Synonymous With the Domestic Game Console

Posted By at 3:51 PM on Saturday April 21, 2012

The following article by Masaharu Takano is a Oct. 6th, 2008 reprint of “How the Famicom Was Born – Part 8″ which appeared in the Jan. 16th, 1995 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. Click the images to enlarge.

A System Synonymous With the Domestic Game Console

The Family Computer (Famicom) was completed in July, 1983. It was developed by Research & Development 2 (R&D2), a software and peripheral development division at Nintendo’s manufacturing headquarters spearheaded by Masayuki Uemura (titles omitted below). The workings of the Famicom, such as the directional buttons (D-pad) used by its controllers, exercised a great influence over future game consoles. It inherited the D-pad from the Game & Watch series, another line of portable game consoles manufactured by Nintendo. Despite the Famicom’s initial release being met with sluggish sales, in 1984 a boom occurred, and, at the time of writing, over 10,000,000 systems have been shipped in Japan alone. The Famicom has truly become synonymous with the domestic game console.

An examination of the Famicom’s specifications began in October, 1982. At the time, they had already more or less decided to use LSI chips, and a prototype was created in order to verify its functionality and begin developing software. Work on the creation of software development tools was also underway.

Figure 1

The Exterior of a Famicom Prototype

A prototype created in order to verify the Famicom’s functionality and begin developing software. It was comprised of a module that incorporated the CPU and peripheral circuits and a module for the image processing circuits.

Creating Development Tools In-House

Once it was determined that the prototype console that would be used to verify the Famicom’s functionality would incorporate LSI chips, Ricoh’s engineers drew up a schematic and, together with the staff of R&D2, began their manufacture.

Using the prototype they’d assembled, the team attempted to reproduce games equipped with specialized LSI chips that were released during the latter half of the 70s. Takao Sawano (presently deputy section chief of Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development Division 1), in charge of programming, felt that they had something that worked.

Once they’d confirmed the functionality of the prototype, the group immediately set about creating software development tools. Among those placed in charge were Sawano and Satoshi Yamato (presently deputy section chief of Nintendo’s R&D2), then software development staff. The CPU they’d decided on, a 6502-use tool created by an American firm called Rockwell, didn’t yet exist in Japan. For the meantime, they made an emergency purchase of a Taiwan-made ICE (in-circuit emulator) to tide them over while they developed their own programming tool, the NCAP (short for Nintendo Capture). The NCAP was hosted on NEC’s PC-8001. Early Famicom games such as Baseball and Mahjong were developed using this tool.

Programming tools were also created alongside tools that could draw animated characters on the screen. These were constructed by Masayuki Uemura, who was leading the development of a digitizer that consisted of an 8×8 dot matrix created with luminescent diodes (LED lights), and passed on to the software development staff. The digitizer was used to transform sketches drawn on tracing paper into sprite art. At the time, there wasn’t a system for drawing game characters on a computer screen.

They also created software that was capable of taking drawn sprite art data and outputting it as a file using a digitizer. However, it didn’t function properly due to the fact that, contrary to expectations, they weren’t able to remove all the bugs. Problems such as Yamato slipping up and pulling the plug just as Sawano was finally about finish his work, requiring everything to be redone, occurred again and again. Through trial and error, Nintendo’s software development management system gradually grew more and more complete.

By the spring of 1983, another talented member began participating in software development. This was Shuhei Kato (presently section head of Nintendo’s R&D3), known as “The Living 6502 Manual”.

Organizing the Famicom’s Basic Specs into 7 Entries

Around October, 1982, after the developers had set their sights on LSI development and software development environments, concrete design at last began on the Famicom itself. When designing the console, Uemura started by summarizing 7 basic specifications, keeping in mind other game consoles such as the American ColecoVision. (Table 1) At the time, Uemura envisioned players controlling the system using a joystick similar to the ones found on arcade machines.

