It's hard to imagine a time when Nintendo was not a household name but in 1985 the company was widely unknown to western audiences. The Nintendo Famicom had released in Japan almost two years earlier and took the country by storm. Looking to expand their successes in other markets Nintendo was looking to partner with a company to develop a Famicom for the west.
Nintendo had initially teamed up with gaming-giant Atari in 1984 to help develop and market the Nintendo’s console. Atari was not convinced that Nintendo could succeed and used this agreement to stall Nintendo's 8-bit development in North America while secretrly developing their own "next-generation" 8-bit console, the 7800.
Nintendo, desperate to find distribution partners, took their prototype to the 1985 Consumer’s Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This prototype was called the Nintendo Advanced Video System or AVS.
You can assemble your own free paper Nintendo AVS model which can be found at the end of this post.
Nintendo marketed the AVS as an evolution in the gaming industry making reference to the law's of survival in the animal kingdom in their promotional materials. The AVS promised graphics that would appear three-dimensional, challenging gameplay and a system designed to fit in with existing hi-fi equipment. This system was no mere plaything - this was serious business.
While internally not much different from the Japanese Famicom or the NES that would eventually be released, the AVS featured many accessories meant to make it feel more like a home computer than a games console. The game crash of 1983 had killed consumer confidence in game consoles and western hardware developers were looking for ways to revive the industry. Home computers were a rapidly growing market in the mid-80's, so it was common for computer companies at the time to boast the additional benefits of educational and productivity titles as an incentives to purchase a computer over a game console.
The AVS was intended to be a completely wireless device. One of the common complaints of games consoles in the 80's was the mess of wires that invaded living room. The joysticks, light gun, data recorder and keyboards were all connected to the system via an infrared connection. The only wires involved would be one to power the system and one to connect to the television. The idea being, by creating a completely wireless setup, the AVS would be easier for parents to clean around.
While not naming any names, Nintendo slyly compares their competition’s graphics to primitive cave paintings. The marketing of the AVS relies heavily on the idea that games would appear more dimensional through the use of colour, perspective and shadow. While these claims may seem a little grandiose in 2019, it was hard to argue that the graphics this new machine were a cut above what had been previously seen on any home console.
The AVS light gun could be converted into a wand or pointing device similar to a Wii controller. This was the first time consumers were able to interact with their home televisions in this way. By converting from a gun to a wand, the controller’s functionality could be extended to a pointer, sword or wand-like device.
The idea of going beyond a passive gaming experience was key to Nintendo’s marketing strategies for the AVS. For the first time ever on a home console you would be able to build you own courses in Excitebike and save them to your data recorder to play another day. Nintendo had recently released Famicom BASIC (and keyboard) in Japan and planned to bring it to the AVS with the promise of teaching you step-by-step how to code your own BASIC games for the system.
The Famicom’s sound chip allowed for a wider range of audio than the competition at the time. By contrast to the AVS’s multi-channel audio, the new Atari 7800 system was still using the same tired sound chips Atari used in the 2600 back in 1977.
The Nintendo keyboard was playable without a connection the the AVS with its own built-in speaker and integrated sound chips. When connected to the AVS, the system could visualize the notes played and provide music lessons. The data recorder could be used to record and playback these sessions.
Nintendo had a clear lead over Sega’s aging SG series. The Sega Mark III which came out later 1985 did little to interrupt Nintendo’s early 8-bit console dominance in Japan. Nintendo promised to take everything that had made the Famicom a success in Japan and make it even better for the western release. Nintendo had gone a bit crazy with accessories for the Famicom so they already had developed a keyboard, data recorder and Famicom BASIC, all of which would be enhanced for the west.
When Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System later that same year, most of the next-geneation bells and whistles were simplified or removed from the AVS prototype to focus on Nintendo’s core strength, its games. Instead of becoming an early multi-media catch-all, Nintendo went in the complete opposite direction and adopted a model of quality and simplicity. Nintendo chose to ignore the buzz that consumers wanted home computers and decided to create a console experience people would want.
At the end of the day it is hard to argue the success the NES had in North America and many parts of the world (UK gamers, I know, I know..) but I have to wonder what the market might look like today if the AVS had come to out as first envisioned. The biggest difference between a home computer and a home console in 1985 was its marketing. By limiting the user experience to playing games on the NES, Nintendo was able to build partnerships with many excellent developers and focus on creating high-quality, exclusive titles. It was the NES’s simplicity of use and selection of games that ultimately won back old consumers and helped grow the industry we know today.
The AVS was stackable in order to save space in an entertainment system when not in use. A keyboard cover would sit on the top of the stack creating a clean appearance. Note the lack of external connections on the rear of the unit as all the connections would be made via RF. Both the keyboard and data recorder were battery powered.
While Nintendo BASIC did not appear in Nintendo’s promotional materials, I mocked-up a few additional support items to help further imagine what AVS carts might have looked like.
I think my paper models do a good job of connecting people with their personal nostalgia for computers in their past. I also feel that though the filter of paper, all of these fantastic machines becomes equally possible. Even though this machine only exists as a single prototype on display at Nintendo of America’s New York headquarters, you can now print out and exhibit your very own AVS.
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You can download the Nintendo AVS pattern here.