After much success with stand-up arcade cabinets in the early 1980's, Nintendo decided to turn its attention toward the home video game market in its native country of Japan. In 1983, Nintnedo released the "Family Computer" or Famicom to the Japanese public. The system initially retailed for 14,800 yen and didn't sell well. The few systems that did sell were eventually recalled for a faulty motherboard chipset, fixed, and re-released to the public. The new, more stable Famicom began selling extremely well, and eventually became the #1 selling home games console in Japan by the end of 1984.
Although the Famicom has somewhat similar internal hardware to the device that Americans would eventually come to know as the NES, the exterior of the device was extremely different. Game cartridges were loaded from the top (like an American SNES), and the controllers were hard-wired to the console. The 1st player controller had all of the buttons that a standard American NES gamepad has, while the second player Famicom controller lacked Start and Select buttons. In place of these buttons was a microphone and a microphone gain slider knob. Very few games were programmed to take advantage of this feature.
The game cartridges were different as well. Famicom game carts are approximately half the height of a standard NES game cartridge. Famicom cartridges are slightly more narrow as well, since they utilize a 60-pin cartridge connector vs the 72-pin connector utilized by NES game cartridges. In the US, 4 pins were specifically added for the 10NES lock-out chip which is required for all NES games to play in a NES. The Famicom lacked this lockout chip, and as a result, pirated and unlicensed games were very common in Japan and other Asian countries where the Famicom was sold.
Another pin-out change to the game cartridge was the removal of two pins from the cartridge slot which allowed game carts to contain an external sound chip. On the NES, leads for the additional pins were routed to the expansion connector on the bottom of the console. As a result of this, many NES games that were ported from the Famicom were not able to use their own sound chips and were limited by the internal sound processor of the NES - resulting in inferior sound and music quality for the NES version vs. the Japanese counterpart.
The Nintendo AVS
After their success in the Japanese home gaming market, Nintendo turned their attention toward the US. Aside from some stand-up arcade machines, Nintendo wasn't a common name amongst American households at the time. Unfortunately Atari was, so Nintendo began talks with Atari to release a Japanese, Nintendo-built system in the US under the Atari brand. The system was to be called the "Nintendo Advanced Video System." The system was shown at CES in 1984, during a time when Americans were convinced that home games cnosoles were just a passing fad that was on its way out.
The Nintendo AVS consisted of a all-in-one computer with keyboard which would attach to a home television (similar to an Atari 800 and other similar offerings at the time), a joystick, a light-gun, two gamepads, and a cassette tape-based backup/storage unit. All of the peripherals were to communicate with the system wirelessly via infared technology. (Note: For an extremely high-res photo of the AVS, click here.
Gaming the Market
Like many of the video game companies at the time, Nintendo wasn't sure what the American market wanted. In 1983 and 1984, the video games market crashed in the US - due, historians say, to a market-flood of horrible games for the various consoles at the time. Home video game sales were giving way to home computer sales, which were becoming much more affordable and much more powerful than the average home games console. Unfortunately for console manufacturers, home computers were also good at playing games! Console manufacturers found it even more difficult to compete with home computers, though they weren't likely to admit it for this reason, beacuse home computer games were easy to copy - and that sat favorably with home computer gamers.
Like Atari, whose game consoles were becoming more and more like computers and containing most of the elements of a home computer (keyboards, external storage, etc.), Nintendo's first AVS concept was essentially a home computer that would be geared toward games. Eventually, due in part to the projected cost of the AVS system, and due in part to a falling-out with Atari, Nintendo would scrap the AVS in favor of a much simpler games console.
Nintendo took what they had learned from the aesthetics of the AVS when stripping the system down to a more dedicated gaming-only console, and applied it to what would become the NES. They chose to stay with the "futuristic" monochrome grey and black color scheme of the AVS versus the bright red and white color scheme of the Famicom. Nintendo would separate themselves from other players in the failing console market by differentiating the NES as a more "grown up" games console in a sea of other, failing games consoles which were regularly regarded by the American public as toys. Nintendo removed everything from the AVS that made it a home comptuer, but kept the internal Famicom compatibility, color scheme, and the basic design of the light gun and controllers.
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