Unlikely characters progress across a landscape of bright features; they slay enemies, upgrade their stats, collect treasures and heroically die for the cause. Princesses call from shuttered castles during the quest. And then in an instant, a cartridge is switched to reveal a world of 8-bit sports. Little hockey sticks or footballs appear in cartoon form as players frantically buzz about. Tinny beeps and blips align in primitive yet computerized soundtracks to serenade the action. The 8 to 15 year old demographic, mashing buttons to control all of this, seemed to be captivated no matter the content before them.
With the help of incredibly accessible games and reasonable prices, the Nintendo Company Ltd. secured a majority of the video game market during its heyday of the late 1980’s. The success did not come without its challenges, however, due to attendant legal and moral allegations as the media giant rose to prominence. Some academic literature of the era reflected discontent over the video game medium. Does it reinforce gender and class stereotypes? Does it cause aggression? Antisocial behavior? Health risks? At the same time, other voices in the news media lamented a “decline of the youth” (Pollack) as more and more hours were surrendered to the console. Interestingly, however, Nintendo was described glowingly in the same newspaper when in a retail/business context. Individual impressions, of course, varied, but each case is important to consider. What follows is an analysis of different interpretations of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which will uncover recurring trends in media history.
HISTORY OF THE MACHINE
Nintendo was founded in Japan in 1889 and originally produced playing cards (gamespy.com 1). Under new management, the company attempted to diversify and began manufacturing toys, and, subsequently, electronic toy devices. In the midst of a sagging interest in the home video game market, the company began to design a machine that could support “interchangeable cartridges”—much like the existing Atari 2600—so that it would “remain fresh” due to a growing library of games (2). After numerous business ventures and gambles involving chips and superconductors, Nintendo ultimately released the Family Computer (or Famicom) in Japan on July 15, 1983.
Competition would ultimately be posed by the Atari 2600, but the Famicom had 16 times the RAM and simply looked fresher (2).
The success of the Famicom led to its redesign and introduction into North America. One of the key features of the newly-coined NES was allowing for the controllers to be unplugged. It also assumed a gray, utilitarian aesthetic in contrast to its initial color scheme. The most important aspect of the NES—its “improved technology”—would beat out the Atari 2600 and help revive video game sales that stagnated since 1982 (Pollack).
The NES debuted in the US over Christmas of 1986 and began test runs in major cities (gamespy.com 12). Thanks to a Herculean marketing campaign put on by Nintendo of America, 1 million consoles were sold in the first year, and an additional three million in 1987 (13). Systems ran for about 100 dollars, or 180 if one purchased the available games (Pollack). At first only 15 titles were offered, but the number expanded to 34 games in 1988 and 55 in 1989 (Rothenberg). Because of the system’s extreme popularity, it kick-started a phenomenon that would permeate many levels of popular culture in the US.
THE DEVICE ITSELF: A REMNANT FROM THE 8O’S
Some of my earliest memories of the NES involved extended family; deprived of a set at mom and dad’s house, I had to wait until Sunday nights to play video games in my grandparents’ basement. I also recall a somewhat dramatic moment in Philadelphia where, after having visited my aunt, my older cousin Andrew and his excitable friends suffered continual losses to the robot dragon in Mega Man 2. I was moved by the camaraderie and innocent solidarity around the screen. If only I could tell them now that the weapon they should have used was Quick Boomerang.
When I finally picked up an NES of my own, I was about 15 and the next generation consoles had long since debuted. It was dirt cheap and by then a novelty. I didn’t appreciate its power, however, until one night while going on a cursory run through Castlevania II. I’d gotten a random tip from my friend Charlie that I should have the character—vampire stalker Simon Belmont—crouch by a lake at some point during the quest. Doing so panned the screen down to reveal a secret and ancient world beneath the water—and thus a new area to explore. The discovery filled me with a profound awe; it was just a simple feature, sure, but clambering forward from the 1980s it spoke more volumes than any of the eye-catching cinematics of the Playstation era.
Over the years I would become acquainted with other iconic titles Nintendo fans now know and love: Double Dragon, Excitebike, Kid Icarus, Legend of Zelda, Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Bubble Bobble, Ghosts n’ Goblins and more. Often times these games would become meaningful experiences for me, because they supplied a way to overcome adversity and engage in adventuring during a rather mundane existence. And they were also, well, fun. My favorite was the aforementioned Mega Man franchise, which I could only “beat” 2 through 6 of thanks to the improved motor skills of my teenage years. But my interest in Nintendo waned after sophomore year of high school.
Recently, a new guy moved in with his NES in tow. After having essentially forgot about Nintendo I experienced a fun but short-lived 8-bit renaissance in the living room. Best of all, Mega Man 3 was in his collection.
Kipp’s machine, like most of its brethren probably, has slightly yellowed over the years. It is a two-toned gray with a black stripe and red accents, with a boxy, rectangular shape. Two buttons on the left-hand side—“POWER” to turn on the console, and “RESET” to take players back to the game’s title screen. In the back corners are various jacks: audio and video as well as an RF switch, which permit you to hook the system up to your TV. The technical stats of the device are as follows: CPU: 8-bit/RAM 2KB/Colors: 52 (nesworld.com)
A door on the front opens up to accommodate game cartridges, which you can never expect to play on the first insertion.
