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Nintendo Entertainment System

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Nintendo Entertainment System
Official Nintendo Entertainment System logo Famicom Family logo
Nintendo Entertainment System with controller
Nintendo Famicom

Top: Nintendo Entertainment System with controller
Bottom: Nintendo Family Computer (also known as Famicom)
Also known as Nintendo Family Computer (Japan)
Manufacturer Nintendo
Type Video game console
Generation Third generation
Release date
  • JP July 15, 1983 (1983-07-15)
  • NA October 18, 1985 (1985-10-18)
  • EU September 1, 1986 (1986-09-01)
  • EU/ AUS 1987
Introductory price ¥14,800 (Japan)
$199.00 (US Deluxe Set)
  • JP September 25, 2003 (2003-09-25)
  • NA 1995 (1995)
Units sold 61.91 million
Media ROM cartridge ("Game Pak")
CPU Ricoh 2A03 8-bit processor ( MOS Technology 6502 core)
Controller input 2 controller ports
1 expansion slot
Best-selling game Super Mario Bros. ( pack-in), 40.23 million (as of 1999)
Super Mario Bros. 3, 18 million (as of July 27, 2008)
Super Mario Bros. 2
(10 million)
Predecessor Colour TV Game
Successor Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The Nintendo Entertainment System (also abbreviated as NES or simply called Nintendo) is an 8-bit video game console that was released by Nintendo in North America during 1985, in Europe during 1986 and Australia in 1987. In Japan (where it was first launched in 1983), it was released as the Family Computer (ファミリーコンピュータ Famirī Konpyūta), commonly shortened as either the Famicom (ファミコン Famikon), or abbreviated to FC. In South Korea, it was known as the Hyundai Comboy (현대 컴보이 Hyeondae Keomboi) and was distributed by SK Hynix which then was known as Hyundai Electronics. It was succeeded by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

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 of its generation. With the NES, Nintendo introduced a now-standard business model of licensing third-party developers, authorizing them to produce and distribute software for Nintendo's platform.

In 2009, the Nintendo Entertainment System was named the single greatest video game console in history by IGN, out of a field of 25. 2010 marked the system's 25th anniversary in North America, which was officially celebrated by Nintendo of America's magazine Nintendo Power in issue #260 (November 2010) with a special 26-page tribute section. Other video game publications also featured articles looking back at 25 years of the NES, and its impact in the video game console market.


Following a series of arcade game successes in the early 1980s, Nintendo made plans to produce a cartridge-based console called the Famicom. Masayuki Uemura designed the system. Original plans called for an advanced 16-bit system which would function as a full-fledged computer with a keyboard and floppy disk drive, but Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi rejected this and instead decided to go for a cheaper, more conventional cartridge-based game console as he felt that features such as keyboards and disks were intimidating to non-technophiles. A test model was constructed in October 1982 to verify the functionality of the hardware, after which work began on programming tools. Because 65xx CPUs had not been manufactured or sold in Japan up to that time, no cross-development software was available and it had to be produced from scratch. Early NES games were written on a system that ran on an NEC PC-8001 computer and LEDs on a grid were used with a digitizer to design graphics as no software design tools for this purpose existed at that time.

The code name for the project was "GameCom", but Masayuki Uemura's wife proposed the name "Famicom", arguing that "In Japan, 'pasokon' is used to mean a personal computer, but it is neither a home or personal computer. Perhaps we could say it is a family computer." Meanwhile, Hiroshi Yamauchi decided that the console should use a red and white theme after seeing a billboard for DX Antenna which used those colors.

Original plans called for the Famicom to use cassette tape-sized cartridges, but ultimately they ended up being twice as big. Careful design attention was paid to the cartridge connectors since loose and faulty connections often plagued arcade machines. As it necessitated taking 60 lines for the memory and expansion, Nintendo decided to produce their own connectors in-house rather than use ones from an outside supplier.

The game pad controllers were more-or-less copied directly from the Game & Watch machines, although the Famicom design team originally wanted to use arcade-style joysticks, even taking apart ones from American game consoles to see how they worked. However, it was eventually decided that children might step on joysticks left on the floor and their durability was also questioned. Katsuyah Nakawaka attached a Game & Watch D-pad to the Famicom prototype and found that it was easy to use and had no discomfort. Ultimately though, they did install a 15-pin expansion port on the front of the console so that an arcade-style joystick could be used optionally. The controllers were hard-wired to the console with no connectors for cost reasons.

