The Nintendo Family Computer, or Famicom as it is universally known, is the original Japanese form of what is known outside Japan as the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES. This console and its games were responsible for the shift of the worldwide centre of video gaming from the United States to Japan in the mid 1980s, which has continued (save the domestic success of the Xbox) to this day, 20 years later.

The original Famicom was a red and white, toylike, top-loading box, smaller than the NES. The layout of the cartridge slot, Power and Reset buttons, and the eject lever is identical to the later North American SNES. Unlike the NES, the two controllers are not detachable but are hardwired into the back of the case. Two slots in the sides of the system accept the controllers for storage. The controllers are similar to the NES controllers in design, if not appearance, with a few notable exceptions. The Start and Select buttons are only found on Controller #1, with a tiny microphone (that was never used) on Controller #2 instead. Accessories such as the light gun plug into a separate connector at the front of the system. Output is solely through RF on Channel 13, no composite A/V output is available. The cartridges are small, about half the height of an NES cartridge, and have 60-pin connectors. This is the main incompatibility between the Famicom and NES, as NES cartridges have a 72-pin connector and the design of the NES requires that the cartridges be the correct height. Since the extra pins on the NES cartridge have no actual purpose, simple converters became available to play imported games.

Since the Famicom was a relative latecomer to the Japanese video game market of the early 1980s, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi required two things of the Famicom design team. First, that the system could not be surpassed by competitors for at least a year. Second, that it be cheaper than any video game system then on the market. Needless to say, this was quite the challenge. The designers based the system off the seven-year-old MOS Technologies 6502 microprocessor, the heart of the Apple II and other home computers, and a common off-the-shelf component in 1982. A custom graphics coprocessor called the PPU, or Picture Processing Unit was added, with 16K of Video RAM to allow for better graphics than competitors such as the Atari 2600. The Famicom also had a sound synthesis chip that allowed for more than just simple blips, bringing decent music and sound effects to consoles. However, the infamous NES lockout chip is absent from the Famicom.

The most important peripheral for the Famicom is the Famicom Disk System. This peripheral was home to many of the classic Famicom/NES games which were cartridge-based outside of Japan, including The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and Kid Icarus. The games for the Disk System were much less expensive than cartridge-based games due to the relative cost of the media, a factor which would come back to bite Nintendo in the mid-1990s with the advent of the CD-ROM based Sony Playstation. A disadvantage to the Disk System was the comparative ease at which pirate copies of the games could be created and distributed. The mysterious expansion connector on the base of the original NES was intended for the North American version of the Famicom Disk System that was never released. Other Japan-only Famicom peripherals include the Famicom Network System modem and the Family BASIC keyboard (which was never used for anything but BASIC).

Ten years after the release of the original Famicom, the A/V Famicom was released. This, in addition to featuring the long-missing composite video output, was a completely redesigned system, smaller than the original and much smaller than the NES. The controllers were completely redesigned to be similar to the SNES controller, and are detachable. The "NES II" is essentially the same system modified to take the gigantic NES cartridges.

Timeline


References: the 20 Years of Famicom specials at GameSpy (http://www.gamespy.com/articles/july03/famicom/) and Nintendojo (http://www.dojomediaserver.com/specials/Famicom/index.html).
If you have additions to the timeline, please /msg me.

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This writeup is copyright 2003 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .

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