Legions of young players since the 1980s assumed that dust or something must have gotten onto the part of the cartridge that the NES reads. I was one of them.
This misperception led to a spate of puckering up and blowing out an invisible build-up from the bottom of the games. This long-standing myth is dispelled in one article I found: Blowing doesn’t fix anything; the real issue is with the “cartridge connector” inside the NES that gets stretched from overuse (gamespy.com 8).
Other rituals performed to get games to work included repeatedly slapping the cartridge up and down while in the Nintendo, shifting it from side to side, and maniacally tapping the RESET button until something appeared on the screen. No matter what you did, your actions walked the line between having finesse and having dumb luck.
The controllers, as previously mentioned, could come unplugged. They matched the console in terms of color and design, and featured a cross-shaped “d-pad,” a SELECT and START button (to pause), and A and B buttons (typically to jump and shoot). Different controller shapes, including one that featured a joystick, became available later on.
With these very controllers in the hands of the nation’s youth, the NES and its content began to captivate to the chagrin of some societal guardians. What were teachers, parents, and experts saying about the phenomenon? Had Nintendo supplanted the typical activities of the American kid?
INTERPRETATIONS OF NINTENDO IN THE NEWS
The Nintendo was released in the United States during the Christmas season of 1986. It soon became wildly popular and by 1989 found its way into an estimated 20% of American homes (McGill). Support ultimately declined by 1991, however, at the onset of the Super Nintendo. Using this timeline, I searched Lexis-Nexis for New York Times articles on Nintendo from 1986 to the end of 1988.
Of the few articles devoted to the system, nearly all were written during the holiday season. There is a strong associational bond of the Nintendo to Christmas, which is probably due to the fact that it is an expensive toy and sales are “clustered” around December (Gailey 81). What’s interesting is that at the same time journalists related discontent over what the NES was doing to the youth, they also offered a celebration of retail sales and positive outlooks over the future of commerce. It was a curious wedding between two right-leaning phenomena—business and morals—that found themselves at odds with each other.
Two articles invoked the term “zap” while writing about Nintendo, and most articles described the NES stimulating a “teen-ager craze” (Malcolm), a “mania” (McGill), and a “cultural phenomenon” (McGill). One opinion piece went so far as to call it a “permanent addiction” and the “opiate of the late-80’s preadolescent” (Craig). This perturbed writer eventually suggested some upsides to the system, but only after lamenting the “hour upon hour” his son spent playing video games in the basement (Craig). The rest of the content provided on the NES posed as subtle advertising, with journalists reporting on the price of the system, its appeal, and its potential to make video games “a steady business” (Pollack). Also noted was the Nintendo’s status of the best-selling toy of Christmas 1987 (McGill). Readers also learned that the games were the top sellers at an Ames department store in Connecticut (Barmash).
But as I mentioned before, something more was going on than cheerleading conducted in the name of retail. Moralists were indeed worried about the impact of the NES on adolescents. One site stated that parents worried that video games were leading to “a nation of fat and lazy… addicts” (gamespy.com 9) By 1987, according to the same site, “‘experts’ started popping up on talk shows talking about video game addiction” and ultimately alluding to the idea that video games were the “cause of society’s ills” (14). Indeed, “new media often stir up fears of moral decline,” and the video game medium was no exception (Baym 41). With anecdotal evidence aside, parents and teachers could really only rely on research provided by said experts and academics; so what did primary resource documents say from the era?
MORAL PANIC AND RESEARCH ON NINTENDO
While concern over the “decline in youth” appeared in the newspaper and on TV, some academic research of the time reported potential, albeit rare, health effects of video games. One journal article from 1990 averred that the “high-tech, fast-paced culture” Nintendo was endemic of could cause such effects (Crigger). As evidence, it stated that a Boston physician treated a thirteen-year-old girl who suffered an epileptic seizure after playing Super Mario Bros. for three hours. In more specific terms, it went on to say that the “shifting pattern of the video-game image [was] more likely to have triggered the photoconvulsive response” (Crigger). Though it did admit that seizures were uncommon, the author warned players of an additional peril not found on the screen during gameplay. Severe pain of the “extensor tendon of the right thumb”–dubbed “Nintendinitis”–is another malady to watch for. One woman in the article was unfortunate enough to fall victim to it after 5 hours of repeated button pushing. Synonyms from other sources include “Space Invader’s wrist” (Schroeder) and “Nintendo thumb” (gamespy.com 14).
Another health-related article was featured in a 1993 issue of Youth Studies Australia. Although next generation consoles had torpedoed the original Nintendo’s standing by that year, it still fits in with the ongoing tradition of fearing new media forms. The author reported cases of “photosensitive epilepsy” in England and Australia, where kids were taken to hospitals due to “epileptic fits brought on by playing video games” (Health). However, it provides the caveat that only those prone to epilepsy are really at risk.