Uemura added an eject lever to the cartridge slot which was not really necessary, but he felt that children could be entertained by pressing it. He also added a microphone to the second controller with the idea that it could be used to make players' voices sound through the TV speaker.

The console was thus released on July 15, 1983 as the Famicom (lit. Family Computer) for ¥14,800 alongside three ports of Nintendo's successful arcade games Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye. The Famicom was slow to gather momentum; a bad chip set caused the initial release of the system to crash. Following a product recall and a reissue with a new motherboard, the Famicom’s popularity soared, becoming the best-selling game console in Japan by the end of 1984.

Encouraged by these successes, Nintendo soon turned its attention to the North American market. Nintendo entered into negotiations with Atari to release the Famicom under Atari’s name as the name Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System. The deal was set to be finalized and signed at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June 1983. But, at that show, Atari discovered that Coleco, one of Atari's competitors, was (illegally) demonstrating their Coleco Adam computer with Donkey Kong, a popular Nintendo game that had been licensed for Atari consoles, in violation of Atari's exclusive right to publish the game for computer systems. So the signing was delayed. Atari's CEO Ray Kassar was fired the next month, so the deal went nowhere, and Nintendo decided to market its system on its own. Subsequent plans to market a Famicom console in North America featuring a keyboard, cassette data recorder, wireless joystick controller and a special BASIC cartridge under the name "Nintendo Advanced Video System" likewise never materialized. By the beginning of 1985, the Famicom had sold more than 2.5 million units in Japan and Nintendo soon announced plans to release it in North America as the Advanced Video Entertainment System (AVS) that same year. The American video game press was skeptical that the console could have any success in the region, with the March 1985 issue of Electronic Games magazine stating that "the videogame market in America has virtually disappeared" and that "this could be a miscalculation on Nintendo's part."

In June 1985, Nintendo unveiled its American version of the Famicom at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). It rolled out its first systems to limited American markets starting in New York City on October 18, 1985, following up with a full-fledged North American release of the console in February of the following year. Nintendo released 18 launch titles: 10-Yard Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Golf, Gyromite, Hogan’s Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, Pinball, Stack-Up, Tennis, Wild Gunman, Wrecking Crew, Mach Rider and Super Mario Bros.. Some varieties of these launch games contained Famicom chips with an adapter inside the cartridge so they would play on North American consoles, which is why the title screen of " Gyromite" has the Famicom title "Robot Gyro" and the title screen of " Stack-Up" has the Famicom title "Robot Block".

R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), an accessory for the NES when it was first introduced in 1985. Although it ended up having a short product lifespan, R.O.B. was initially used to market the NES as novel and different from previous game consoles.

The system was originally targeted for release in the spring of 1985, but the release date was pushed back. After test-marketing in the New York City area in late fall, the system was released nationwide in February 1986. The video game market crash of 1983 was due to a lack of consumer and retailer confidence in video games, due partially to confusion and misrepresentation in the marketing of video games. Prior to the NES, the packaging of many video games had artwork which exaggerated the graphics of the actual game. A single game, such as Pac-Man, would appear on many different game consoles and computers, with large variations in graphics and sound between the versions. Nintendo's marketing aimed to regain consumer and retailer confidence. The game system was referred to as an "Entertainment System", the games as "Game Paks", not video games, and the console itself as a "Control Deck", not a console. The packaging of the launch lineup of NES games had pictures with a very close representation of the actual graphics of the game. Symbols on the launch games clearly showed the genre of the game to reduce confusion. A 'seal of quality' was printed on licensed game and accessory packaging. The initial seal stated: "This seal is your assurance that Nintendo has approved and guaranteed the quality of this product". This text was later changed to "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality". The 10NES lockout chip system deterred the production of NES games without Nintendo's approval, which helped to ensure that the system would have a reputation for high-quality games.

Unlike with the Famicom, Nintendo of America marketed the console primarily to children, instituting a rather strict policy of not permitting profanity, sexual, religious, or political content in games. The most famous case of this was Lucasfilm's attempts to port Maniac Mansion (a game with a considerable amount of unacceptable material) to the NES. NOA continued their censorship policy until 1994 with the advent of the Entertainment Software Rating Board system.

The R.O.B. was part of a marketing plan to portray the NES as novel and different from previous game consoles. While at first the American public exhibited limited excitement for the console itself, peripherals such as the light gun and R.O.B. attracted extensive attention.

