Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

"Konami was my first choice; the other option was Nintendo," reveals Masaaki Kukino, whose illustrious arcade career would create Surprise Attack, Asterix, and Silent Scope. He then explained why he did not want to join Nintendo, "I actually visited Nintendo, which had just launched the first generation of Famicom. So the company was not putting much emphasis on the Famicom or the video game business at all. I don't know whether I should say this but... I felt my job might be designing hanafuda cards, which did not look interesting. I thought, well, this is what I'll have to do if I join. All day long, all year long. On the other hand, Konami looked much more exciting. But after I joined Konami, Nintendo's performance skyrocketed with the success of the Famicom! So I regretted that a little bit!"

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Nintendo's Famicom – which would later metamorphose into the Nintendo Entertainment System – we're going to see a lot of articles and video essays talking about how amazing the console is, how it redefined the gaming landscape, and how incredible its software library is. None of these statements are incorrect, but it's important to contextualise them by looking at the difficulties the Famicom and Nintendo faced in those early years. History could have played out very differently. Kukino's statement above, and others, reveal that the Famicom was an unknown entity; its success was not guaranteed, and even Nintendo was unsure of its potential.

The Famicom launched on 15th July, 1983 into an already well-established video game market, consisting of home computers and arcade games. Home systems were a little more nebulous (fun fact: Sega's SG-1000 console launched on the exact same day). The Famicom started with just a paltry three games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. In fact, for the entirety of 1983, only nine games came out! There was also a hardware defect that would see Nintendo initiate a complete product recall the following year – not the most auspicious of starts. Nintendo, as we know, had been involved with arcade games for several years by this point, but as Kukino's statement reveals, they were still seen as a toy maker rather than the video game behemoth we know today.

Tomonori Otsuka, a programmer on the original Metal Gear for the MSX2 home computer, offers further insight into how companies such as Konami regarded Nintendo's new prospect. "Konami had development teams for several platforms at that time," explains Otsuka, "Such as coin-op, Famicom, the MSX range. Famicom was this brand new platform, and it was not deemed successful yet. MSX initially had a bigger market than Famicom. By the time Metal Gear was started in 1987, the MSX team had already released many titles. We couldn't work on the Famicom if we were in the MSX division."

Hudson was the first company besides Nintendo to develop games for the Famicom. It would go on to become a smash hit in Japan, but at the time, personal computer games were still dominant

This dichotomy between computers such as the MSX1/2 range and the Famicom is important, since while the Famicom would go on to dominate the market, computers were initially seen as the leading platforms for home use. While Nintendo today would never make a statement on this, you can infer the company's belief at the time through the words of those it worked with. Takashi Takebe was the seventh employee at Hudson Soft and saw Hudson's meteoric rise from small-time computer developer to co-creator of the PC Engine. His recollections of partnering with Nintendo – and even creating computer versions of Mario – are a priceless window into the era.

"The relationship between Hudson and Nintendo began with the development of Family BASIC," explains Takebe, describing the project that would see Nintendo try to angle its new console also as some sort of home computer. Released in June 1984, it came with a large keyboard and allowed users to create simple programs. "That was before the Famicom boom began," adds Takebe, "before all the third parties started signing up. Hudson was the first company besides Nintendo to develop games for the Famicom. It would go on to become a smash hit in Japan, but at the time, personal computer games were still dominant. Due to the relationship the companies forged in the early days of the Famicom, Hudson was able to acquire the licenses to the Golf, Excitebike, and Ice Climber games that Nintendo had released, and port them to computers. Mario was part of this deal as well. For 1985's Super Mario Bros. Special on PC-88, I was involved with the planning and management. When Nintendo was licensing Super Mario Bros., PC games were still selling well."

