track Meet. In 1990, a Sports Set bundle was released, including the console, an NES Satellite infrared wireless multitap adapter, four game controllers, and a multicart featuring Super Spike V'Ball and Nintendo World Cup.
Two more bundle packages were released using the original model NES console. The Challenge Set included the console, two controllers, and a Super Mario Bros. 3 game pak. The Basic Set, first released in 1987, included only the console and two controllers with no pack-in cartridge. Instead, it contained a book called the The Official Nintendo Player's Guide, which contained detailed information for NES games made up to that point. Finally, the redesigned NES 2 was released as part of the final Nintendo-released bundle package, once again under the name Control Deck, including the new style NES 2 console, and one redesigned "dogbone" game controller. Released in October 1993, this final bundle retailed for US$49.99, and remained in production until the discontinuation of the NES in 1995.
Regional differences Edit
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, a 15-pin expansion port located on the unit’s front panel for accessories (as the controllers were hard-wired to the back of the console), and a red and white col early games (such as Stack-Up) 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. Nintendo did this to reduce costs and inventory by using the same cartridge boards in North America and Japan.
- A number of peripheral devices and software packages were released for the Famicom. Few of these devices were ever released outside of Japan.
- Family Basic is an implementation of BASIC for the Famicom. It allowed the user to program their own games. Many programmers got their first experience on programming for the console this way.
- Famicom MODEM is a modem that allowed connection to a Nintendo server which provided content such as jokes, news (mainly about Nintendo), game tips, and weather reports for Japan; it also allowed a small number of programs to be downloaded. A modem was, however, tested in the United States, by the Minnesota State Lottery. It would have allowed players to buy scratchcards and play the lottery with their NES. It was not released because minors were able to play the lottery illegally and anonymously.
- External sound chips. The Famicom had two cartridge pins that allowed cartridges to provide external sound enhancements. They were originally intended to facilitate the Famicom Disk System’s external sound chip. These pins were removed from the cartridge port of the NES, and relocated to the bottom expansion port. As a result, individual cartridges could not make use of this functionality, and many NES localizations suffered from inferior sound compared to their equivalent Famicom versions. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse is a notable example of this problem.
The Famicom’s original design includes hardwired, non-removable controllers. In addition, the second controller featured an internal microphone for use with certain games and lacked SELECT and START buttons. 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.
- Lockout circuitry. The Famicom contained no lockout hardware, and, as a result, unlicensed cartridges (both legitimate and bootleg) were extremely common throughout Japan and the Far East. The original NES (but not the top-loading NES 2) contained the 10NES lockout chip, which significantly increased the challenges faced by unlicensed developers. Tinkerers at home in later years discovered that disassembling the NES and cutting the fourth pin of the lockout chip would change the chip’s mode of operation from "lock" to "key", removing all effects and greatly improving the console’s ability to play legal games, as well as bootlegs and converted imports. The European release of the console used a regional lockout system that prevented cartridges released in region A from being played on region B consoles, and vice versa.
- 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 top-loading NES 2 featured only RF modulator output. The original North American NES was the first game console to feature direct composite video output so people could hook it up to a stand-alone composite monitor, rather than hooking up to the RF monitor.
- Third-party cartridge manufacturing. In Japan, six companies, namely Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, Namco, Bandai, and Jaleco, manufactured the cartridges for the Famicom. This allowed these companies to develop their own customized chips designed for specific purposes, such as Konami's VRC 6 and VRC 7 sound chips that increased the quality of sound in their games.
Game controllers Edit
The game controller used for both the NES and the Famicom featured an oblong brick-like design with a simple four button layout: two round buttons labeled "B" and "A", a "START" button, and a "SELECT" button. Additionally, the controllers utilized the cross-shaped D-pad, designed by Nintendo employee Gunpei Yokoi for Nintendo Game & Watch systems, to replace the bulkier joysticks on earlier gaming consoles’ controllers.
