The NES - Why did it Win?

How did Nintendo's First Console Grab & Keep 80% of the Late 80's Console Market?

Last week on AtariAge someone asked why Atari Corp released the XEGS when they already had the 7800. Well, that conversation naturally evolved into the same-old "why did Nintendo win" debate. Someone brought up a new idea: Nintendo's first party games attracted people to the system, that 3rd party titles had little effect on their success, & neither Atari nor Sega were able to offer anything to attract consumers in such high numbers. There's nothing wrong with the first part of that assesment; I agree that Nintendo's first party-games were part of the reason for their success, but I also believe the answer's more complex, & that we can't so easily discount the presence of 3rd party titles. As such, let's examine the original Nintendo's history, from the release of the Famicom to the late 80's, to see what Nintendo did to win.

We've already covered the NES' history in Japan & the U.S., & we've offered some possible reasons for its success. Today we're going to answer a few questions this brought up.

Why did 3rd party developers stay with Nintendo?

Nintendo had some pretty draconnian licensing restrictions. Why did developers put up with them? Why not develop games for other systems?

First, not all developers hopped on the NES bandwaggon; Electronic Arts balked at Nintemdo's terms; they stayed with computers till the Genesis was released. Tengen tried, & failed, to get a better licensing agreement, so they tried to figure out a way around the NES's lockout chip. Other companies, like Codemasters & Colored Dreams also tried to release games without a license from Nintendo.

So, why didn't more companies release games without a license? Well...first Nintendo had good lawyers, who tried to shut down anyone who produced games with out permission. Second, Nintendo was able to secure exclusivity deals with retailers. If you wanted anyone to carry your Nintendo compatible game, you needed to go through Nintendo.

Finally, Nintendo's early-mover advantage game them a much larger install base than Atari or Sega; developers were enticed by that install base to sign Nintendo's contracts, which locked them into a deal with Nintendo for two years. Even if that deal turned out badly, they were stuck. Unless they wanted to brave Nintendo's team of lawyers.

Why did retailers stay with Nintendo?

Retailers were enticed by Nintendo's high sales, & they didn't want to risk loosing those sales by carrying unlicensed merchandise.

Why did Nintendo's first party games outsell third party games on the NES?

Nintendo manufactured all officially-licensed NES cartridges. There was a worldwide chip shortage in the late 80's, & Nintendo had an incentive to give their games preference over 3rd party games.

Nintendo produced great games in the late 80's, but they weren't the only company producing high-quality games. Marble Madness, Paperboy, Adventure Island, Contra, Techmo Bowl, Mega Man, Duck Tales, Ninja Gaiden, QIX, Dizzy the Adventurer, & others were all developed for the NES by 3rd parties, & are generally reguarded as classics. Nintendo's first party games were important, not because they were better than third party games, but because they attracted attention before 3rd party games were avaliable, & because they helped differentiate the NES from earlier consoles, which focused on arcade-style games.

It's also important to not that Nintendo didn't invent the adventure-focused style of game which they popularized; such games already existed on the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, & home computers. The market was moving towards adventure games; if Atari, Sega, or someone else had released a system in 1985 they would've eventually had a large selection of NES-like adventure games too.

The NES' success came down to timing & prudent legal/buisness decisions. Their games were an important catalyst for their success, not the main reason for their success. Having 3rd party developers, however, didn't help them. Keeping those developers from working for other companies did.

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