In Europe and Australia, the system was released to two separate marketing regions. One region consisted of most of mainland Europe (excluding Italy), and distribution there was handled by a number of different companies, with Nintendo responsible for most cartridge releases. Most of this region saw a 1986 release. Mattel handled distribution for the other region, consisting of the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, starting the following year. Not until the 1990s did Nintendo's newly created European branch direct distribution throughout Europe. Despite the system’s lackluster performance outside of Japan and North America, by 1990 the NES had outsold all previously released consoles worldwide. The slogan for this brand was It can't be beaten. The Nintendo Entertainment System was not available in the Soviet Union.

As the 1990s dawned, however, renewed competition from technologically superior systems such as the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive/Genesis marked the end of the NES’s dominance. Eclipsed by Nintendo's own Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the NES’s user base gradually waned. However, even as developers ceased production for the NES, a number of high-profile video game franchises and series that started on the NES were transitioned to newer consoles and remain popular to this day. Nintendo continued to support the system in North America through the first half of the decade, even releasing a new version of the system's console, the NES-101 model (known as the HVC-101 in Japan), to address many of the design flaws in the original console hardware. The last game released in Japan was Takahashi Meijin no Bōken Jima IV (Adventure Island IV), while in North America, Wario's Woods was the last licensed game; unlicensed games are still being produced to this day. In the wake of ever decreasing sales and the lack of new software titles, Nintendo of America officially discontinued the NES by 1995. Despite this, Nintendo of Japan kept producing new Nintendo Famicom units until September 2003, and continued to repair Famicom consoles until October 31, 2007, attributing the decision to discontinue support because of insufficient supplies of parts

North American bundle packages

The Nintendo Entertainment System console/Control Deck

For its complete North American release, the NES was released in four different bundles: the Deluxe Set, the Control Deck, the Action Set and the Power Set. The Deluxe Set, retailing at US$199.99, included R.O.B., a light zapper, two controllers, and two game paks: Gyromite, and Duck Hunt. The Control Deck was the barebone set, retailing at US$89.99 with no game, and US$99.99 bundled with "Super Mario Bros." The control deck consisted of the console itself, and two game controllers. The Action Set, however, was released in 1988 was sold for US$149.99 and came with the console, two game controllers, an NES Zapper, and a dual game pak containing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. In 1989, the Power Set was released, which came with the console, two game controllers, a NES Zapper, a Power Pad, and triple game pack 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 Super Spike V'Ball/ Nintendo World Cup game pak. 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 released in 1990 for retailed for US$89.99. 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 Official Nintendo Player's Guide, which contained detailed information for every NES game made up to that point for retailed for US$49.99. Finally, the console was redesigned for both the North American and Japanese markets as part of the final Nintendo-released bundle package. The package included the new style NES-101 console and one redesigned "dogbone" game controller. Released in October 1993 in North America, this final bundle retailed for US$49.99 and remained in production until the discontinuation of the NES in 1995.

Regional differences

The Famicom Disk System was a peripheral available only for the Japanese Famicom that used games stored on "Disk Cards" with a 3" Quick Disk mechanism.

Although the Japanese Famicom, North American and European NES versions included essentially the same hardware, there were certain key differences among the 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 color scheme. The NES featured a front-loading cartridge slot and a more subdued gray, black and red colour scheme. An expansion port was found on the bottom of the unit and the cartridge connector pinout was changed.

60-pin vs. 72-pin cartridges

The original Famicom and the re-released AV Family Computer both utilized a 60-pin cartridge design, which resulted in smaller cartridges than the NES, which utilized a 72-pin design. Four pins were used for the 10NES lockout chip. Ten pins were added that connected a cartridge directly to the expansion port on the bottom of the unit. Finally, two pins that allowed cartridges to provide their own sound expansion chips were removed. Some early games 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. The cartridge dimensions of the original Famicom measured in at 5.3 × 3 inches, compared with 4.1 × 5.5 inches for its North American redesign.


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 that came with a keyboard. Similar in concept to the Atari 2600 BASIC cartridge, it allowed the user to program their own games, which could be saved on an included cassette recorder. Nintendo of America rejected releasing Famicom BASIC in the US because they did not think it fit their primary marketing demographic of children.

Famicom MODEM

Famicom Network System

The Famicom Modem is a modem that allowed connection to a network which provided content such as financial services, but it was only available in Japan. 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 in the United States because some parents and legislators voiced concern that minors might learn to play the lottery illegally and anonymously, despite assurances from Nintendo to the contrary.