The original model Famicom featured two game controllers, both of which were hardwired to the back of the console. The second controller lacked the START and SELECT buttons, but featured a small microphone. Relatively few games made use of this feature. The earliest produced Famicom units initially had square A and B buttons. This was changed to the circular designs because of the square buttons being caught in the controller casing when pressed down, and glitches within the hardware causing the system to freeze occasionally while playing a game.
The NES dropped the hardwired controllers, instead featuring two custom 7-pin ports on the front of the console. Also in contrast to the Famicom, the controllers included with the NES were identical to each other—the second controller lacked the microphone that was present on the Famicom model, and possessed the same START and SELECT buttons as the primary controller.
A number of special controllers designed for use with specific games were released for the system, though very few such devices proved particularly popular. Such devices included, but were not limited to, the NES Zapper (a light gun), the Power Pad, the R.O.B., the LaserScope, the Vaus, and the Power Glove. The original Famicom featured a deepened DA-15 expansion port on the front of the unit, which was used to connect most auxiliary devices. On the NES, these special controllers were generally connected to one of the two control ports on the front of the unit.
Near the end of the NES's lifespan, upon the release of the AV Famicom and the top-loading NES 2, the design of the game controllers was modified slightly. Though the original button layout was retained, the redesigned device abandoned the "brick" shell in favor of a "dog bone" shape reminiscent of the controllers of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. In addition, the AV Famicom joined its international counterpart and dropped the hardwired controllers in favor of detachable controller ports. However, the controllers included with the Famicom AV, despite being the "dog bone" type, had cables which were a short three feet long, as opposed to the standard six feet of NES controllers.
In recent years the original NES controller has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the system. Nintendo has mimicked the look of the controller in several recent products, from promotional merchandise to limited edition versions of the Game Boy Advance SP and Game Boy Micro handheld game consoles.
Hardware design flaws Edit
When Nintendo released the NES in the United States, the design styling was deliberately different from that of other game consoles. Nintendo wanted to distinguish its product from those of competitors, and to avoid the generally poor reputation that game consoles had acquired following the video game crash of 1983. One result of this philosophy was a front-loading zero insertion force (ZIF) cartridge socket designed to resemble the front-loading mechanism of a VCR. The ZIF connector worked quite well when both the connector and the cartridges were clean and the pins on the connector were new. Unfortunately, the ZIF connector was not truly zero insertion force. When a user inserted the cartridge into the NES, the force of pressing the cartridge down and into place bent the contact pins slightly, as well as pressing the cartridge’s ROM board back into the cartridge itself. Repeated insertion and removal of cartridges caused the pins to wear out relatively quickly, and the ZIF design proved far more prone to interference by dirt and dust than an industry-standard card edge connector. Exacerbating the problem was Nintendo’s choice of materials; the slot connector that the cartridge was actually inserted into was highly prone to corrosion. Add-on peripherals like the popular Game Genie cheat cartridge tended to further exacerbate this problem by bending the front-loading mechanism during gameplay. Recently, third-party manufacturers have been producing gold clones of the NES connector piece to replace the existing one and prevent corrosion.
Problems with the 10NES lockout chip frequently resulted in the system’s most infamous problem: the blinking red power light, in which the system appears to turn itself on and off repeatedly. The lockout chip was quite finicky, requiring precise timing in order to permit the system to boot. Dirty, aging, and bent connectors would often disrupt the timing, resulting in the blink effect. Alternatively, the console would turn on but only show a solid white, gray, or green screen. Users attempted to solve this problem by blowing air onto the cartridge connectors, licking the edge connector, slapping the side of the system after inserting a cartridge, shifting the cartridge from side to side after insertion, pushing the ZIF up and down repeatedly, holding the ZIF down lower than it should have been, and/or cleaning the connectors with alcohol which, observing the back of the cartridge, was not endorsed by Nintendo. Many of the most frequent attempts to fix this problem instead ran the risk of damaging the cartridge and/or system. In 1989, Nintendo released an official NES Cleaning Kit to help users clean malfunctioning cartridges and consoles.
