Deconstructing the NES

Like a lot of kids of my generation, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was the first video game system that I owned. My friends and I played its games a lot: not just the three Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, and Final Fantasy but also the NES’ weirder and more obscure cartridges. As a budding history buff, I owned Silent Service (the only Second World War submarine simulator ever produced for an 8-bit system) and Desert Commander (which put you in command of an abstract version of the Second World War campaign in the North African desert). The genre seemed limitless, and where there wasn’t yet a game we took to the playground to create our own pen-and-paper or imaginary variations.

We knew the NES was incredible, but I doubt that any of us – except perhaps a friend whose parents were collectors of antique computer and game systems – realized what set the Nintendo system apart from its predecessors. Luckily, last year’s I Am Error in MIT Press’ “Platform Studies” series explains it in language that those who are only modestly computer literate can understand. I Am Error, whose title comes from a in-joke in the original Legend of Zelda, describes the NES’s origins in Japan as the Nintendo Family Computer (or Famicom), the qualities in inherited from its arcade predecessors (like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong), and how its most iconic games were designed.

There’s a lot of technical information here, and while I found most of the explanations fascinating I admit that I skimmed the chapter on the NES’s audio processing unit and the creation of “chiptunes.” You’ll want to have played the original Super Mario Brothers and at least dabbled with the games that Nathan Altice discusses for the book to make sense. Also, this is academic game studies so a tolerance for off-hand references to French critical theorists is somewhat necessary. Still, if you belong to any of the generations whose paths crossed with the original NES (or, I suppose, if you are a fanatic follower of games before or since), I Am Error is bound to create both give you a warm nostalgic glow and regular exclamations of “I never knew that!”

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