NES cartridges were a departure from the standard form factor at the time. They are thinner, but bigger overall. The first time I opened up an NES cartridge, I was surprised at the small size of the actual electronics, and large amount of empty space. Why is the cartridge so big?
Why are NES cartridges so big, when the actual contents are so small? There are a variety of factors, but it boils down to design and perception. Nintendo wanted to reshape how people looked at video games. To understand this, you have to consider the world of video games in the mid 1980s.
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When Nintendo was readying the NES for the U.S. market, they were entering a world where the idea of “home video games” was poison. The Atari 2600 had dominated and defined the US market for home video game consoles, and had flamed out spectacularly only shortly before, in 1983. This was largely due to a flood of low-quality games produced by 3rd party creators. Nintendo’s design choices for both the NES console itself, as well as the cartridges came out of wanting to create new associations for buyers, so that the dark cloud over the Atari catastrophe didn’t carry over to their new product, and doom it before it even got going.
Nintendo Had to Differentiate From Atari
You have to understand that in the mid-80s, EVERYONE was familiar with Atari. The very concept of a home video game (as opposed to going to the arcade), was pretty much owned by the Atari 2600. When the public soured on the 2600, the whole industry went down the tubes with them. Many thought Nintendo were foolishly beating a dead horse, and wasting millions of dollars trying to introduce a console into a market that was not coming back.
So foremost on Nintendo’s collective mind was to make it clear that they were different. Instead of a “video game console,” they insisted they were selling an “entertainment system.” Looking back, it feels like splitting hairs over words, but they had to make sure people didn’t place them in what many considered an extinct category. So Nintendo decided to create a unit that felt more like a VCR, which was quite popular at the time. They designed the unit to be boxier, and most famously, it used a front-loading system for inserting game cartridges, much like VCRs did with tapes.
So then, as part of making it both different, and more VCR-like, they created a large, very distinct cartridge design. The NES cartridge housing also had a much more futuristic, sophisticated look to it than the relatively plain black box that Atari carts had.
Dress the NES For Success
Before you write this off as slippery marketing sleight-of-hand, consider that the NES provided a demonstrably better gaming ecosystem than the troubled Atari did, and so they were trying to make sure people didn’t unconsciously dismiss it before giving it a chance - just because they thought it was more of the same. They decided to dress it up very differently in order to make sure it stood out as distinct, and people judged it on its own merits.
An aside: This story of Nintendo wading into what many considered sure death is covered beautifully in a book I recently read - Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games. It’s a rollicking ride that details the wild ups and downs, and behind-the-scenes drama in the early years of an industry that is now bigger than Hollywood. It’s fun read, with many surprising anecdotes and insights from the actual people who were involved.
To drive home the fact that this was a conscious design choice for the U.S. market, take a look at the console and cartridge for the Japanese version of the NES - known as the “Famicom” (for “Family Computer”). The Famicom console looks COMPLETELY different from the NES, and the cartridges are much smaller - matching the size of the actual electronics much more closely.
Personal note: As someone who has been in the design world for 25 years, I think the Famicom looks hopelessly dated and locked into the early 80s, while the NES has a strangely timeless feel to it. Making it different for the U.S. made it not only popular, but iconic.
It’s also worth noting at this point that wanting to elevate the feel of the systems was also related to the shift toward home computers. This is especially relevant when you consider the Commodore VIC-20 and wildly successful Commodore 64 which had launched a few years prior, and whose advertising hinged on getting something more than just a video game system. Nintendo had to at least feel like it was better than the old-school approach that Commodore was aggressively replacing. In addition to styling, Nintendo attempted to prove their elevated status as an “entertainment system” through bringing other items into the mix: the much-beloved Zapper (light gun), and largely forgotten robot called “R.O.B.” (Robot Operating Buddy).
The Feel of Value & Substance
Besides just being distinct from the Atari, and trying to come off as more sophisticated, the NES also needed to establish a strong sense of value and substance. While today’s product design trends favor the svelte and delicate, prizing small sizes - the 80s were a completely different scenario. Consider that in the 80s, an NES cartridge retailed for $40-50 dollars. That about $100 (adjusted for inflation) at the time of this writing in 2019.
When you’re shelling out that kind of cash, what you buy had better feel pretty special, and valuable. At that time, being chunky and having some heft made the NES game cartridges seem special. Front-loading them into the “player,” or “deck” (console) accentuated this. This was no mere game system… you were engaged in more serious pursuits. Don’t laugh. The design of things, and basic factors like size, weight, material… even color have a storied history of making an important difference in how people perceive things.
Additionally, remember that the whole idea of ergonomics started getting real traction in the U.S. in the 80s, so the concept of human factors is part of the mix here as well. How do the size, shape, feel, and weight of the NES cart relate to the human hand? Proportion is important, and when grasping one of these things, it feels more substantial than people had been used to with the Atari (the real basis of comparison). While an Atari cart is about a handbreadth across, fitting within the hand, the NES cartridge’s size makes it extend well beyond the average grasp in two dimensions, while feeling intriguingly slender in its depth. It also has a little more weight, and (if you shake it slightly), feels quite solid, compared to the Atari cart which rattles slightly (due to the retracting protector that covers the electronic connectors).
The more substantial size and weight Nintendo went with suggested something very different than what people were used to in gaming. The flatter, wider feel was vaguely more like a videotape, or a CD case (which was sexy cool, and cutting edge at the time). The more substantial feel, combined with the more sophisticated design elements (various notches, the stand-out grip texture stripe, the direction arrow) all made it feel a step above. It felt like it dropped out of a science-fiction universe. It really felt like it was from the future, man!
As noted above, the NES cart’s specific design factors made the thing transcend its immediate needs for even being impressive and ergonomic, and they launched it into the place of being a design icon. With all of the game systems that have come and gone, NES cartridges are the design that has stuck in people’s minds these many years, and continue to inspire everything from DIY mods to clever aftermarket re-imaginings.
Technical Benefits of the Larger Cartridge
It’s worth noting here, that while a thing’s origin may be rooted in one set of considerations, those decisions can in turn create additional opportunities. All of that extra space in the NES game cartridge housing didn’t end up going to waste. As time went on, and NES games become more sophisticated, the electronics did eventually fill up that space. Between adding batteries (for saved games) extra chips, and even performance-enhancing processor chips to take over and extend what the NES was capable of, game creators were able to expand NES possibilities by hot-rodding it with fancy extras.
This Reddit comment unpacks this aspect a bit more.
Another important bit of history: In the early boom of NES sales, game board (the electronics in the cartridge) manufacturing fell behind the market demand, so in order to get games in people’s hands, Nintendo took Famicom game boards and put them, along with 60-72-pin adapters into NES cartridge housings. This saved their skin, and means one of your NES cartridges might even have an adapter that will let you play Japanese Famicom games in your NES!
Head of R&D on the NES Project
Masayuki Uemura was head of Nintendo’s research & development group during the NES project, and it was him and his team that made these brilliant decisions which have us discussing their work more than 30 years after the fact. When we consider that they weren’t just designing a game system, but ingeniously reviving the nearly dead industry of home video game consoles, what they accomplished is astounding. It took a lot of guts, strategic thinking, and creative solutions to pull this off. Importantly, their success wasn’t just to sell a few consoles, but they actually outsold the formerly dominant Atari 2600 2-to-1 worldwide. Clearly, they were doing something right.