Famicom Disk system

In 1986, Nintendo released the FDS in Japan, a type of floppy drive that used a single-sided, proprietary 2" disk and plugged into the cartridge port. It contained RAM for the game to load into and an extra FM synthesis sound chip. The disks were obtained from vending machines in malls and other public places where buyers could select a title and have it written to the disk. Nintendo's idea was that this would cost less than cartridges and users could take the disk back to a vending booth and have it rewritten with a new game. Each disk stored data in a single spiral track, which was read from beginning to end in similar fashion to a phonograph record (unlike normal floppy and hard disks which use concentric tracks). The disks were used both for storing the game and saving progress and total capacity was 128k (64k per side). The FDS ran off either an AC adapter or six C batteries. Upon power-up, it displayed a boot screen where the user was asked to insert a disk. After pressing Start, the game would load into the cartridge adapter's RAM and run from there (larger titles required the disk to be flipped over to access the other side).

A variety of games for the FDS were released by Nintendo (including some like SMB that had already been released on cartridge) and third party companies such as Konami and Taito. A few unlicensed titles were made as well. However, its limitations became quickly apparent as larger ROM chips were introduced, allowing cartridges with greater than 128k of space. More advanced memory mappers soon appeared and the FDS quickly became obsolete. Nintendo also charged developers considerable amounts of money to produce FDS games, and many refused to develop for it, instead continuing to make cartridge titles. The FDS disks also had no dust covers (except in some unlicensed and bootleg variants) and were easily prone to getting dirt on the media. In addition, the drive used a belt which broke frequently and required replacement. After only two years, the FDS was discontinued, although vending booths remained in place until 1993 and Nintendo continued to rewrite and offer replacement disks until 2003.

Nintendo of America initially planned to bring the FDS to the United States, but rejected the idea after considering the numerous problems encountered with them in Japan. Many FDS games such as Castlevania, Zelda, and Bubble Bobble were sold in the US as cartridge titles, with PCM channel digitized sounds replacing the FDS's FM sound effects and the disk save replaced by passwords or battery save systems.

External sound chips

The Famicom had two cartridge pins that were originally intended to facilitate the Famicom Disk System’s external sound chip, but were also used by cartridge games to provide sound enhancements. 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 technologically inferior sound compared to their equivalent Famicom versions. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse is a notable example of this problem.

Unlike the NES, the Famicom's controllers were hardwired to the system itself. The 2nd controller eliminated the Start and Select buttons, replacing them with a microphone and a volume control slider.

Hardwired controllers

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 favour 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-101) 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. NES consoles sold in different regions had different lockout chips, so games marketed in one region would not work on consoles from another region. Known regions are: USA/Canada (3193 lockout chip), most of Europe (3195), Asia (3196) and UK, Italy and Australia (3197). Since two types of lockout chip were used in Europe, European NES game boxes often had an "A" or "B" letter on the front, indicating whether the game is compatible with UK/Italian/Australian consoles (A), or the rest of Europe (B). Rest-of-Europe games typically had text on the box stating "This game is not compatible with the Mattel or NES versions of the Nintendo Entertainment System". Similarly, UK/Italy/Australia games stated "This game is only compatible with the Mattel or NES versions of the Nintendo Entertainment System".

Pirate cartridges for the NES were rare, but Famicom ones were common and widespread in Asia. Most were produced in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and they usually featured a variety of small (32k or less) games which were selected from a menu and bank switched. Some were also hacks of existing games (especially Super Mario Bros.), and a few were cartridge conversions of Famicom Disk System titles such as the Japanese SMB2.

Audio/video output

The original Famicom featured an RF modulator plug for audio/video output, while its redesign, the AV Famicom, featured only RCA composite output. On the other hand, the original NES featured both an RF modulator and RCA composite output cables, but the top-loading NES-101 model featured only RF modulator output. The original North American NES was the first and one of the few game consoles to feature direct composite video output, and thus having the ability to be connected to a composite monitor. The French NES, model (FRA) featured a unique "RGB audio/video Output", a proprietary output connector similar to the SNES connector. With the help of an additional PAL-to-RGB chip, it allows this model of NES to output RGB video signal. A specific cable was given with every unit, using the SCART plug to connect it to the TV set.

