NES 20-Year Retrospective: Mario Provided The Key Power-Up

Landmark system cemented Nintendo's reputation as home console of choice.

There was a time when Super Mario was voted least likely to succeed.

On Tuesday (October 18) Nintendo celebrates the 20th anniversary of the American release of the Nintendo Entertainment System, a home console that rejuvenated a home video game industry burnt out by the early '80s rise and failure of Atari and Intellivision.

But back in mid-June of 1985, with the excitement of personal computers on the rise, some thought that the release of a new games-only machine was crazy talk. Consider the opinion of one critic from the Chicago Tribune after seeing the NES at a summer tech trade show:

"Best new system that doesn't have a chance: The Nintendo Entertainment System, a dedicated game machine that features a console, two controllers and a miniature robot. The robot doesn't do anything all that exciting, but the games do deliver on their promise of 'arcade-like graphics and action.' But will anybody today really shell out $150 for a computer that can only play games?"

Last month famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto was in a forgiving mood regarding that bad call. "A lot of people make mistakes," he said during his first U.S. public appearance (see "Nintendo Fans Swarm Mario's Father During New York Visit"). "I think we can let that one slide."

The NES launched as the Famicom — short for Family Computer — in 1983. It was the first home gaming system from Nintendo, a former trading-card company that had climbed to video game prominence on the strength of a handheld system called "Game and Watch" and a successful line of arcade games that had reached worldwide smash status with 1981's "Donkey Kong."

"We had been making arcade games up until that point," Miyamoto said. "Our objective with the Nintendo entertainment system was to create the ultimate family entertainment system for the home."

There may have been financial advantages for plunging into the home market, but Miyamoto said he also thought some of Nintendo's games might fare better when played from the couch.

"At the time we had the original 'Mario Bros.' game in the arcade," he said. "That was a game where two players could play simultaneous together. And if the two players managed to cooperate, they could play for a very long time. But more often than not they found that competing with each other and stopping other people from stomping on the turtles was a lot more fun. And so people would go to the arcades and they would put a quarter in and start to play and they would start competing and it would end very quickly. We felt that wasn't the best way to play the game." At home such play styles wouldn't take all the players' quarters.

The NES launch in America was a modest affair. The system was tested in New York and didn't roll out to most of the rest of the country until 1986. Part of the system's innovation was a rectangular controller that had two action buttons and a plus-shaped pad for movement — a significant departure from the joysticks of the Atari era. The controller design would influence gamepads for decades to come.

Less lasting influences was the light-gun called the "Zapper," which led many a player to futilely trying to shoot dead the dog from "Duck Hunt"; and "R.O.B.," the robot who could be set up to play the system's second controller.

What the NES launch in America had on the one hand in Japan was an immediate introduction of what would be the era's most influential game — "Super Mario Bros." Launched in Japan in September 1985, the game quickly followed for American release. In Japan, in fact, the game was intended to be the last hurrah for the Famicom. Miyamoto said his team of designers was preparing to work on games for a new disk-based system and close the cartridge-based Famicom with a bang.

"We wanted to create the ultimate gaming experience," he said. "We wanted to take all of our experience and all of our know-how in creating cartridge-based games and plough that into making the best ultimate cartridge-based game we could make. And players could experience things that they've never experienced before and go places — whether they're below ground or above ground — in different worlds. That was the original plan, and that's how 'Super Mario Bros.' came to be."

Instead "Super Mario Bros." would cement the NES and Famicom's place as the definitive gaming console to own for another half decade. Worldwide the system sold more than 60 million units and more than 500 million games, according to Nintendo. The top sellers in the U.S. would turn out to be "Super Mario Bros. 3" — immortalized in the near-NES-infomercial 1989 Fred Savage movie "The Wizard" — followed by "Super Mario Bros. 2" and "The Legend of Zelda."

Nintendo stopped supporting the NES in 1995, by which time even its successor, the Super Nintendo, was on its way out the door. With key patents expired, outside companies are now free to keep the machine alive. A small Los Angeles company, Messiah Entertainment, has promised to release this week the NEX, a system that plays NES games and even enhances the experience with wireless controllers and the ability to play rare Japan-only Famicom games. Homebrew developers still make new games for the machine.

The NES will also see another revival of sorts next year when Nintendo's next system, codenamed the Revolution, will be released. Nintendo executives have indicated that fans will be able to download and play all of the Nintendo-made games from the NES library. They've even noted that the system's unorthodox new controller, when turned on its side, has a button configuration and form factor that clearly resembles that of the original NES (see "Nintendo Revolution Controller Unveiled, And It's Revolutionary").

The system lives on, with one caveat: Blowing on the cartridges still does not bring the games back to life.