Uemura, attempting to immerse himself in the design of the console’s exterior, brought with him to the design offices of Ricoh Katsuya Nakakawa (presently section head of R&D2), one of the core development team members, and Masayuki Yukawa (presently assistant manager of R&D2), who was in charge of mechanism design.

How could they go about creating a look for the Famicom that was unlike anything ever seen before? They queried the specialists on their opinions. Ricoh’s designers explained that they would need to adopt a design that ensured the console couldn’t be appraised on looks alone. If the system’s exterior resembled an audio device, for example, consumers would make judgements on the product’s price and value based on preconceptions. They instructed the team to design the exterior in such a way that people wouldn’t be able to make snap judgements about it.

However, looking back, Uemura feels that this advice wasn’t made use of. In the words of Masayuki Yukawa, the final design of the console’s exterior “[…] ended up resembling nothing more than an boring box.”

The one feature that was made with a playful spirit in mind was the lever used to eject the ROM cartridges. (Fig. 2) It was the head of Research & Development 1 (R&D1), Gunpei Yokoi, who gave them the idea. From a practical perspective, it was perfectly feasible to insert and remove the ROM cartridges by hand. Yokoi, however, felt that children would be delighted if they could push a lever to make cartridges pop out of the system. Even when they weren’t playing games, they could entertain themselves by clattering around. He believed that, when creating a product marketed towards children, it was necessary to take these sorts of things into account. His vision was soon embraced by Uemura and Yukawa.

Table 1

The Famicom’s Early Design Specs

1. It doesn’t have a keyboard attached.
2. It distances itself from the image of a PC.
3. It’s a machine exclusively for playing games, but doesn’t resemble a toy.
4. The controllers can be used by 2 people, which, if feasible, may be stored on the system itself.
5. The dimensions of a ROM cartridge will be about the same as an analogue cassette tape.
6. The system will contain ROM cartridge connectors, a power switch, controller connectors, an AC adapter jack, and an RF adapter jack.
7. The controllers will have a joystick, two decision buttons, a start button, and a pause button.

Figure 2

Popping Out the ROM Cartridges

When you push the Famicom’s eject lever, the staff designed it so that the ROM cartridge inserted into the connectors would pop out.

Inherited From the Game & Watch

Donkey Kong Game & Watch

One could say that one of the major events of the Famicom’s development was the decision to put a D-pad on the controllers. (Fig. 3) This is due to the fact that it greatly influenced the game consoles that followed after.

As seen in Table 1, at first Uemura’s ideas were limited to utilizing the joysticks found on arcade machines. In order to investigate how they functioned, he took apart existing American-made game consoles and commissioned 2 or 3 joystick prototypes from parts manufacturers.

However, Uemura was also aware that bringing joysticks into a domestic environment would pose a number of problems. Among them was a need to figure out how to secure joysticks that would be difficult to use without being properly fitted, and a method for insuring that children wouldn’t injure themselves should they accidentally step on one.

It was Sawano who suddenly brought up the idea of forgetting the joystick and using a D-pad. Sawano had once worked under Uemura at R&D2, but had been recruited to R&D1 to serve as a Game & Watch software developer. One model in the Game & Watch line was a port of the original arcade version of Donkey Kong. The D-pad had been invented especially for the device by Yokoi, leader of the Game & Watch development team.

For Sawano, who had developed D-pad-oriented games during his time at R&D1, it was natural to suggest that the Famicom could use the D-pad too. However, the rest of the development staff didn’t endorse Sawano’s idea right away. There were those who argued that sure, the D-pad was well-suited to the Game & Watch with its small screen, but it wouldn’t be reliable for use on the Famicom, which could animate a large number of characters on a regular television set.

Sawano, having faith that they could make the D-pad work, pulled a lead line out of a Game & Watch and connected it to a Famicom prototype, then invited the development staff to give it a try. The first person to test it out was Nakakawa. He was surprised at how quickly he adapted to the controls, and how he didn’t feel the slightest sense of discomfort.

