famicom party

7. Why Would Anyone Do This?

We've spent six chapters together talking about how to get an over-30-year-old game system to display a static, green background. (Thank you, by the way, for sticking with me this long!) This is, to be fair, an incredible amount of work for such an unimpressive result. At this point, you may be wondering why anyone would bother going through so much work. Before we move on, I'd like to take the opportunity to remind you of why it's worth investing the time to develop for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

It's a Classic

First, the NES is an absolute classic. In both the US and Japan, it dominated the home video game market for most of the 1980's. In the aftermath of the 1983 "Atari crash", it single-handedly revitalized the US home video game market. An entire generation of gamers have fond memories of the system, and even young people with no prior experience with the system recognize its historical importance.

"I can't imagine a world without home video games. That's like saying TV wouldn't work, or a movie wouldn't work. … It's a classic. Like a classic vinyl record. This [NES] is a classic vinyl video game."

Ethan James (age 19), "Teens React to Nintendo (NES)"

It's Good for Individuals and Small Teams

Most commercial NES games were made by small teams. Consider Donkey Kong, the game that the NES was designed to play:

Staff roll for Donkey Kong (Famicom, 1983)
Role Name
Programmer Toshihiko Nakago
Course Designer Kenta Usui
Original Game Designer Shigeru Miyamoto
Music & Sound Effects Yukio Taneoka
Producer Masayuki Uemura

The entire Famicom game was made by a team of five people, only one of which was a "Programmer". Many of the best games for the NES were made by similarly small teams, like Super Mario Bros.:

Staff roll for Super Mario Bros. (Famicom/NES, 1985)
Role Name
Producer/Director/Designer Shigeru Miyamoto
Assitant Director/Designer Takashi Tezuka
Sound & Music Koji Kondo
Programmer Toshihiko Nakago
Programmer Kazuaki Morita

Super Mario Bros. is quite likely the most iconic NES game of all time, and it, like Donkey Kong, was produced by a team of five people, two of whom were programmers.

It's Powerful Enough to Be Interesting

Compared to its predecessor in the home video game market, the Atari 2600, the NES offers a much greater range of expression to the developer. The Atari 2600 was designed to play a game called Combat:

Combat features no music, only sound effects, and a limited set of graphics to convey the "playfield" where the action takes place. The 2600 gave developers access to one background layer, two "sprite" objects (in this case, the tanks), and two "ball" objects (the bullets fired by the tanks). Any other graphics had to come from the player's own imagination.

Donkey Kong, the game the NES was designed to play, is a far different experience:

There is simple, repetitive music in addition to the sound effects of Mario walking and jumping over barrels. Multiple moving objects are on screen at one time (barrels, the flaming oil drum, the animated Donkey Kong at the top of the screen). Even in their use of text, the two games differ greatly. Combat displays only a single large score number for each player at the top; Donkey Kong shows the player's current score (using six digits), the current high score, the number of lives the player has remaining, and how many "bonus" points the player is able to earn by completing the stage.

In total, these changes allow the NES to display much more information on screen at one time, giving developers the freedom to create far more detailed and nuanced games than what was possible on the Atari 2600.

It's Simple Enough to Be Approachable

While the NES was a major step up from the capabilities of the Atari 2600, it pales in comparison to its own successor, the Super Famicom / Super NES. Here is a brief list of differences between the two consoles:

Hardware capabilities of the NES and Super NES
NES SNES
CPU 8-bit MOS 6502 derivative, 1.79 MHz 16-bit MOS 65c816 derivative, 3.58 MHz
Addressable memory 64KB 16MB
RAM 2KB 128KB
Graphics resolution 256x240 up to 512x478
Available colors 64 32,768
Background layers 1, up to 512x512 4, each up to 1024x1024
Audio output 5 fixed channels 8 fully-programmable channels
Largest released game 1MB 6MB

All of this additional power comes at a cost. The Super NES is much more difficult to program compared to the more limited NES. Having more space to store graphical assets means that designers are expected to produce far more output. The amazing audio processor on the Super NES requires a composer who is well-versed in its intricacies, since developers have to provide it with sound samples rather than using a built-in set of instruments. Super NES development is much less feasible as a solo developer or small team. Just compare the staff rolls of the NES games above to the team that created Super Mario World, the game the Super NES was designed to play:

Staff roll for Super Mario World (Super Famicom/SNES, 1990)
Role Name
Producer Shigeru Miyamoto
Director Takashi Tezuka
Sound Composer Koji Kondo
Map Director Hideki Konno
Area Director Katsuya Eguchi
Programming Director Toshihiko Nakago
Mario/System Programmer Toshio Iwawaki
Object Programmer Kazuaki Morita
Background Programmer Shigehiro Kasamatsu
Background Programmer Tatsunori Takakura
Map Programmer Tatsuo Nishiyama
Area Data Input Yoshihiro Nomoto
Area Data Input Eiji Noto
Area Data Input Satoru Takahata
Character Graphic Design Shigefumi Hino

People Still Make NES Games Today

Nintendo ceased production of the NES in 1995, ten years after it was first released in the US. The last officially-licensed NES game released in North America was 1994's Wario's Woods. In the years that followed, as emulation (and therefore understanding) of the NES increased in quality, many independently-produced games were released for the system, often created by solo developers or very small teams. Here are just a few "homebrew" NES games that show what the system is capable of.

Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril, Sivak Games, 2010

Produced by a solo developer, Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril helped popularize the idea of homebrew NES development.

Kira Kira Star Night DX, RIKI, 2013

A Famicom exclusive, Kira Kira Star Night DX is essentially a great chiptune album with a beautiful (if simple) game attached. Its initial cartridge print run sold out in a single day.

Twin Dragons, Broke Studio, 2018

Twin Dragons was a Kickstarter project by French developers Broke Studio. It raised over €30,000, easily meeting its campaign funding goals.

Lizard, Brad Smith, 2018

Lizard is a new NES game released both on a physical NES cartridge and digitally over Steam (wrapped in an NES emulator).

It Has a Vibrant Community

Thankfully, the developers who continue to create new NES games to this day are not isolated hermits. They are part of a broad community of hobbyists and NES players who continue to expand our knowledge of how the NES operates and how best to create games for it. The community has put together enormous amounts of reference documentation at the NESDev Wiki, and the NESDev Forums are a great place to get help or to see some of the latest techniques homebrew developers are using.

...Continue?

If, over the last few chapters, you were a bit frightened about what you were getting into, I hope that this chapter has re-invigorated you. The NES is a strong platform for development that sees new releases and new insight frequently, and I can't wait to continue introducing you to how it works. Let's keep going!