But with physical health risks aside, what else about Nintendo negatively influences impressionable kids? What sorts of lessons about the world are they adopting through gameplay?
Research in this area is inconclusive at best. One 1996 article from the Journal of Popular Culture says as much, though admits some other troubling factors. The author spoke disparagingly of the violence exhibited in video games, although this appeared to be less of an issue with Nintendo as it was with the burgeoning Sega systems that featured the controversial Mortal Kombat and Night Trap games. The author also admits that “violence [is] the primary problem-solving option [and] the only way to get points” in a typical game (Schroeder). This rings true for many NES games, though they are certainly not as graphic or visceral as the jarring recreations of gore on Sega’s fighting games. One site even claimed that NES games just weren’t “realistic” enough to offend (gamespy.com 14). In any event, any research hoping to discover links to video games and aggressive behavior was “contradictory” (Schroeder).
A 1993 article from the same journal concluded with somewhat similar results. The recurring theme seems to be that while video games operate with some questionable content, “children are not empty receptacles” (Gailey 93). Avid players can think for themselves, and, in many cases, “children did not seem to play the games to the exclusion of other activities.” But this is not to dismiss the notion that problematic values and messages are nonetheless expressed through the video game medium. Gailey noted that players experience a “worldview presented by a sector of the corporate structure” that is both “paranoid” and “fraught with danger” (89). She goes on to say that “anything new is potentially dangerous… [and that] the new must be avoided or killed” (91). But the worry over whether children are inculcated with these unfavorable values is misplaced; Gailey says that there is little or no evidence for video games causing aggressive behavior. However, one fascinating yet depressing study done on video game behavior produced a significant result. Kids who played more aggressive games “tended to give less to a schoolroom canister labeled ‘For Poor Children’ than those who did not, perhaps indicating a lower level of compassion” (91).
I can only give an anecdotal response and say that though my brother and I played an onslaught of aggressive games as kids, we’ve grown into compassionate pacifists in our adult lives. So perhaps all or most of the allegations brought on by the Nintendo moral panic were ill-founded.
CONCLUSION: A LASTING NOSTALGIA
My roommate Kipp and I have both expressed our disinterest in the vast, encompassing, story-laden and graphics-heavy offerings of contemporary video games. The odysseys unfolding on Xbox 360s and Playstation 3s simply take to much time, and we don’t feel the need to be so engrossed. At the same time, he and I feel nostalgic for the wholesomeness of the original Nintendo. At least for me, playing NES games now is mostly enjoyable due to the memory of the Philadelphia dragon—five kids just trying to overcome the beast, switching the controller around in the silver glow.
And there is some evidence for this nostalgic emotion. It’s not just us. Michael Newman wrote in a recent blog that part of the appeal of the Nintendo Wii is that it “exploits” this very feeling. “Nostalgia,” he continues, “is potent because it promises to return to us the lost time we yearn to recapture.” Comments posted below the youtube.com offerings of old NES game play also suggest as much. There is something to the original Nintendo, something powerful, but whether the medium conditioned us to feel or think a certain problematic (and aggressive) way is unlikely.
-Barmash, Isadore. “Retailers Optimistic at Season’s Start,” New York Times 4 Dec. 1988:
-Baym, Nancy K. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010, 22-49.
-Crigger, Bette-Jane. “Hazardous to Your Health,” Hastings Center Report, Sept/Oct. 1990, Vol. 20, 5, 3.
-Gailey, Christine Ward. “Mediated Messages: Gender, Class, and Cosmos in Home
Video Games,” Journal of Popular Culture, 27.1 (1993): 81-97.
-Health,” Youth Studies Australia, Autumn 1993, Vol. 12, issue 1, 11.
-Malcolm, Andrew H. “Zap the Chestnuts; Tune in a Yule Log,” New York Times 21 Dec.
-McGill, Douglas C. “Nintendo Scores Big,” New York Times 4 Dec. 1988: 1.
-Pollack, Andrew. “Video Games, Once Zapped, In Comeback,” New York Times 27 Sept.
-Purcell, A. Craig. “LONG ISLAND OPINION; Video Game Mania: Passing Phase or
Permanent Addiction?” New York Times 11 Dec. 1988: 38.
-NES World, “The Nintendo Entertainment System,” nesworld.com, 19 Aug. 2005. Web,
30 Sept. 2010,
-Newman, Michael Z. “New Super Mario Brothers Wii and Video Game Nostalgia,”
Antenna, 20 Feb. 2010. Web, 1 Oct. 2010,
-Schroeder, Randy, “Playspace Invaders: Huizinga, Baudrillard and Video Game
Violence,” Journal of Popular Culture 30.3 (1996): 143-153.
-Turner, Benjamin and Christian Nutt, “Nintendo Famicom: 20 Years of Fun!”
Gamespy.com, Web, 30 Sept. 2010
Famicom: Gamespy.com, http://archive.gamespy.com/articles/july03/famicom/index.shtml
All others taken by Dane Haman