Third-party cartridge manufacturing

In Japan, several companies, namely Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, Namco, Bandai, Taito, Irem, Jaleco, Sunsoft and Hudson Soft, 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. All licensed US cartridges were made by Nintendo except Konami and Acclaim (who produced their own PCBs, but used Nintendo's provided gray cartridge shells)

European "Mattel" and "NES" Versions

In the UK, Italy and Australia which share the PAL A region, two versions of the NES were released; the "Mattel Version" and "NES Version". When the NES was first released in those countries, it was distributed by Mattel and Nintendo decided to use a lockout chip specific to those countries, different from the chip used in other European countries. When Nintendo took over European distribution in 1990, they produced consoles that were then labelled "NES Version"; therefore, the only differences between the two are the text on the front flap and texture on the top/bottom of the casing (Mattel = Smooth, NES = Rough).

Game controllers

In addition to featuring a revised colour scheme that matched the more subdued tones of the console itself, NES controllers could be unplugged. They nevertheless lacked the microphone featured in Famicom controllers.

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 "A" and "B", a "START" button and a "SELECT" button. Additionally, the controllers utilized the cross-shaped joypad, 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. Some NES localizations of games, such as The Legend of Zelda, which required the use of the Famicom microphone in order to kill certain enemies, suffered from a lack of a hardware to do so.

The NES Zapper, a light gun accessory

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 R.O.B., and the Power Pad. 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 console.

Nintendo also made two turbo controllers for the NES called NES Advantage and the NES Max. Both controllers had a Turbo feature, a feature where one tap of the button represented multiple taps. The NES Advantage had two knobs that adjusted the firing rate of the turbo button from quick to Turbo, as well as a "Slow" button that slowed down the game by rapidly pausing the game. The "Slow" button did not work with games that had a pause menu or pause screen and can interfere with jumping and shooting. The NES Max also had the Turbo Feature, but it was not adjustable, in contrast with the Advantage. It also did not have the "Slow" button. Its wing-like shape made it easier to hold than the Advantage and it also improved on the joystick. Turbo features were also featured on the NES Satellite, the NES Four Score, and the U-Force.

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. In addition, the AV Famicom joined its international counterpart and dropped the hardwired controllers in favour of detachable controller ports. However, the controllers included with the Famicom AV had cables which were 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 console. Nintendo has mimicked the look of the controller in several recent products, from promotional merchandise to limited edition versions of the Game Boy Advance.

Hardware design flaws

The official NES Cleaning Kit was intended to address flaws in the NES design that caused cartridge connectors to be particularly susceptible to interference from dirt and dust.

When Nintendo released the NES in the US, 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 to disguise the cartridge slot design as a front-loading zero insertion force (ZIF) cartridge socket, designed to resemble the front-loading mechanism of a VCR. The newly designed 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. Frequent insertion and removal of cartridges caused the pins to wear out from repeated usage over the years and the ZIF design proved more prone to interference by dirt and dust than an industry-standard card edge connector. These design issues were not alleviated by Nintendo’s choice of materials; the console slot nickel connector springs would wear due to design and the game cartridge copper connectors were also prone to tarnishing.

The 10NES authentication chip contributed to the system's reliability problems. The circuit was ultimately removed from the remodeled NES 2.

Problems with the 10NES lockout chip frequently resulted in the console's most infamous problem: the blinking red power light, in which the system appears to turn itself on and off repeatedly because the 10NES would reset the console once per second. The lockout chip required constant communication with the chip in the game to work. Dirty, aging and bent connectors would often disrupt the communication, 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. 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-101 (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 U.S. 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

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. Most of the Nintendo platform-control measures were adopted by later console manufacturers such as Sega, Sony, and Microsoft, although not as stringent.

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. Nintendo portrayed these measures as intended to protect the public against poor-quality games, and placed a golden seal of approval on all licensed games released for the system.

Nintendo's intention, however, was to reserve a large part of NES game revenue for itself. Nintendo required that they be the sole manufacturer of all cartridges, and that the publisher had to pay in full before the cartridges for that game be produced. Cartridges could not be returned to Nintendo, so publishers assumed all the risk. As a result, some publishers lost more money due to distress sales of remaining inventory at the end of the NES era than they ever earned in profits from sales of the games. Because Nintendo controlled the production of all cartridges, it was able to enforce strict rules on its third-party developers, which were required to sign a contract by Nintendo that would obligate these parties to develop exclusively for the system, order at least 10,000 cartridges, and only make five games per year. GameSpy noted that these "iron-clad terms" made Nintendo many enemies during the 1980s. Some developers tried to get around the five game limit by creating additional company brands like Konami's Ultra Games label, others tried going around the 10NES chip (see below).