With the release of the top-loading NES 2 toward the end of the NES's lifespan, Nintendo resolved the problems by switching to a standard card edge connector, and eliminating the lockout chip. All of the Famicom systems used standard card edge connectors, as did Nintendo’s subsequent game consoles, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Nintendo 64.
In response to these hardware flaws, "Nintendo Authorized Repair Centers" sprang up across the United States. According to Nintendo, the authorization program was designed to ensure that the machines were properly repaired. Nintendo would ship the necessary replacement parts only to shops that had enrolled in the authorization program. In practice, the authorization process consisted of nothing more than paying a fee to Nintendo for the privilege. In a recent trend, many sites have sprung up to offer Nintendo repair parts, guides and services, that replace those formerly offered by the authorized repair centers.
Third-party licensing Edit
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 Atari's heyday in the early 1980s. Unlike Atari, which never actively courted third-party developers (and even went to court in an attempt to force Activision to cease production of Atari 2600 games), Nintendo had anticipated and encouraged the involvement of third-party software developers—but strictly on Nintendo’s terms. To this end, a 10NES authentication chip was placed in every console, and another was placed in every officially licensed cartridge. If the console's chip could not detect a counterpart chip inside the cartridge, the game would not load. Because Nintendo controlled the production of all cartridges, it was able to enforce strict rules on its third-party developers. Third-party developers were also asked to sign a contract by Nintendo that would obligate these parties to develop exclusively for the system. 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.
Unlicensed games Edit
Several companies, refusing to pay the licensing fee or having been rejected by Nintendo, found ways to circumvent the console's authentication system. Most of these companies created circuits that used a voltage spike to temporarily disable the 10NES chip in the NES. A few unlicensed games released in Europe and Australia came in the form of a dongle that would be connected to a licensed game, in order to use the licensed game’s 10NES chip for authentication.
Atari Games created a line of NES products under the name Tengen, and took a different approach. Afraid of damaging NES units and being liable for it by using the voltage spike technique, the company attempted to reverse engineer the lockout chip to develop its own "Rabbit" chip. However, Tengen also obtained a description of the lockout chip from the United States Patent and Trademark Office by falsely claiming that it was required to defend against present infringement claims in a legal case. Nintendo sued Tengen for copyright infringement, which Tengen lost as it could not prove that the illegally obtained patent documents had not been used by the reverse engineering team. Tengen's antitrust claims against Nintendo were never finally decided.
Following the introduction of the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in North America), 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 NES 2, the 10NES chip was omitted from the console.
A thriving market of unlicensed NES hardware clones emerged during the heyday of the console’s popularity. Initially, such clones were popular in markets where Nintendo never issued a legitimate version of the system. In particular, the Dendy, an unlicensed hardware clone produced in Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union, emerged as the most popular video game console of its time in that setting, and it enjoyed a degree of fame roughly equivalent to that experienced by the NES/Famicom in North America and Japan. The Micro Genius was marketed in Southeast Asia as an alternative to the Famicom, Samurai was the popular PAL alternative to the NES and in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, the Pegasus was available.
The unlicensed clone market has persisted, and even flourished, following Nintendo’s discontinuation of the NES. Some of the more exotic of these resulting systems have gone beyond the functionality of the original hardware, and have included variations such as a portable system with a color LCD (e.g. Pocket Famicom). 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. These unauthorized clones have been helped by the invention of the so called NES-on-a-chip or NoaC.
As was the case with unlicensed software titles, Nintendo has typically gone to the courts to prohibit the manufacture and sale of unlicensed cloned hardware. Many of the clone vendors have included built-in copies of licensed Nintendo software, which constitutes copyright infringement in most countries. As recently as 2004, Nintendo of America has filed suits against manufacturers of the Power Player Super Joy III, an NES clone system that had been sold in North America, Europe, and Australia.
