CLOCKING IN AT 536 pages, NES/Famicom: A Visual Compendium offers a wealth of retro goodness for die-hard gamers, nostalgia seekers, and pixel-art fans alike. In addition to its eye-popping visuals, the book includes features on major developers like Konami and Capcom, extensive box art, interviews with developers from both Japan and the west, and fan tributes both written and visual.
The respective Nintendo systems—the NES in the west, and the Family Computer, AKA Famicom, in Japan—had development cycles that frequently overlapped but sometimes differed. This meant that some titles were released for only one system, while others were released for both, but in dramatically different versions or with varying localizations. Accordingly, each game described in the book includes a stat bar with the release year, system, developer, and publisher to help navigate this overwhelming stable of games.
Though the book’s primary focus is on the games’ visual aspects, it includes an impressive number of interviews and testimonials from artists, programmers, and composers. The theme of working within each system’s extremely narrow technical limitations is repeated over and over—for example, Kazuko Shibuya, one of the designers of the original Final Fantasy, describes what it took to fit one last cutscene into an already full game:
We’d draw a single sprite, then repeat it over and over in a line… As a further space-saving measure, we made the foreground all black, depicting only the hill and the characters standing there. Even when I look at it today, I can still tell who is standing where. It turned out that working within such limited means was a good thing for me.
Other tactics included forcing flicker effects to prevent game slowdown during busy scenes, doubling the same enemy to cut down on processing space, and packing cartridges with extra chips to squeeze every last bit of processing power out of them.
Perhaps the most striking limitation, referenced by numerous programmers throughout the book, was that character sprites on the NES could consist of no more than three colors. Since black didn’t count against this limit, many sprites used it for outlining, but some of the most iconic—such as Mario and Link—do not. Looking at classic characters again with this limitation in mind gives an enhanced appreciation for the sheer creativity that went into making them.
The 170+ featured games cover (arguably) all the classics, though anyone who’s sunk enough hours into an NES will no doubt have a few titles they wish had made the cut. (My own biased list would include Top Gun, Ikari Warriors, and Jaleco’s utterly bonkers and highly buggy driving game City Connection.) By the same token, though, other screenshots may bring back long-lost memories of obscure titles that would have otherwise been utterly forgotten—in my case, Life Force, Rescue: The Embassy Mission, and StarTropics.
Time and technology march ever on, and our current consoles are now eight generations past the NES. As with the contemporary film industry, the 8- or 9-figure budgets of modern AAA games have made companies necessarily risk-averse when it comes to creative gameplay and new IPs; while this has resulted in almost cinematic levels of visuals and scripting, it also means that it’s fallen on small, independent developers to pick up the torch of inventiveness. Indie titles of the modern era owe a tremendous debt to the NES, and many of these—Super Meat Boy, Towerfall: Ascension, Nidhogg, The Binding of Isaac, Braid—revel in the 8-bit aesthetics of the Nintendo age.
Visually, NES/Famicom is an impressive production: every page is printed edge-to-edge in full color, with numerous spreads that fold out to show full screen-by-screen game levels or other panoramic delights (including the full airship from Super Mario Bros. III, and my personal favorite, the entire training/skyline cutscene from Punch Out!!).
Like all Bitmap’s console compendiums, the book ships in a slipcase featuring an “alphabet” made up of 26 system-appropriate letters—in this case, K for Kirby, L for Link, M for Mario, and so on—which move in charming 2-step animations when the box is tilted.