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In Japan, they had the Famicom. You put in the cartridges on the top, just like with the later SNES and other consoles.

But for Europe and the USA (and the entire "West"), the "NES", as it was called here, they not only changed the visual colours and design radically, but also made the cartridges (much physically bigger than the Japanese ones) slide into the console from the side, and then you had to push them down for them to "activate".

Obviously, this design caused more moving, mechanical parts that could (and did) break, seemingly for no good reason. I can understand why they wanted to "hide" the cartridge, but why was there a need for it to also be "pushed down" while already inside of the console? Why not just have it stick in from the side, just like they did, but not require the whole part where you "push it down"?

I could never understand the need for this, and I still don't understand it to this day. It seems pointless. It feels like the cartridge is already "plugged in" electrically when it's in the non-pushed-down state, so what about pushing it down makes a difference?

It should be noted that they later actually released a "top loader", but I only ever learned about this many years later, from AVGN. So it was not exactly common here. Also, there are modern devices which do exactly what I point out: they just have the cartridge "slide in from the side", but there is no need to "push it down". My question is about why they would choose this technically absurd design back in the day.

I know about their desire to make it look more like a VCR and less like a toy for the USA, after the Atari video game crash, but my suggestion is not that they would make a top loader right away, but I'm simply asking why they made the original design pointlessly require the player to push down the cartridge while already inside the machine, apparently resulting in nothing less than more parts that could break.

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The popular home entertainment appliance in the mid 1980s was the video cassette recorder, in which horizontally-facing cassettes would be slid rearward into a compartment that would then descend into the mechanism. Although more "modern" machines just had a slot into which the cassettes were placed, someone who inserted a cassette would be able to observe that it moved inward and then down.

In the mid 1980s, cartridge-based video systems were on the way out, while VCRs were on the way in. The marketing goal of the NES designers was to appear to consumers as being something much closer to the a VCR than a video game.

Note that while it would have been possible to design the NES to have a zero-insertion force socket, it actually uses an edge connector which is fairly ordinary except for the lack of guides that would lock the insertion angle at 90 degrees. The cartridge housing slides into a drawer-like mechanism which instead of moving straight up and down, pivots about an axis that passes through the edge connector. This design if anything degrades reliability compared with one where cartridges simply slide in, but the idea that cartridges move in and then down was great marketing.

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  • I might be misreading because it's too early in the morning, but do you actually mean "closer to the latter [VCRs] than the former [cartridge-based systems]" rather than the way you have it currently?
    – Dranon
    Nov 2 at 13:59
  • @Dranon: By "former" I was referring back to the first paragraph, but latter/former distinction was unclear so I simply used the terms "VCR" and "video game". That help?
    – supercat
    Nov 2 at 14:43
  • Much clearer now, thank you. (I already upvoted before the edit, so I can only give you an imaginary +1 now.)
    – Dranon
    Nov 2 at 14:45
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The official reason is stated to have a front loading system to prevent damage from static electricity.

The weather in Japan is more humid in comparison so static electricity is not a huge issue. And e.g. in the US floors might have carpet which can cause more static electricity buildup in areas of dry climate.

The front loading makes the electrical contacts less exposed so it prevents the target audience (i.e. kids) from touching the system near the sensitive electrical connections.

The reason why the cartridge bed needs to be pushed down is that the slot is said to have "Zero Insertion Force", where the cartridge inserts with very little force properly to the slot and pushing it down makes the electrical connection to the contacts. So it does not make electrical contact, at least not properly, to both top side and bottom side of the cartridge contact pads.

If it did not have this feature, it would take considerable force to insert the cartridge to the slot, and both the slot springs and cartridge pads would wear out faster.

In the end, when the cartridge needs to be pushed down, it simulates more how the VCR handles the cassette - a look and feel they wanted to emulate from VCRs.

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