CPU: Modified MOS 6502 running at 1.79MHz (NTSC) or 1.66MHz (PAL).
RAM: 2K on board with extra available on game cartridges.
Video: Custom Picture Processing Unit (PPU) made by Ricoh running at 5.37MHz (NTSC) or 5.32MHz (PAL).
Pallet of 48 colours and 4 greys, with up to 25 colours on one scanline.
64 sprites of either 8x8 or 8x16 pixels.
Standard screen resolution is 256x240.
Audio: 5 sound channels comprising of 2 variable volume pulse wave channels, 1 fixed volume triangle wave channel, 1 variable volume white noise channel and 1 differential pulse-code modulation channel.
£25 - £40. Clean examples with new 72 pin connectors command the best prices.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Nintendo was better known for its electronic toys, such as a light projector game called "Duck Hunt", with which you would shoot moving projected ducks from your walls with a light sensing gun.
Later came Nintendo's venture into Pong type TV games, in 1975 securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan, followed by their own Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15 systems, which were made in collaboration with Mitsubishi Electric.
Until the success of Shigeru Miyamoto's seminal Donkey Kong, Nintendo's only real attempt to get products into the homes of consumers, rather than to get consumers into the arcades, was the Game and Watch line of pocket sized LCD games.
After this though, it was decided that a system which was both technically superior, and cheaper than the competition, with a tightly controlled range of high quality games, should be produced to take advantage of the excitement that Nintendo's arcade success was generating.
Thus, in 1983 The Nintendo Family Computer, later known simply as the Famicom, was launched in Japan... only to be almost immediately recalled, due to a fault in the connection between the chipset and motherboard, which was causing reliability issues.
The re-released model featured not only a new chipset, but redesigned buttons on the controllers, switching from square ones, which were prone to sticking, to the round ones we are all familiar with.
Sales of the Famicom were phenomenal, but as often happens with wildly successful consumer goods, the Japanese market topped out, where everyone who was going to buy a Famicom had already bought one. The solution, if Nintendo was to continue to expand, was to look to overseas markets, and most notably, the USA.
This was no easy task though, as in the US, the console market was entirely dead. Saturation of low quality games (shovelware), resulted in the public simply refusing to buy any more games. Notable examples of this being ET and Pac Man for the Atari 2600.
So while the public was largely uninterested in console games, distributors were outright hostile, making it virtually impossible to sell anything that remotely resembled a games console.
Nintendo Of America's demonstration of the "Nintendo Advanced Video System" at the CES show in 1984 was a disaster, with potential distributors either completely ignoring the system, or just plain laughing at it.
President of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi was not to be put off though, as he was convinced that with the right strategy, the Famicom could break into the American market.
The Famicom was redesigned, giving it that grey slab look, to disguise its gaming purpose, and make it appear more as a piece of consumer electronics, able to fit in with VHS recorders and Hi-Fi systems. Along with this were added the R.O.B. robot and Zapper light gun, and it was ultimately marketed not as a gaming system, but as a toy.
To persuade stores to stock the now renamed Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Of America offered it on a sale or return basis, meaning that Nintendo themselves carried all of the risk, if the machine didn't sell.
Their gamble worked, to some degree, as while sales weren't fantastic, in the New York area where it was being trialled, it sold around 50,000 systems by the end of 1985. This was enough to convince stores that there may now be a market for video gaming.
By 1986 Nintendo went national, with a very strict licensing policy, which restricted publishers from releasing more than 5 games per year. It also tied developers into an exclusivity deal, meaning no game released on the NES was to be released on any other system for at least 5 years.
To enforce this policy, the NES was fitted with a lockout chip, (more of which later) which prevented any unlicensed game from running on the system.
This policy was successful in maintaining the quality of the games, and along with some very clever marketing, made the NES the "must have" toy among American children, and indeed, many adults too. It also had the effect of locking Sega out of the game, as the exclusivity clause in the licensing terms meant none of Nintendo's 3rd party developers could produce any games for the Master System.
Some developers were able to get around the 5 games per year rule by creating secondary companies to publish their games, while others found technical methods to either bypass or disable the lockout chip. Predictably, this led to plenty of court cases.
Towards the end of 1986, the NES began to gradually make its way into Europe and by mid '87 was being trickled into the UK via a distribution deal with Mattel.
This was really too little too late though. The Sega Master System already had a good footing in the console market, while computer gaming was effectively covered by the Sinclair Spectrum at the low end, and the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST at the high end.
