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NES at 30: Why Mario still makes a difference

The original box for the Nintendo Entertainment System.Nintendo

The Nintendo Entertainment System, which turned 30 Monday, may seem like a relic in an era of consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One — but it helped define those systems and the games on them in more ways than one.

Lasting franchises

Mario Wii
New Super Mario Bros Wii, one of the latest titles in the Mario line of games.Nintendo

The power of the series was apparent to Nintendo, existing as it did in the days of "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and "Back to the Future." So the company was happy to make and publish sequels and spin-offs, even if it had little to do with the original. The result is that the "core" franchises became a staple of gaming. That began on the Nintendo, perhaps best exemplified by "Super Mario Bros."

The original game smashed records (largely due to being included in the box), the second was a bizarre cult hit (but still an excellent game) and the third is hailed by many as one of the best games ever made, regardless of age.

Nintendo and its stable of developers would continue this pattern for decades with other major properties: with repetition, "Legend of Zelda," "Mega Man," "Castlevania," and many more became ingrained in the minds of young gamers — gamers who grew up to compose Nintendo's current core audience.

It may have been a tactical move to avoid risk and stick with what worked, but the fact is that Mario and Link have become utterly iconic through their constant presence, an accomplishment others have tried with varying success to imitate.

Games that defined genres

While "Super Mario Bros." may be the most obvious success story, the NES was also home to games that both inspired genres and still define them.

For instance, "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Warrior" elevated the comparatively obscure role-playing game genre to playable form. The extreme length and depth of these games created gamers who would not be satisfied by mere arcade thrills, helping move games from then-rare PCs and arcades into the home. And their sequels (now numbering in the double digits) still act as yardsticks for others in the genre.

The originalNintendo

But it's not just sequels that inherited Nintendo game qualities. To this day, games can be described in terms of the Nintendo games that preceded them: "Zelda"-esque item hunting, "Metroid"-style exploration, "Contra"-quality shooting, "Battletoads"-level difficulty. If you want to make someone understand the basic gameplay of even a major modern game, NES titles are the common vocabulary, something that everyone understands.

For better or worse, it made gaming child's play

An ad for the original NES emphasizing its family-friendly nature.Nintendo

Nintendo's most dubious legacy, in full force on the NES, was its insistence on being family-friendly. The NES was, after all, originally called the Famicom, or family computer. From the beginning, games and accessories were designed with friends and family in mind — and while that meant lots of bright, accessible games, it also meant mature themes were generally avoided.

This occasionally resulted in some mind-boggling mix-ups and errors — the neutered "Mortal Kombat," the inexplicably un-censored exploding Hitler head in "Bionic Commando" — but its main effect was to establish home gaming systems as the province of kids. Never mind that some games were more difficult than anything that came before or after — the stigma, which Nintendo worked actively to promote, was that games were Disney-level entertainment.

30 years later, the games industry is still recovering from this: games are often reduced in the public eye to "blasting aliens" or "saving the princess" despite having shed those limitations long ago. And that which helped Nintendo reach millions of living rooms in the 1980s and 1990s may now be holding it back: more gamers than ever want Hollywood-level content in both tone and setting, meaning sex and violence that Nintendo even now is barely willing to tolerate.

The NES may not have been the first game console by a long shot, but for millions it was the first they owned and loved. After 30 years it still resonates with gamers, and probably will for decades to come.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is