While playing the Game & Watch, players’ eyes are focused down around their hands. However, that’s because they’re looking at the screen, not because they need to confirm the location of the D-pad. Nakakawa realized that the D-pad would function in exactly the same manner, even if the lower screen was replaced with a TV set several meters away.

Design on the D-pad controllers began when Nakakawa conferred with Yukawa, who was in charge of mechanism design, and decided to make the buttons one size bigger than the ones on the Game & Watch. The idea of having the buttons make a clicking sound when pushed came up during the course of the design process, but in order to prioritize the buttons’ lifespan, it was given a miss. There was also the concern that if the buttoners were slow to return to their starting positions, they wouldn’t respond to quick input from players. Every member of the staff strongly believed that gamers would be alienated by a system that didn’t faithfully respond to its controls.

Figure 3

From the Joystick to the D-Pad

The exterior of a Famicom controller. In the initial stages of development, the plan was to adopt a joystick like the ones used on arcade machines, Instead, however, they opted to use the Game & Watch’s D-Pad. A microphone was added to the 2nd controller.

Reducing the Cost by Directly Attaching the Controllers

There are two points regarding the controllers that varied from early plans. The first was giving up on the idea of a having connector attachment and instead connecting the cables to the system directly. The second was adding a microphone onto the second controller.

Directly attaching the controllers to the system was simply an attempt to lower costs. Because they had initially planned to attach a connector while they were designing the circuit board, the connector cable ended up being wound pointlessly around the interior. (Fig. 4)

At the time of the Famicom’s development, no one imagined that the system would continue selling for over 10 years and see so much use that the controllers would break. As a matter of fact, following its boom in popularity, toy stores and other distributors expressed growing dissatisfaction that Nintendo didn’t make their controllers with easy-to-exchange connector attachments.

It was Uemura himself who proposed installing a microphone in the 2nd controller. He realized that there was no way players wouldn’t be entertained simply by hearing their own voices come out of the television set. In reality, however, the feature didn’t see much use.

Though the connectors for the controllers were removed, the 15 pin expansion port remained. (Fig. 5) They decided that the console would be able to support an optional joystick, so players could recreate the feel of an arcade machine. Though the Famicom attempted to distance itself from the image of a computer, a keyboard that connected to the expansion port was later merchandized. In addition, a game that used the Famicom to teach computer language debuted, but it wasn’t very long-lived.

Figure 4

Controllers Attached Directly to the Console

In an attempt to reduce the cost, the Famicom’s controllers were directly connected to the the system. This shot depicts the bottom of the system with its cover removed. The front is to the right. You can see how the connector cable spirals out of the front of the circuit board towards the back. This is the remnants of an attempt to add a connector to the front of the console.

Figure 5

Equipped With a 15 Pin Expansion Port

On the front of the Famicom is an expansion port used to connect peripherals such as a keyboard.

Trying to Match Cartridges With Audio Cassettes

It was Nakakawa that decided to focus on using ROM cartridges to store the console’s game software. The initial goal was to have the cartridges’ external dimensions match those of an audio cassette. He imagined the games being able to fit in audio cassette cases. However, in order to fit the circuit boards into the cartridges, they ultimately ended up a size bigger.

During the development of the ROM cartridges, a lot of attention was paid to the circuit board connector pins and the connectors on the console itself. Issues suffered by arcade machines, such as faulty connections and abrasion, were a concern for circuit board connectors as well.

Nakakawa determined that the company ought to develop its own special connectors rather than using existing ones, and made proposals to component manufacturers. In order to output the CPU, image processor address, and data bus, it was necessary to design a 60 pin connector. Special efforts were made regarding the cartridge insertion tests. Their targeted number of insertions was 5000. These experiments weren’t performed by machines, but rather by the development staff, who would insert and remove games 5000 times by hand. Nakakawa stated that because they believed the connections to be easily broken, they were sure to investigate the matter thoroughly.