Although most hardware clones were not produced under license by Nintendo, certain companies were granted licenses to produce NES-compatible devices. The Sharp Corporation produced at least two such clones: the Twin Famicom and the SHARP 19SC111 television. The Twin Famicom was compatible with both Famicom cartridges and Famicom Disk System disks. It was available in two colors (red and black) and used hardwired controllers (as did the original Famicom), but it featured a different case design. The SHARP 19SC111 television was a television which included a built-in Famicom. A similar licensing deal was reached with Hyundai Electronics, who manufactured the system under the name Comboy in the South Korean market. This deal with Hyundai was made necessary because of the South Korean government's wide ban on all Japanese "cultural products," which remained in effect until 1998 and ensured that the only way Japanese products could legally enter the South Korean market was through licensing to a third-party (non-Japanese) distributor.
The original Japanese Famicom was predominantly white plastic, with dark red trim. It featured a top-loading cartridge slot, and grooves on both sides of the deck in which the hardwired game controllers could be placed when not in use.
The original version of the North American NES used a radically different design. The NES's color scheme was two different shades of gray, with black trim. The top-loading cartridge slot was replaced with a front-loading mechanism. The slot is covered by a small, hinged door that can be opened to insert or remove a cartridge, and closed at other times. The dimensions of this model are 10" width by 8" length by 3.5" height. When opened, the cartridge slot door adds an additional 1" height to the unit. Due to its bulky, square design and slot-loading functionality, the original NES chassis is often referred to as the "Toaster."
New-Style Nintendo Entertianment SystemEdit
The remodeled New-Style Nintendo Entertainment System, known commonly as the "Top Loader", uses the same basic color scheme, although there are several subtle differences. The power switch is colored a bright red and slides into the on and off position, similar to the SNES, instead of the original push-button. Also, there is no LED power indicator on the unit. Like the original Famicom, it uses a top-loading cartridge slot. The NES was redesigned after the (also top loading) SNES, and indeed they share many of the same design cues. The New-Style Nintendo Entertianment System is considerably more compact than the original model, measuring 6" by 7" by 1.5". The streamlining of the design and chipset in the Top Loader made it arguably more reliable than the original NES models, although there was a tradeoff in connectivity and picture quality: the Top Loader offered only RF outputs instead of the RF and RCA (mono) outputs offered on the original.
All officially licensed North American (NTSC) and European (PAL) cartridges, or "carts", are 5.5" long by 4.1" wide. Originally, NES carts were held together with 5 small, slotted screws. Later games (post-1987) were redesigned slightly to incorporate two plastic clips molded into the plastic itself, eliminating the need for the top two screws. This is why older NES carts are referred to as "5-screw", and are distinguishable by their flat tops and, as the name suggests, five screws instead of three. Around this time, the standard screws were changed to a 3.8mm security screws to further secure the ROMs inside from tampering. The back of the cartridge bears a label with instructions on handling. These labels were gray for standard games and gold (or in rare cases silver) for games that featured battery backup. With the exception of The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link which were available in gold-plastic carts, all NTSC and PAL cartridges were a standard shade of gray plastic. Nintendo also produced yellow-plastic carts for internal use at Nintendo Service Centers. These "test carts" featured a series of RAM, Audio, Input, and Video tests. They were never made available for purchase by consumers.
Japanese (Famicom) cartridges are shaped slightly differently, measuring only 3" in length, but 5.3" in width. While the NES used at 72-pin interface, the Famicom system used a 60-pin design. Some early NES games (most commonly Gyromite) were actually 60-pin Famicom PCBs and ROMs with a built-in converter. Unlike NES games, official Famicom carts were produced in many colors of plastic.
Central processing unitEdit
For its central processing unit (CPU), the NES uses an 8-bit microprocessor produced by Ricoh based on a MOS Technology 6502 core. It incorporates custom sound hardware and a restricted DMA controller on-die. NTSC (North America and Japan) versions of the console use the Ricoh 2A03 (or RP2A03), which runs at 1.79 MHz. PAL (Europe and Australia) versions of console utilize the Ricoh 2A07 (or RP2A07), which is identical to the 2A03 save for the fact that it runs at a slower 1.66 MHz clock rate and has its sound hardware adjusted accordingly.
