How we might have had an Atari Entertainment System instead of Nintendo…Happy Birthday, NES

NESOctober 18, a date that will live in infamy. In the video game world, that is.  For, that is the day that Nintendo brought forth the Nintendo Entertainment System on the shores of the United States.  Two years prior, however, if the stars had aligned differently, it might have been called the Atari Entertainment System and we would have the Atari branded Wii instead of Nintendo’s Wii.  See, Nintendo wanted to break into the North American video game market with it’s Famicom console.  In 1983, they had reached a deal with Atari to market the Famicom in the United States.  By that point, Atari was in trouble and needed to replace its aging lineup of consoles. It had the 7800 in the works, but needed something better. So, they were amenable to the Nintendo deal and were set to sign the final contracts during the summer 1983 Consumer Electronics Show.

As the story goes, however, Atari officials were strolling around the show floor and saw a demonstration of Donkey Kong running on the Coleco Adam computer. Furious about what they saw, Atari refused to sign the deal.  However, Nintendo had the matter cleared up in short time, but, by then, Atari was broke and could not follow through with the deal.  Atari was sold by Warner Communications to Jack Tramiel who promptly shut down the console business, leaving a warehouse of ready to market Atari 7800 consoles, accessories and games to sit and collect dust for nearly two more years.

Nintendo decided to go it alone and, after redesigning the console to better fit the US market, tested sales in a few key markets. Not only did they sell well, they sold out.  Nintendo decided to nationwide with the console in 1985 and the rest is history. NES went on to sell millions of consoles and tens of millions of games.  The home video game market was back from the brink of oblivion.

By that point, Atari was doing well in home computers but was dead in the home console market.  Seeking to expand again, Tramiel decided to do something with the warehouses of 7800 consoles. So, Atari released the console and set out to introduce other home consoles. The venerable 2600 was redesigned and re-released. Several keyboard less versions of the 400 and 800 computers were released as game consoles and, in 1992, the Jaguar, Atari’s last console, was announced and releases afterwards.  In 1995, Atari finally died as a standalone company. The name lives on today, but is in something like the sixth incarnation of the company. It still retains the intellectual property, it’s most valuable asset, from the early days.  In fact, they have released four versions of the first three consoles in plug and play versions.

Nintendo fared much better. After the NES, came the Super NES, the Nintendo 64, the GameCube and the Wii.  GameCube was the least successful of all the consoles but was, perhaps, the one with the best games. The SNES and the 64 introduced many of the better franchise games, like Super Mario Kart and the Super Mario games.  They also had a line of very successful handheld consoles like the GameBoy, GameBoy Color and the DS line.

Perhaps Nintendo’s biggest strength is its ability to think outside the box.  When Wii was announced, it was panned, universally, by the press because of its perceived hardware weakness. But, like they say, it’s the gameplay stupid and the motion controllers worked and worked well. Most of the games were fun, even if the motion control was just a gimmick.  Wii sold in record numbers, beating both Microsoft’s XBOX 360 and the over engineered and over priced PS3.

Gamers are fickle, however, and, after four years, the Wii finally showed its age and sales have fallen dramatically. Finally, the gaming press was right: XBOX and PS3 would outsell Wii. Well, that’s not entirely true. They have outsold it on a monthly basis, but have a ways to go before completely outselling the life sales of the console.  It’s replacement is due out in November of 2012, so we will see if Nintendo can continue generating the hot consoles.

To think that we damn near had an Atari powerhouse and why we don’t is a bit sad.  If Atari had been able to fulfill its end of the agreement, the video game world could be quite different today. We, likely, would not have a Microsoft branded console at all. Or, had Sony been able to market its Playstation attachment to Atari instead of Nintendo (who shitcanned it for a similar device from Philips, which never released here in the US) we may not have had a PS2 and, thus, the AtariCube may have taken the world by storm.  If only.

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