Skate or Die. Wizards and Warriors. R.C. Pro Am. Base Wars. Adventure Island. None is quite as well known as Super Mario Bros, but these are the quirky Nintendo games that laid the foundation for an entire generation of adult adolescents. And they’re all documented in Pop Chart Lab’s latest print, The Nebula of NES Games.
The graphic features over 700 titles in a swirl of genres. (The collection comprises only games developed in the U.S., so it trims about 300 titles from Japan’s Famicom list). But this nebula isn’t just neat to look at; it solved an important problem for Pop Chart Lab.
"We originally designed this as a standard timeline with the years on the y-axis. However, it took up a ton of space and there was a lot of dead air throughout the chart," explains Patrick Mulligan, Pop Chart founder and editorial director. "We then started investigating ways to pack the information more densely and eventually hit on the spiral. Once we stepped back and looked it, we realized it looked like a galactic spiral, and that informed our design treatment."
The spiral advances chronologically from the center, with each arm depicting a different genre. Again, there’s clever visualization work at play, as genres had different levels of popularity, so the concentric-style design allowed a visual balance of disparate categories.
"The biggest category by raw count is 'platformers' and 'side-scrollers,'" Mulligan says. "It also became the default way to adapt another property into an NES game. Need a Robocop game? Make a side-scroller. Flintstones game? Side-scroller. Nightmare on Elm Street game? Side-scroller."
No doubt, the experimentation early in the console’s life cycle gave way to more predictable, reproducible games—albeit less memorable ones. In fact, I’d argue that the lack of conventions behind genre-bending games like Excitebike, The Legend of Zelda, Ikari Warriors, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out is what makes them so good (even if many such titles had roots in arcade games). In fact, these arcade origins, driven by the quest for novel physical controls and experiences, probably inspired a lot of early diversity in home consoles. Hopefully, with the next wave of home consoles on the way soon, developers will be reinvigorated to experiment with conventions again.
The Nebula of NES Games is available now for $32.