famicomugly
by tim rogers
07152003

 



The Nintendo Famicom is ugly.

Like, really, really ugly. In more and less ways than visually.

People always complain about how American videogame console redesigns are unwarranted and unfair. In the case of the Famicom's becoming the NES, when I first came across the original Famicom and breathed in its kitschy hideousness, I said: good show, Nintendo of America. I said: that's better. I said: thanks a lot.

The Nintendo Entertainment System is a long name. As many syllables as it carries, it also carries meaning. Though today if we were to append "Entertainment System" to something, gamers would probably roll their eyes the way they do whenever the "Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences" is mentioned, at the time, there was nothing else we could call that big hollow beige box manufactured by Nintendo.

It was a System for playing games, and it was Entertaining.

It's ironic to me, sometimes doubly so, that the Nintendo Famicom is called the Famicom. It's also wholly reasonable to me that that name was never applied outside Japan. "Famicom" is a Katakana name. Like "Pokémon" many years after it, "Famicom" is two English words cut into fractions and stuck together, with the illusion (to a Japanese consumer) of making a new English word.

Those two words are "Family" and "Computer." "Family Computer," this ugly little yellow and crimson walled-castle-on-the-moon-model is called. It's a Computer for the whole Family.

While I won't comment on how common it is for Japanese families to play games together (hint: it's not how you think), I will say that in Japan, maybe -- yeah, maybe -- the Famicom was something of a computer. It had a floppy disc drive over there, a disk drive that (I'm told) does not exist in a single working unit these days. Nintendo will, as Chris Kohler will no doubt tell you, fix that disk drive if you bring it to their Kyoto headquarters. It costs 1500 yen. That's not a bad deal, if you don't have an emulator, or something like that.

Ahem.

Still, does a floppy disk drive make something a computer? My Dell Inspiron 8000 doesn't have a floppy disk drive. It's still a "computer." The computers at the offices of such respectable publications as The New Yorker don't have floppy drives, either. You try and tell them they're not working with "real" computers, see how far that gets you in the big city.

Not very far at all.

So it is that the Famicom has, in the twenty years since its invention and initial mass manufacture, become less of a computer than it was in the beginning. It has not, however, become less ugly, neither in the sound of its name (listen to a Midwestern American put a twang on the "Fam" while he's shopping at an import game store) nor in its original design.

They say that fashion these days tends to revolve around navy blue, gray, khaki, and black because the generation that produces that fashion grew up watching color television programs starring frizzy big-haired women and men in red (or pink) leather and/or bellbottoms. It's precisely because of how much we, the people of the twenty-first century, are exposed to the (capitalized) Media, that we feel shame toward anything that isn't immediately "New." We, the twenty-four-year-olds of 2003, will sometimes sit with the naming screen in a Role-Playing Game staring at us for seventeen minutes before we make our decisions -- to keep my game-timer accurate, I've taken up the practice (since the original Breath of Fire) of eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes as I read the instruction manual, deciding then and there what to name each character. We've played enough RPGs with all our characters named dumb things -- or after certain body parts -- to feel stupid and shameful about having named them those things. We now, mature, want to name them things that we can feel safe with.

It's an offshoot of this maturity complex that makes some call the GameCube "ugly" just because its default color is purple. It's a separate complex embedded somewhere deep within this initial complex that causes some beer-drinkers to say they'd never buy the new Zelda because it looks like "a kids' game."

Yes: it's the same damned thing that allows a thirty-year-old "professional"-looking model to hold a sleek, silver little Gameboy Advance SP in one of those European advertisements, and not look like a total tool.

The Nintendo Famicom is far from the silver, sleek, smallness of a Gameboy Advance SP. It is a little, pyramidal structure that's vaguely the same yellow color as an American Super Nintendo Entertainment System left in the dust beneath a window facing east for twelve years. There are these . . . castle-wall-like crimson-colored structures jutting out the sides. From a distance, you might think it's rooting for Harvard. The plastic is notched and etched for no good reason, like some kind of failed object design Rieko Kodama made sure stayed on the Skies of Arcadia cutting-room floor.

While the Super Famicom did, years later, come through with what I believe is the most endearing system design of all time -- and one that didn't need to be altered for overseas release, an idea Nintendo of Europe apparently understood -- gamers in Japan had to sit and stare at this little, yellow, vaguely dirty-looking console for endless nights of Ghosts 'n' Goblins or what have you. Well, they were probably looking at the screen. And if they were playing Ghosts 'n' Goblins, they would probably die if they looked down at the system, which probably made them more tempted to look down.

This is not to say, however, that the Japanese consumers who picked the system up on July 15th, 1983 with fresh copies of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye didn't touch its plastic and weep tears of art-admiring joy. It's just to say that to a guy like me, who stepped into Shiki's ROM HOUSE and saw his first Famicom in October of 2001, the Famicom is a nasty little relic of the nasty little past.

So is Hirohiko Araki's comic series JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Many people, when asked, say they just can't look back on the old volumes of the series, which extends back to 1986, or even read it today, because it's so damned "stylized," and even "ugly." Some girl I knew once called it "CHOU-MINIKUI," which means "super-ugly" in one sense or "super-hard-to-look-at" in another sense. She wasn't talking in the other sense. And you know what? I didn't know her too much longer after that. Because I love JoJo. I love that hideous, busy-styled manga series like a big brother.

It's because of Araki's dedication to cramming as much wacky stuff into each panel that his style became "ugly" -- one might even say that it's because of his increasing tendency to cram more and more weird stuff into each panel that the story became as ridiculously, delightfully messy as it is today.

You can trace all this ugliness -- in comics and in videogame system designs -- back to one thing: that balls-out, wacked-out, freaked-out recklessness of the 1980s. It's observance of this recklessness that led people like those at Atari to take the safe route, and put nice faux-wood-paneling on their 2600 units, just so it would look more like something to match Dad's station wagon and Junior's realistic pellet gun.

It was shameful yet poppy attention to the weakness of this wacky generation that led Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts to sing Linda Linda" back in 1986: "I look like a sewer rat, and just want to be beautiful."

It was surrender to this wackiness that made the Famicom the nasty little lump of twenty-years-later-despicable plastic it was -- and it was that now-shameful, then-relentless let's-try-anything-new spirit of the age that made the Famicom succeed where all other systems, by comparison, had failed, just as The Blue Hearts' zany side carried them through the eighties while other music sucked. I mean, really, no matter how fondly U2 color your memories of the eighties, you've got to admit a lot of that music people made back then is just plain unlistenable today, just as many videogames of the eighties are like sad jokes no one laughs at today.

The Famicom didn't fail because its exuberance enchanted us from the start and continues to enchant us, whether in Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Super Mario. Those people who were not arcade-addicted enough to run out and grab an Atari were captivated by the Famicom's big, messy, warm heart, even after the release of the sleeker, bolder, darker, more-sophisticated Sega Master System. The Master System was made by a group of talented people -- we call them "Sega," for short -- who, while they understood what made a videogame, and what made a videogame good, or even playable, did not feel the spirit the way Nintendo did.

(Okay, and they didn't have as many exclusivity-things as Nintendo did, either -- don't ruin my literary device.)

In the end, it was the spirit embodied in the Famicom's ugly little self, a spirit I'll represent with the adjective "famicomugly" from now on, that carried its company catapulting into the future; though Nintendo may have lost its lead significantly, though they may now seem concerned only with winning "The Race for Second Place," the spirit that prompted them to let the Famicom look the way it did all the way until its major, sleeker redesign -- that's the sort of spirit that will never die. Now, in this age of safe, well-researched console designs -- the Xbox's giant green logo, it's said, did well in market surveys; Sony's upcoming PSX looks like something your uncle, the one who built his own indoor swimming pool, would gladly sit under his television -- as "videogamey" dies to make way for "people-friendly," and that's alright by me, I am confident that I will always own a Nintendo console. As long as the American branch, which brags about upcoming Nintendo games as being "Tougher" and "Edgier," doesn't start making all the decisions and/or redesigning all the hardware, there's always room for a Nintendo in my place of residence.

Just this February, there wasn't room for a Nintendo in my place of residence. There wasn't even room for a place of residence in my place of residence. That is to say, I was living in a train station in Tokyo. It was Shiki Station, right across the street from Shiki ROM HOUSE. When it was so deadly cold outside, I'd go hang out in the ROM HOUSE, and flip through videogames. I always came back to the Famicom section, where they had one of the nasty old units perpetually contained in semi-opaque, graying shrink-wrap. I patted the top of the system, and then flipped through the wall of multicolored cartridges.

They're so small -- about half the size of American NES cartridges -- and they come in all kinds of crazy colors. NES cartridges were all the same shade of gray -- unless you're talking about The Legend of Zelda (or a Color Dreams game. ~ed.). Owning a gold Zelda cartridge was one of my proudest pieces of pride back in the late 1980s, and I can't begin to understand exactly how and why. The NES's design -- with its flimsy little fold-over opening -- hides the cartridge inside its gray, rectangular belly. The Famicom's crimson walls and golden pyramid elevate and love the cartridge; no matter what the game, no matter what color its cartridge, that color is important, and right there in front of you, even as you play. Even though each Kunio-kun sports game looks remarkably like the sport it's supposed to look like while in play, each one has a different cartridge decal and a different cartridge color, just so you can tell each game apart in three different ways at all times, even if such famicomugly cross-identification is entirely unnecessary.

My shiny golden Zelda is shiny and golden only when I'm holding it outside the system. Sure, technically, it's golden inside the system, too. As Zen might have it though, does it really matter what color it is, if I can't see it?

It's a safe question to ask from a scientific standpoint, and a dangerous one to answer as a "hardcore" gamer: the answer is no. This me, the me who right now, today, on more or less the twentieth anniversary of Nintendo's nasty little Famicom system, eating a bag of Rold Gold pretzels in bed, thirsty maybe for some root beer, just a few half-hours' practice away from mastering "Mother Nature's Son" in an effort to be able to play the entire White Album on guitar -- I'm a person who has achieved a measure of fame, however tiny, by writing about videogames, and here I am, more or less week after week, coming to you, dear reader, and raising my golden Zelda cartridge above my head like it was the Ten Commandments, and saying "Behold: THIS!"

To cleanse myself of my home-entertainment related sins, I'm going to spend today sinking deep into my hobby with a certain new old friend and soon-to-be-married longtime NES-owner Doug Jones. Before the party gets started, before anyone arrives to drive me out of my room, I think I'll take some time to myself, to play some old Nintendo games. I'll play Mother 2 on my Super Famicom, and pretend that it's Mother, on Famicom.

Ahh, Famicom. I never owned one, and maybe I never will. You're ugly, and we wouldn't want you any other way. Unless you're one of those top-loading NESes, which I'll need if I ever want to play Tengen's Rolling Thunder again.

Either way, this is my conclusion: Famicom. Happy Birthday, you ugly son of a bitch.

Do I win that nifty new Gameboy Advance SP now?

--tim rogers looks like a sewer rat, and wants to be beautiful

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