Now while this clearly made things difficult for Nintendo, their own lack of interest in European and the UK is what really held the NES back in these markets. Nintendo was much more interested in the US and Japanese markets, and by the time they took over the business of promoting and selling the NES from Mattel, Sega was well into its stride with the Mega Drive.
This is not to say that the NES failed in the UK and Europe. It was in fact quite popular. What it did not do though, unlike in the US and Japan, was gain complete domination of the market.
While the NES couldn't really compete in shear numbers of systems sold, and was outgunned in technical ability, it did have a huge catalogue of very high quality games, and this was assisted by the fact that many European countries fell into the same regions covered by the lockout chip, so grey importing boomed.
Not a huge success then, but not a failure either.
A redesign to take care of the tendency of the 72pin connector to wear and corrode, coupled with price reductions, and a plentiful supply of cheap games in bargain bins, saw the NES selling in useful numbers well into it's old age.
Indeed, in Japan, while software for the system officially ceased production in 1994, the Famicom itself continued to be produced until 2003, and then only ceased due to the difficulty in sourcing the necessary components.
The choice of CPU for the Famicom/NES is at a glance, a curious one, being a modified MOS 6502.
This chip was designed in 1975, making it something of a dinosaur by the early 80s, having already been used in both the Atari 2600 and early Apple computers.
There was however method in Nintendo's madness.
Firstly, being old, the 6502 was dirt cheap... $30 each compared to nearly $180 for the then current technology of the Motorola 68000.
Secondly, modification by the Japanese electronics company Ricoh resulted in 22 extra memory registers to allow for sound generation, sprite based memory access, joystick control and a whole host of features that would prove useful for a games console. All this at the cost of removing the binary decimal mode... a feature that was entirely redundant in a games console of this era.
Basically then, Nintendo got a very capable CPU at a bargain price.
The 10NES Lockout Chip
The US and European NES, despite having somewhat more limited specs than the Japanese only Famicom, had one thing the Famicom didn't. The 10NES lockout chip.
This was installed for the purpose of preventing the grey importing of games across regions, to prevent piracy, and most controversially, to enforce Nintendo's strict licensing policies.
Security codes requiring critical timing during transfer were needed by the 10NES chip to allow software to run on the NES, and only licensed games, on cartridges manufactured by Nintendo themselves had this combination of codes and timing.
Not all developers bought into this aggressive policy of Nintendo's though, and several methods were found to bypass the lockout chip.
British company Rare famously reverse engineered the 10NES chip itself.
Other companies produced cartridges with a socket into which you plugged a 2nd licensed cart, thus providing the required codes for the 10NES chip, and allowing their unlicensed game to run.
Another trick used by some companies was to make their carts produce a brief voltage spike which effectively stunned the 10NES, without taking down the whole system. Clever stuff indeed.
The 72 Pin Connector
The horizontal orientation gave rise to a common fault with the pre-redesigned NES, namely the red blinking light when a game cart is inserted.
The gradual build up of dust within the connector, coupled with ambient water vapour, causes the connector to oxidise. This prevents an effective electrical connection to be formed when a cartridge is inserted, and hence prevents the game from loading correctly.
The most common solution found by NES users was to jiggle the carts around a bit while inserting, and maybe insert them at a slight angle, usually finding the sweet spot where the cart could make a good connection.
In the short term this can work adequately, though eventually, a better solution is required.
One possibility is the fitting of a brand new 72 pin connector, and indeed, many NES's which can be found on ebay have these fitted, especially as they can command a higher price due to increased reliability.
There is however a cheaper, and quite effective fix... one which I have tried myself and can say with some confidence does work.
The NES needs to be opened up, and the internal shielding removed, giving access to the 72 pin connector. This can be removed for easier access, or you could leave it in place if you prefer.
Next, simply take some very fine graded sandpaper, fold it over, so that it has a rough surface on both sides, insert it into the 72 pin connector, and basically give the whole of the inside of the connector a good scrub.
When you're done, you could give it a brush out with a dry paintbrush or similar, or better still, a blow with compressed air. Don't blow on it yourself. This will remove any dust or fine metal shavings created by the sanding, but will introduce moisture that could make the connections oxidise all over again.
Obviously, this method will need to be repeated from time to time, as using sandpaper will create fine scratches on the connectors that will eventually oxidise again... but it's a whole lot cheaper than buying a new connector.
Here's a video demonstration of this method by the popular YouTube retro gamer, lukemorse1. (Used with permission)
Nintendo NES Games - Gameplay Video Clips With Commentary