Sunday, April 8, 2012

You Gotta Blow Into It!

Two straight weekends of cold, rainy weather have kept me indoors and away from my favorite past-time.  Fortunately, I have a closet full of video game just begging to be played, and Steve Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games has me aching for some quality time with the older consoles in my collection.  A few months back, I ordered a new 72 pin connector for my Nintendo, and it was high time that I installed it. 
For those of you too young to remember, the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES for short) was an 8-bit juggernaut that dominated the video gaming landscape for half a decade (1985-1990) and single-handedly resurrected the medium after the market crash of 1983. Iconic game franchises Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Tetris, and Castlevania all got their start on Nintendo’s little gray box, and Mario (although introduced years earlier as Jump man in the seminal classic Donkey Kong) became a household name.  A far cry from the white and red-colored, top-loading Japanese version (dubbed the Famicom*), the NES is two-tone grey with black and red accents and a front-loading cartridge slot.  Nothing about it screams video games, which was exactly the point; Nintendo of America decided to combat public apathy and retailer weariness by disguising the console as an electronic device more akin to the VCR.  They even gave it a Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) to add to the novelty. 
Video Game Console or VCR?

While its low-key appearance and gimmicky add-ons may have encouraged some early buyers to take the plunge, there’s no question what made the initial console launch so successful: Super Mario Bros.  The diminutive red-and-blue plumber (along with his taller sibling Luigi) ran, jumped and swam their way through eight colorful worlds the likes of which the world had never seen.  With smooth animation, precise controls, excellent sound FX and memorable music, the game was an all-out assault on the senses.  Although the concept of a pack-in game for a new system launch is somewhat foreign now, Nintendo included Super Mario Bros. in three of its four original North American bundles (Deluxe, Action and Power Sets).  By packing in their best launch title and using Worlds of Wonder** to distribute, Nintendo was able to shift millions of consoles and develop a huge install base. Moves like these left competitors Sega, NEC and Atari in the dust and eventually led to total market domination for the remainder of the decade.

To combat piracy and assuage customer fears that the games they bought would less than stellar (similar to the shovelware that dominated the consoles of the early 1980s), Nintendo maintained strict licensing with its 3rd party publishers and installed lockout chips (10NES) in its ROM-based cartridges.  Although publishers would eventually found ways around it (e.g. voltage spikes), these measures had an unexpected and unfortunate consequence: the blinking red power light.  The horizontal loading cartridge slot was billed as a zero insertion force (ZIF) socket, but that was not the case.  Anxious gamers would quickly slam in new cartridges, bending and tarnishing the nickel-plated pins.  Over time, the bent, dirty pins would fail to make contact; because the 10NES lockout chip requires constant, this would lead to the console turning off and on (or blinking) every second until the cartridge was re-seated.  Legions of kids tried countless methods to keep their NESs working.  Blowing on the exposed ROM chip of the game was common as was wedging matchbooks and other objects into the slot. 

72 Pin Connector
Today, I’m fortunate enough to have two NESs: one in good condition I keep for show, and the other I use for play.  The latter frequently blinks if the game is not seated exactly right; after an hour-long session trying to get a beat-up Zelda cartridge to work, I finally broke down and bought a replacement 72 pin connector.  I won’t go into the details of installation, although it’s one of the less painful surgeries you can perform on a game console (all you need is a standard Philips screwdriver and some patience- no soldering!). 

Ironically, replacing the connector did little to fix the problem (sometimes games are too beat up for a new connector to remedy).  I did get to spend some time with Mario, however, playing Super Mario Bros. 1, 2 & 3***. 

(*Although Japanese sounding, Famicom is short for ‘Family Computer’).

(**Worlds of Wonder was a key player in 1980s toys distribution.  They also brought Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag to the masses.)

(***Although you may not have an original NES, you can still enjoy Mario on your PC.  Check out Exploding Rabbit for an over-the-top flash-based homage to the first game that lets you play as different 8-bit characters.)

Super Mario Bros Pack-In Cartridge- Nintendo Approved.

1 comment: