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For Video Games The ’80s Ended The Way They Began

The world of technology never stops for long, and that’s especially true with consumer gadgets and entertainment. There’s always something shiny and new just around the corner. The problem is it’s nearly impossible to know what will be a massive hit and what will flop in the market. And then there are those products that are extremely popular one day and then the next dropped like a lead balloon.

Anyone who has been in the home video game scene for more than a few years will recall that at the beginning of the ’80s Atari was king of the world. As the years ticked by more competitors entered the market vying for a piece of that lucrative pie. Ultimately too many similar machines with incompatible software, high prices, and games that played poorly all but ruined the industry. By the end of 1983 it was game over for most gaming companies. Consumers had ruled with their wallets and the verdict was that home gaming was a fad.

Meanwhile, in Japan a little known company by the name of Nintendo had just released a home console called the Family Computer (Famicom for short). It was an immediate success and the company went to work on creating original pieces of software for it as well as courting other publishers to the platform. They were eager to release the machine in the U.S. and even reached out to Atari to see if they could reach some sort of arrangement for them to market and sell the machine – but that deal was never reached.


Compared to the U.S. NES, the Japanese Famicom is slim and more toy-like.


It took two more years for Nintendo to dip its toe in the U.S. video game market when it test launched the NES in October of 1985 in New York. Most stores flat out refused to carry the video game machine. To distance itself from other failed products, Nintendo named the home console the “Nintendo Entertainment System” and bundled a robot (R.O.B.) with the Control Deck to appeal to toy stores (and hopefully a bunch of kids). By offering to buy back any unsold units and agreeing to set up their own displays and demo the machine to customers during the holiday season, Nintendo convinced some retailers to carry the new product and games. It was a resounding success and by mid-1986 Nintendo had went nationwide with its new system and games.

1987 was the year that Nintendo really buckled down with a bunch of new game releases that would make it a must-have item across the country. With a handful of third party licensees delivering games like Castlevania and Rygar and Nintendo pushing out amazing software like Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, the machine really started catching the attention of kids and adults across the country. With millions spent on advertising and a continuous stream of quality hits, the NES sold out at most stores that holiday season, with plans to ramp up supply in 1988.

Contra kicked off the new year in style and Konami delivered a must-have two-player co-op experience that every NES owner just had to have. Throughout the year there was a slew of peripherals and games that propelled Nintendo faster than ever before. In addition, the company launched Nintendo Power – a bi-monthly magazine covering the world of Nintendo. By the time fall of 1988 rolled around the chip shortage was in full effect, meaning hot games that were scheduled to be released were done so in much less quantity than originally planned. As such, the first big sequels on the system, Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest were near impossible to find for those seeking them out as Christmas presents. Many likened the Nintendo mania to that of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze a few years ago. Video games were back – and in a huge way!



By 1989 Nintendo’s success wasn’t going unnoticed by other companies who wanted a piece of the action. Atari Games became the first company to produce cartridges without Nintendo’s blessing, resulting in a major lawsuit that has yet to be decided. Sega’s failed Master System was replaced with a flashier 16-bit console called the Genesis. It features way better graphics and sound and arcade-like action that can be played at home on the TV. NEC even entered the fray with its own powerful hardware called the TurboGrafx-16. Meanwhile, Nintendo and Atari released their own portable machines this past fall. That’s five separate gaming systems that only play their own library of games. See a trend here?

It’s impossible to know if we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes as seven years ago, but the writing on the wall should give cause for concern. Things are a bit different this time around, with Nintendo keenly aware that it has to be careful not to flood the market with subpar games and limit the number of new games that come out each year. The problem they may run into is that numerous lawsuits are investigating whether those restrictions are legal or if they hamper competition. Is it right for Nintendo to somehow assess which games get productions runs of 100,000 and which get a million or more? We’ll find out soon enough in the courts, but we hope whatever happens that the video game industry will be here to stay.



[Source: The Baltimore Evening Sun | January 4, 1990]


Craig Majaski

Craig has been covering the video game industry since 1995. His work has been published across a wide spectrum of media sites. He's currently the Editor-In-Chief of Nintendo Times and contributes to Gaming Age.

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