These strict licensing measures backfired somewhat after Nintendo was accused of antitrust behaviour. The United States Department of Justice and several states began probing Nintendo's questionable business practices, leading to the involvement of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC conducted an extensive investigation which included interviewing hundreds of retailers. As the FTC probe concluded, Nintendo quietly changed the terms of its publisher licensing agreements to eliminate the two-year rule and other particularly draconian terms. Nintendo and the FTC settled the case in April 1991, with Nintendo required to send vouchers giving a $5 discount off to a new game, to every person that had purchased a NES title between June 1988 and December 1990. GameSpy remarked that Nintendo's punishment was particularly weak giving the case's findings, although it has been speculated that the FTC did not want to damage the video game industry in the United States.

In the longer run, however, with the NES near its end of its life many third-party publishers such as Electronic Arts supported upstart competing consoles with less onerous licensing terms such as the Sega Genesis and then the Sony PlayStation, which eroded and then took over Nintendo's dominance in the home console market, respectively. Indeed consoles from Nintendo's rivals in the post-NES era had always enjoyed much stronger third-party support than Nintendo which relied more heavily on first-party games.

Unlicensed games

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. In order to combat unlicensed games, Nintendo of America threatened retailers who sold them with losing their supply of licensed titles. In addition, multiple revisions were made to the NES PCBs to prevent these games from working.

Atari Games created a line of NES products under the name Tengen and took a different approach. 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 legally 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/Genesis, 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 as a cost-saving measure. Games marketed for the NES after that point still included a 10NES chip in order to work with the large installed base of original NES consoles.

Pirated clones of NES hardware remained in production for many years after the original had been discontinued. Such devices were frequently built to superficially resemble younger consoles, such as this one modeled after a PS One.

Hardware clones

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 console. In particular, the Dendy (Russian: Де́нди), an unlicensed hardware clone produced in Taiwan and sold in 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. A Famicom clone was marketed in Argentina under the name of "Family Game", resembling the original hardware design. The Micro Genius ( Simplified Chinese: 小天才) was marketed in Southeast Asia as an alternative to the Famicom; Samurai was the popular PAL alternative to the NES; and in Central Europe, especially Poland, the Pegasus was available. Samurai was also available in India in early 90s which was the first instance of console gaming in India.

The unlicensed clone market has 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 colour LCD (e.g. PocketFami). Others have been produced with certain specialized markets in mind, such as an NES clone that functions as a rather primitive personal computer, which includes a keyboard and basic word processing software. These unauthorized clones have been helped by the invention of the so-called NES-on-a-chip.

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.

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 licensed 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 (see also Japan–Korea disputes).

More recently, in 2010, Hyperkin developed the RetroN3, which, besides NES carts, also runs SNES and Genesis carts, as well as their Japanese counterparts Famicom, Super Famicom and Mega Drive.

Technical specifications

Original chassis/casing

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 colour 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 in (250 mm) wide by 8 in (200 mm) long by 3.5 in (89 mm) high. When opened, the cartridge slot door adds an additional 1 in (25 mm) height to the unit.

Redesigned model

The NES-101 control deck alongside its similarly redesigned NES-039 game controller.

The NES-101 model of the Nintendo Entertainment System (HVC-101 model in Japan), known informally as the "top-loader", uses the same basic colour 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 Family Computer, it uses a top-loading cartridge slot. The NES-101 model was redesigned after the (also top loading) SNES and indeed they share many of the same design cues. The NES-101 model is considerably more compact than the original NES-001 model, measuring 6" by 7" by 1.5". The NES-101 model offered only RF outputs instead of the RF and RCA (mono) outputs offered on the original NES-001 model, whereas the HVC-101 model of the Family Computer offered RCA connectors only.


A North American/PAL cartridge (or "Game Pak") was significantly larger than its Japanese counterpart.

All officially licensed NTSC-U and PAL region cartridges, or "carts", are 5.25 inches (13.3 cm) tall, 4.75 inches (12 cm) wide and 0.75 inches (2 cm) thick. 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 3.8 mm 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 licensed NTSC and PAL cartridges were a standard shade of gray plastic (Famicom cartridges by contrast came in an almost unlimited number of colors) Unlicensed carts were produced in black (Tengen, American Video Entertainment and Wisdom Tree), robin egg blue (Colour Dreams and Wisdom Tree) and gold (Camerica) and were all slightly different shape and style than a standard NES cart. Nintendo also produced yellow-plastic carts for internal use at Nintendo Service Centers, although these "test carts" were never made available for purchase by consumers.