Naming the Family Computer

Thusly, by spring, 1983, the overall look of the console, including its exterior, controllers, and ROM cartridges, had taken form. It was around this time that the game console known only by its code name, the GAMECOM, came to be known as the Family Computer.

It was Uemura’s wife that named the system. In April, 1983, Uemura brought up the topic of the Gamecom at home. Uemura’s wife then said the following: “If it’s a domestic computer that’s neither a home computer nor a personal computer, perhaps you could say that it’s a family computer. In Japanese, ‘personal computer’ is shortened to ‘pasokon’, so why don’t you nickname it the ‘Famicom’?” These words served as the trigger for what was to come. Several prospective titles had come up prior to the console’s manufacture, but “Family Computer” survived because of how well it expressed the nature of the product.

However, the president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, apparently wasn’t too fond of the Family Computer’s abbreviation. According to Uemura, “I don’t think he liked how similar it felt to the Japanese tendency to abbreviate ‘game center’ to ‘gamesen’.” The abbreviation “Famicom” was later trademarked by Sharp.

President Yamauchi was also very particular about the colour of the console. One day, Uemura and the president were travelling together by car. Just as they got off the Meishin Expressway’s Nishinomiya Interchange, Yamauchi pointed at something and said “That’s a good colour.” Before them stood a red billboard advertising DX Antenna.

The next day, the president brought his scarf to where Uemura was sitting, and suggested that it was a good colour too. Up until then, there had been a variety of looks proposed for the Famicom’s colour scheme, including all black, blue, and a black and white combo, but Nintendo went with Yamauchi’s opinion and based the system’s colours around a red theme.

Lighting the Fire a Half-Year After Release

In June, 1983, Nintendo conducted an information session directed towards wholesale retailers. A prototype console was hidden beneath a podium, its contents placed within, and a demonstration was carried out. The development staff had spent a sleepless night preparing it.

The reaction at the information session was favorable. There were many participants who were surprised at the low price of ¥14,800 yen (around USD $148). This was because, at the time, there were rumors going around that certain domestic electronics manufacturers would be selling game consoles for over ¥20,000 (USD $200). The participants returned home, confident that the Famicom would be able to compete.

Once the information session was brought smoothly to a close, the first stage of the development staff’s work was complete. However, right before the system’s July, 1983 release, a panic surrounded the creation of the manual. The manual’s authorship fell to Uemura. However, just before the manuscript deadline, the possibility of Atari promoting the sale of the Famicom arose, and Uemura rushed off to the States. The task of continuing work on the unfinished manuscript was thus placed on Yamato and Kato, who stayed up all night completing it. In the end, however, Atari didn’t end up supplying the Famicom after all.

Accordingly, July 21st, 1983 saw the release of the Famicom. Contrary to expectations, the console didn’t sell well at first. For a time, discount shops sold the system for the reduced price of around ¥7000 (USD $70).

As if that weren’t enough, a bug was detected in the image processor. This resulted in the company having no choice but to put a stop to shipping, preventing them from taking advantage of the Christmas rush. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the new year, reports came from wholesale stores saying that children were flooding in to obtain the scarce Famicoms. Systems with the bug corrected were then released, and shipping numbers rose favorably. More than 3,000,000 systems were sold within a year, and the development staff were satisfied at last.

With the debut of games like Super Mario and Dragon Quest, not a single member of the development team imagined that the Famicom would grow into such a big hit.

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3 Responses

  1. johney says:

    Holy shit,it must’ve been a hell of developing & releasing the famicom.
    Will it was never intended to use cassette tapes as a storage media,however,they later released the data recorder to store game saves,also they released a keyboard and a disk system for it,so despites it was also never intended as a pc system,it probabely dit,and it also still dit look like a toy,despites it’s never intention for that.
    Happy birstday the 30 on 15 july 2013!!!

  2. Covarr says:

    You might have a bit of a traffic influx coming; you just got referenced by Did You Know Gaming.

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