Making the Famicom a Reality

Posted By at 7:37 AM on Wednesday March 28, 2012

The following article by Masaharu Takano is a Oct. 2nd, 2008 reprint of “How the Famicom Was Born – Part 6″ which appeared in the Sept. 12th, 1994 edition of Nikkei Electronics. It was commissioned by Nathan Altice. The names and titles of the businesses and people mentioned in the series are unchanged from how they appeared at the time of the original publication.


Back when the portable game console Game & Watch was enjoying hit status, Nintendo Manufacturing Headquarters’ Research & Development 2 (R&D2) decided to try their hand at arcade development. However, Radar Scope, developed in 1981, was a commercial failure, and the company was left sitting on a large stockpile of unsold machines. An appeal was put out within the company for ideas on how to repurpose the hardware, and Mario’s debut game, Donkey Kong, was born. This game’s circuits would eventually act as the groundwork for the Family Computer. The Famicom’s development was begun in the spring of 1982.

Using Arcade Setbacks as a Springboard

Space Fever

Beginning in early 80s, when the portable game console Game & Watch, developed by R&D1 employees Gunpei Yokoi and Satoru Okada (titles omitted below), attained hit status, R&D2, spearheaded by Masayuki Uemura, set out to develop arcade machines. (Fig. 1) Ever since 1979’s Breakout, the last arcade machine to use specialized LSI chips, companies had been breaking away from this practice and moving towards developing arcade machines with built-in CPUs.

Taito’s Space Invaders was the ubiquitous arcade machine of the time. Uemura’s group follwed suit by developing arcade machines such as Space Fever, but none became a hit. It was an era that saw developers struggling to differentiate their games from other companies’ products.

Prompted by Their Shock at Galaxian

During this time, a new feature on one arcade machine in particular had an impact on Uemura’s group. This machine was Namco’s Galaxian. Up until then, enemies in invader games would move slowly when there were a large number on the screen, then speed up as the player depleted their numbers, making it difficult to shoot them down. Though this was used to add excitement to the gameplay, it was also the result of hardware limitations.

Invader game arcade machines adopted a system of full graphics (a bitmap) that they could use to redraw each screen. With this system, it was difficult to have characters move quickly when there were many of them displayed on the screen.

However, despite Galaxian displaying many enemies on the screen at once, players were treated to a background of smoothly-animated glittering stardust. “This was a shock to engineers,” Uemura recalls. Galaxian used a sprite (object) system. It animated preloaded sprites by shifting the coordinates on the scrolling background. This function, now an integral part of modern-day game consoles, was pioneered by Galaxian.

Taking advantage of their encounter with Galaxian, Uemura’s group immersed themselves in the development of a circuit system that could be used to display sprites.

Too Absorbed in Technology

This was how Radar Scope, an arcade machine full to the brim with state-of-the-art technology, came to be completed in 1981. (Fig. 1) It was developed in partnership with Ikegami Tsushinki, a Japanese television equipment manufacturer that Nintendo had been associated with since the development of Space Fever. Nintendo submitted requirement specifications to Ikegami, which was put in charge of designing the circuits..

In an attempt to achieve performance unmatched by other companies, the Radar Scope was equipped with technology such as ECL IO high-speed logic ICs and memory, in addition to multilayer print wiring circuit boards. The fact that it clocked in at 50MHz also made it stand out amongst arcade machines at the time.

However, the Radar Scope never became a hit. Its high price tag of ¥1,000,000 (USD $10,000) contributed to its downfall, and the company was left sitting on a large stockpile of unsold machines.

Uemura reflects that he was captivated by competing for the greatest technology. “I thought that a realistic shooting game would be able to succeed. I may have been too biased towards hardware,” he muses.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Lavish Incorporation of early 1980s High-Speed ICs

A screenshot of Radar Scope, a Nintendo arcade machine developed in tandem with Ikegami Tsushinki. It was a product that stressed hardware performance, incorporating features such as ECL IO logic ICs and memory.

An In-House Appeal: The Game That Came to the Rescue

Donkey Kong Arcade

Uemura was warned by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi not to go to Ikegami Tsushinki anymore. In reality, he was finding himself slowly sinking into unemployment. As a countermeasure, he decided to gather the remaining members of his team and restructure Radar Scope’s circuit board to create a new game console.