The NES contains 2 KB of onboard random access memory (RAM). A game cartridge may contain expanded RAM to increase this amount. The system supports up to 49,128 bytes (just shy of 48 KB) for read-only memory (ROM), expanded RAM, and cartridge input/output. The process of bank switching can increase this amount by orders of magnitude.
The NES utilizes a custom-made picture processing unit (PPU) developed by Ricoh. The version of the processor used in NTSC models of the console, named the RP2C02, operates at 5.37 MHz, while the version used in PAL models, named the RP2C07, operates at 5.32 MHz. Both the RP2C02 and RP2C07 output composite video. Special versions of the NES's hardware designed for use in video arcades use other variations of the PPU. The PlayChoice-10 uses the RP2C03, which runs at 5.37 MHz and outputs RGB video at NTSC frequencies. Two different variations were used for Nintendo Vs. Series hardware: the RP2C04 and the RP2C05. Both of these operate at 5.37 MHz and output RGB video at NTSC frequencies. Additionally, both utilize irregular palettes to prevent easy ROM swapping of games. All variations of this PPU feature 256 bytes of on-die sprite position / attributable RAM ("OAM") and 28 bytes of on-die palette RAM to allow selection of background and sprite colors. This memory is stored on separate buses internal to the PPU. The console's 2 KB of onboard RAM may be used for tile maps and attributes on the NES board, and 8 [KB of tile pattern ROM or RAM may be included on a cartridge. Using bank switching, virtually any amount of additional cartridge memory can be used, limited only by manufacturing costs.
The system has an available color palette of 48 colors and 5 grays. Red, green, and blue can be individually darkened at specific screen regions using carefully timed code. Up to 25 colors may be used on one scanline: a background color, four sets of three tile colors, and four sets of three sprite colors. This total does not include color de-emphasis.
A total of 64 sprites may be displayed onscreen at a given time without reloading sprites mid-screen. Sprites may be either 8 pixels by 8 pixels, or 8 pixels by 16 pixels, although the choice must be made globally and it affects all sprites. Up to eight sprites may be present on one scanline, using a flag to indicate when additional sprites are to be dropped. This flag allows the software to rotate sprite priorities, increasing maximum amount of sprites, but typically causing flicker.
The PPU allows only one scrolling layer, though horizontal scrolling can be changed on a per-scanline basis. More advanced programming methods enable the same to be done for vertical scrolling.
The standard display resolution of the NES is 256 horizontal pixels by 240 vertical pixels. Typically, games designed for NTSC-based systems had an effective resolution of only 256 by 224 pixels, as the top and bottom 8 scanlines are not visible on most television sets. For additional video memory bandwidth, it was possible to turn off the screen before the raster reached the very bottom. Video output connections varied from one model of the console to the next. The original Japanese Famicom featured only radio frequency (RF) modulator output. When the console was released in North America and Europe, support for composite video through RCA connectors was added in addition to the RF modulator. The AV Famicom dropped the RF modulator entirely and adopted composite video output via a proprietary 12-pin "multi-out" connector first introduced for the Super Famicom / Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Conversely, the North American re-released NES 2 most closely resembled the original model Famicom, in that it featured RF modulator output only. Finally, the PlayChoice-10 utilized an inverted RGB video output.
The NES board supported a total of five sound channels. These included two pulse wave channels of variable duty cycle (12.5%, 25%, 50%, and 75%), with a volume control of sixteen levels, and hardware pitch bending supporting frequencies ranging from 54 Hz to 28 kHz. Additional channels included one fixed-volume triangle wave channel supporting frequencies from 27 Hz to 56 kHz, one sixteen-volume level white noise channel supporting two modes (by adjusting inputs on a linear feedback shift register) at sixteen preprogrammed frequencies, and one delta pulse-width modulation channel with six bits of range, using 1-bit delta encoding at sixteen preprogrammed sample rates from 4.2 kHz to 33.5 kHz. This final channel was also capable of playing standard pulse-code modulation (PCM) sound by writing individual 7-bit values at timed intervals.
See also Edit
- Nintendo Entertainment System at Nintendo.com (archived versions at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)
- NES games list at Nintendo.com (archived from the original at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)
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