Japanese (Famicom) cartridges are shaped slightly differently, measuring only 2.75 inches (7.0 cm) in length, and 4.25 inches (10.8 cm) in width. While the NES used a 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. Adapters, similar in design to the popular accessory Game Genie, are available that allow Famicom games to be played on an NES.

Central processing unit

Versions of the NES console released in PAL regions incorporated a Ricoh 2A07 CPU.

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. To avoid patent payments, the Ricoh CPU omitted the 6502's BCD (binary coded decimal) mode. NTSC (North America, Japan, and Korea) versions of the console use the Ricoh 2A03 (or RP2A03), which runs at 1.79  MHz. PAL (Europe, Australasia, and South Asia) versions of the 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  KiB of onboard work RAM. A game cartridge may contain expanded RAM to increase this amount. It also has 2 KiB of video RAM for the use of the picture processing unit (PPU), 256 bytes of OAM (object attribute memory) to hold a display list of sprites, and 28 bytes of palette RAM. The system supports up to 32 KiB of program ROM at a time, but this can be expanded by orders of magnitude by the process of bank switching. Additionally, cartridges may contain 16,352 bytes (nearly 16 KiB) of address space reserved as "Expansion Area", which often contained an 8 KiB SRAM. Expanded Video memory (VROM or VRAM) may also be available on the cartridge (on-cartridge mapping hardware also allowing further video expansion past 12 KiB). The size of NES games varies from 8 KiB (Galaxian) to 1 MiB (Metal Slader Glory), but 128 to 384 KiB was the most common.


The NES uses 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 use irregular palettes to prevent easy ROM swapping of games.

All variations of the PPU feature 2  KiB of video RAM, 256 bytes of on-die "object attribute memory" (OAM) to store the positions, colors, and tile indices of up to 64 sprites on the screen, 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 KiB of onboard RAM may be used for tile maps and attributes on the NES board and 8 KiB 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 6 grays. Red, green and blue can be individually darkened at specific screen regions using carefully timed code. Up to 25 simultaneous colors may be used without writing new values mid-frame: a background color, four sets of three tile colors and four sets of three sprite colors. This total does not include colour de-emphasis. The NES palette is based on NTSC rather than RGB values. Normally, every group of four tiles (in a 2x2 square) must share the same colors, but one mode of the MMC5 relaxed this to one palette per tile.

A total of 64 sprites may be displayed onscreen at a given time without reloading sprites mid-screen. Sprites are 8 pixels wide and may be 8 or 16 pixels tall, although the choice must be made globally, as it affects all sprites (Contra and Super Mario Bros. 3 for example use 8x16 mode). 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. Because of the small size of NES sprites, games use multiple ones for larger moving objects.

The PPU allows only one scrolling layer, though the horizontal scroll can be changed on a per- scan line basis for a parallax effect. The vertical scroll can also be changed between scanlines for a split-screen effect. On many games, this is done by trapping Sprite 0 and the NMI (which triggers during the vertical retrace), but the more advanced memory mappers (see below) generate an interrupt which can be used for this purpose.

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 rendering before the raster reached the very bottom or after it had restarted at the top.

The PPU registers and memory can only be accessed during the vertical retrace phase. Because of this, NES coding is highly timing sensitive and the programmer only has a limited number of clock cycles in which to alter graphics data before the retrace ends and the next frame begins.

Video output connections varied from one model of the console to the next. The original HVC-001 model of the Family Computer 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 HVC-101 model of the 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-101 model most closely resembled the original HVC-001 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 differential pulse-code modulation (DPCM) channel with 6-bit resolution, 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.

Memory mappers

Developers quickly reached the Famicom's 32k memory barrier by 1985 and began demanding the ability to create larger, more complex games than was possible with the existing hardware. Nintendo responded with the first of their MMC (Memory Management Controller) chips, which were added to cartridges and allowed bank-switching and other capabilities. The first of these was the MMC1, which allowed battery-backed game saves and the ability to page cartridge ROMs in 16k chunks. Most licensed games used either the MMC1 or the MMC3, which could swap graphics data for animated tiles, diagonal scrolling, and had a built-in interrupt counter for split screen effects, but did not support battery saves. Other games had no mapper and instead only a TTL logic IC to switch out ROM banks.