While developing games for computers was seen as a safe bet – hence Nintendo's intellectual property appearing on NEC hardware – making games for consoles was still an unknown. Takebe goes on to describe a Nintendo perhaps somewhat naïve in its initial business dealings. "While making these PC games, Hudson released Lode Runner and Nuts & Milk on the Famicom. This was risky, unknown territory for the company because manufacturing these cartridges required significant amounts of money. We wondered how much we would be able to distribute and sell. Meanwhile, from Nintendo's perspective, we were the first third party to negotiate a license to develop Famicom games. So Nintendo didn't really know what to do either! <laughs> At that time, Nintendo had only released four or five cartridge games, such as Donkey Kong and Popeye. The world of home gaming still belonged to computers. At Hudson, our thinking was that the Famicom was an interesting machine. So we made our first two titles, and they completely sold out. We thought we should have produced more copies!"

The timeline is important here because Super Mario Bros., one of the NES launch titles in America, only came out in September 1985 in Japan – more than two years after the system itself. Mario as a valuable mascot was not yet fully established. While Super Mario Bros. did not single-handedly create the "Famicom boom" mentioned earlier – there were many popular games – it makes for a nice road sign on the journey. The system had sold well towards the end of 1984, after the recall, and throughout 1985 – especially the second half – a lot of the big names started to emerge. Koichi Nakamura's Door Door port came out July; Masanobu Endou's Tower of Druaga port in August; Yuji Horii's Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken port in November. December saw Thexder and Bomberman released. The scales were tipping.

"The Famicom started selling very well," agrees Takebe, "and Nintendo then handled the business in a smart way. This was very profitable for Hudson too. Not many other third-party developers for the Famicom existed yet, so Nintendo and Hudson were responsible for most of the early Famicom games. A short time later, Nintendo released the original Super Mario Bros. Hudson was still making computer games at this point, and we wondered whether we could obtain a license. So we created original games of our own using the Mario character. The licensing was for the right to use the Mario character as well as Nintendo's earliest home games. Nintendo granted us the license to create home computer versions. But then Nintendo went on to create their gigantic empire, <laughs> so they became more protective of their assets, and stopped licensing them out."

Slowly, despite a weak opening software line-up, hardware defects, product recalls, uncertainty from third-party developers, and even within the company itself, the Famicom reached critical mass. It was not an overnight success, but a stoic march to market supremacy. An excellent example is shared by Tokihiro Naito, creator of the Hydlide series – the Famicom port, Hydlide Special, was released in March 1986.

Nintendo's Famicom would find international success as the Nintendo Entertainment System, released in North America in 1985 — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

As Naito describes: "By 1986, console games were outselling computer games significantly. For the first Hydlide, the Famicom version alone sold a million copies, whereas on the computer side, the combined sales of the first game for all the different computer platforms reached one million, while Hydlide 3 on computers didn't even reach a million. In Japan, when a successful music artist like Yumi Matsutoya sells a million copies, Toshiba EMI will give you a plaque to commemorate. It's like going platinum with a music album. We received one of those for Hydlide."

To put this statement into context, there were at least eight different computer versions of the original Hydlide: PC-6001, PC-88, Sharp X-1, Fujitsu FM-7, MZ-2000, MSX1, MSX2, and finally PC-98. It had taken time to gain that kind of momentum, but once going, there was no stopping the Famicom. The system would be redesigned and rebranded for launch in America towards the end of 1985, and the rest is history. Hudson would create a competitor with its PC Engine console (1987), and Sega would then enter the fray with its Mega Drive (1988). Meanwhile, Nintendo's little white-and-burgundy juggernaut would continue being manufactured until September 2003.

The key takeaway from all these statements, on reflection of the 40th anniversary, is that sometimes success comes from the unlikeliest of candidates. It happened with the Famicom, and it would happen a decade later with the PlayStation – another system no one quite expected to be as huge as it was. Even if the Famicom or NES is not a system you put a lot of time into, you have to appreciate the hurdles it overcame to become number one.

Happy birthday, little guy.

Interview segments for this article were taken from The Untold History Of Japanese Game Developers trilogy of books by John Szczepaniak. All three are available on Amazon.