For the next few weeks, Retronauts Video Chronicles will be mired in October 1986. Although U.S. release dates from the 8- and 16-bit eras have proven to be depressingly vague — we can pin releases to the month, and not always accurately, but precise days are out of the question — whichever day in October 1986 saw the American debut of third-party publishers for NES will live in infamy. Until we somehow can narrow that event down to a specific date, though, I’m afraid we simply have to indict the whole month.
Third parties, of course, have proven through the years to be essential to the success and survival of any platform. With the NES, though, that wasn’t a given. The biggest precedents Nintendo had to go by were the terrible impact unregulated third-party releases had on Atari, and the wildly variable quality of Famicom third-party titles in Japan — not exactly the most encouraging standards to work against. Nevertheless, the company decided not to shut down third-party releases for NES but rather to wrangle absolute control over them. It was a bold and daring concept… not entirely without precedent, but certainly something that had never been attempted at the scale and scope Nintendo aspired to.
Obviously, it worked out pretty well for them. Nintendo is still around today, and the concepts they laid down for third parties continue to serve as the standard for an entire industry. Love it or hate it, licensing under watchful first-party supervision is a fact of video game life these days.
That said, you certainly would not have expected Nintendo and its licensing scheme to have made it this far based on its debut releases. Those first four games to hit the market in the U.S. without the familiar Black Box branding were not good… well, there’s one exception to that, but yeah. Bad times all around. Here’s the first of them, if we’re going by original Japanese release dates: M.U.S.C.L.E. Tag Team Match by TOSE and Bandai. It’s based on the toy line by the same name (and the manga that inspired it), and this game is very much the M.U.S.C.L.E. to Black Box Pro Wrestling‘s G.I. Joe: Simple, primitive, and clumsy. The analogy does break down along the way, I admit. M.U.S.C.L.E. toys possess a certain charm and appeal that the game lacks.
Things would get better from here, but really — not an inspiring proof of concept.