The most advanced mapper made by Nintendo was the MMC5, which had extra graphics memory and could take some routine tasks like interrupt handling off the CPU, thus freeing more clock cycles for game code. In addition, it used a better battery save method that did not require the user to hold down Reset while powering off the console. Due to its high cost, it was only used in a handful of games (most notably the US version of Castlevania III).

Some third party developers manufactured their own mappers. Konami produced a series of them (the VRC line) which offered more advanced features than Nintendo's MMC chips, but they were never used in the US for cost reasons (also the NES did not support their external sound chips).

NES Test Station

The NES Test Station was a Nintendo Entertainment System testing machine made by Nintendo in 1988. It is a NES-based unit designed for testing NES hardware, components and games. It was only provided for use in World of Nintendo boutiques as part of the Nintendo World Class Service program. Visitors were to bring items to test on the station, often with assistance from a technician or store employee.

The NES Test Station features a Game Pak slot and connectors for testing various components (AC adapter, RF switch, Audio/Video cable, NES Control Deck, controllers and accessories) at the front, with a knob selector in the centre to select the component to test. The unit itself is very large, weighing almost forty pounds, and securely hooks up to the television through both AV Cables and RF Switch in one wire. The user can choose which output to use for gameplay by pressing the RF/AV for Audio/Video Cable connection, or leave it unpressed for RF Switch connection. The television it's hooked up to (normally nineteen inches) is meant to be placed on top of it. On the front edge are three colored button switches: an illuminated red Power switch, a blue Reset switch and a green switch for alternating between AV and RF connections when testing an NES Control Deck. The different knob selections are:

  • Game Pak Channel (for testing Game Paks)
  • Control Deck and Accessories Channel (includes tests for NES Controllers, the Zapper, R.O.B. and Power Pad)
  • Audio Video Channel
  • AC Adaptor Channel
  • RF Switch Channel
  • System Channel (for testing a Control Deck)

The testing simply displays the selected output's results as either 'Pass' or 'Fail.' Very little is known about this equipment. Nintendo later provided an add-on for testing Super NES components and games, named the Super NES Counter Tester.



The NES/Famicom is considered one of the most influential video game systems ever produced. It also had the longest-lasting production run that lasted 20 years, from July 1983 to September 2003, before being discontinued in Japan. The NES was released after the " video game crash" of the early '80s, and many retailers and adults treated electronic games as a passing fad. Five years later, in 1988, video gaming was a multi-billion dollar industry. Before the NES/Famicom, Nintendo was known as a moderately successful Japanese toy and playing card manufacturer, and the popularity of the NES/Famicom helped the company grow into an internationally recognized name almost synonymous with video games and set the stage for Japanese dominance of the video game industry. With the NES, Nintendo also changed the relationship between console manufacturers and third-party software developers by restricting developers from publishing and distributing software without licensed approval. This led to higher quality software titles, which helped to change the attitude of a public that had grown weary from poorly produced titles for other game systems of the day. The NES was the first system to use special technology to lock-out unauthorized cartridges.

The NES hardware was also very influential. Nintendo chose the name "Nintendo Entertainment System" for the US market and redesigned the system so it would not give the appearance of a child's toy. The front-loading cartridge input allowed it to be used more easily in a TV stand with other entertainment devices, such as a video cassette player. The controller was radically different from those of previous consoles, replacing the joystick with a 4-way directional "control pad." Unlike a joystick, the control pad could be manipulated precisely and easily with a single thumb. As the industry adopted the idea, it became universally known as the "directional pad," "D-pad," or "cross pad." Nearly every major game system, after the NES incorporated it, has included a D-pad onto the primary controller. In later years, Nintendo was recognized with multiple industry awards for the innovation.

There were many prominent game franchises originated on the NES. The system's hardware limitations led to game design similarities that still influence video game design and culture. Some of the more important franchises that debuted on the NES were Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, Capcom's Mega Man franchise, Konami's Castlevania franchise, Square's Final Fantasy and Enix's Dragon Quest (now Square Enix's) franchises. All of these still exist today.

NES imagery, especially its controller, has become a popular motif for a variety of products, including Nintendo's own Game Boy Advance. Clothing, accessories, and food items adorned with NES-themed imagery are still produced and sold in stores. Such items include hats, shirts, underwear, wallets, wrist-bands, belt buckles, tins containing mint candy, and energy drinks.

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