An appeal was put out to everyone in the company, inviting people to contribute game ideas. Four proposals were gathered, and one of these was realized. This game’s name was Donkey Kong, and it would be the stage for Mario’s debut. (Fig. 2)

The person who put forward the idea for Donkey Kong was industrial designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Later, he went on to create Super Mario, which was his maiden work as a game designer.

At the time, shooting games were at the height of popularity, and few games put the focus on characters. Nonetheless, Donkey Kong had characters that would jump at the player’s command. It was a fresh new change for arcade gaming.

Radar Scope’s hardware performance was more than enough to make Donkey Kong a reality, as Donkey Kong didn’t require a large number of enemies moving around at high speeds. Accordingly, the team cut out unnecessary functions and reduced the scale of the circuit board.

Thusly, Radar Scope, a game that emphasized technological performance, was reborn as the simplistic arcade game, Donkey Kong.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Reborn as Donkey Kong

A screenshot of Donkey Kong, developed in order to make use of the hardware of the commercial failure, Radar Scope. This game also represented the debut of Nintendo’s mascot character, Mario.

Failing at Work & A Desperate Search

Nintendo Trump Cards

Though Nintendo’s arcade business endured thanks to the success of Donkey Kong, it had been in decline ever since. It was around this time that the Game & Watch grew to hit status, becoming Nintendo’s mainstay. This also marked the debut of the Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong, which came equipped with a D-pad.

Within the company, there were some who felt that the Game & Watch, like Nintendo’s hanafuda and trump cards, would continue to be a leading product. That’s how much influence the system carried at the time.

As a result of factors such as employees being moved over to R&D1, which needed more people to help with the Game & Watch’s development, the number of people under Uemura at R&D2 was gradually being reduced. Despairing at this, Uemura searched frantically for something they could work on next.

Prior to the Game & Watch’s development, President Yamauchi had told Okada not to worry, that even if 1 or 2 employees were messing around, the company wouldn’t go bankrupt. Taking him at his word, Okada was content to take it easy, but Uemura couldn’t relax unless he was working on something.

What he finally zeroed in on was the domestic video game console, undergoing a renewed boom in the States. Nintendo at last took a step away from Breakout.

Uemura was looking to bring the domestic game console back. He wanted to develop a system that would allow players to play Donkey Kong in its original format at home. In Uemura’s mind, the vague outline of the Famicom was taking form..

The Beginning of Project GAMECOM

Katsuya Nakakawa

Katsuya Nakakawa

Around this same time, President Yamauchi, hearing stories from toy stores closely associated with Nintendo, was embracing an interest in the domestic game industry. It was around Oct. 1981 that the president came to Uemura with his ideas on developing a domestic game console. Yamauchi also sensed that the the Game & Watch would soon become obsolete, and the company would have need of a next-generation product.

Together with the younger engineers that remained at R&D2, Uemura began to explore the possibility of realizing such an endeavor at once. One of these engineers was Katsuya Nakakawa (presently section head of R&D2).

Nakakawa joined Nintendo in 1979. Though his original duties included maintenance of the company’s Uji factory, he was soon reassigned to R&D2, where he was placed in charge of developing hardware for games like Radar Scope and Donkey Kong.

Nakakawa was an insistent type who, during his employment interview with Nintendo, unabashedly stated that he’d “like to properly evaluate personal expressions and concepts.” Uemura, who witnessed the interview, knew right away that he wanted to add this prospective employee, who had created a bathroom karaoke set in his spare time, to his team.

Joining Nintendo on Uemura’s referral, Nakakawa exhibited his talents by partnering up with Uemura on the development of the Famicom and Super Famicom. His first role in the Famicom’s development was exploring whether or not it would be possible to develop a domestic game console.

The conclusion he came up with was that a domestic game console looked to be a possibility if they IC’d the Donkey Kong arcade machine’s circuits and used them as a base. In the spring of 1982, a concrete development project had begun. The code name of the game console they set out to develop was the GAMECOM.

With Radar Scope, the arcade game developed by Uemura’s group that emphasized technology, Donkey Kong, invented to rescue its hardware, and the D-pad, used to play Donkey Kong on the Game & Watch, the team had already gathered the components that would be necessary in making the Famicom a reality.

It took about a year for the Famicom to be born from Project GAMECOM, upon which several people commenced work.

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One Response

  1. johney says:

    Wow donkeykong saved those radar scope arcade boards? That’s cool.

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