What makes the humble Nintendo Entertainment System innovative? You might ask. After all, it wasn’t the first console. Atari had that covered. What Atari didn’t have, though, was quality — not leading up to the 1983 video game crash, at least.
The flood of what today we’d call shovelware meant both that the games industry was very close indeed to collapsing on itself, as consumers balked against the rising tide of garbage games and what basically amounted to advertising material. That's something we still see today, but not at the percentage the industry saw pre-crash.
Enter the NES.
After a failed partnership with Atari and some big redesigns attempting to distinguish it from the Famicom, Nintendo finally released the system in the West. There were a few things that made the NES different from its predecessors and essentially saved the video game industry, but the biggest was the software.
It’s hard to realize it now, but NES games completely revolutionary, unlike anything that came before. Defender kickstarted the sidescroller and Gradius took it a bit further, but Super Mario Bros. refined it by combining platforming adventure with a huge array of obstacles, and a human character instead of the tired spaceship everyone had grown used to.
The Legend of Zelda wasn’t the first adventure game either, but its structure, coherence, and design were all vastly improved from the weird blip that was Atari’s Adventure. Of course, the NES was home to some crap games too, but Nintendo’s licensing policies — where the good ol’ seal of quality came from — prevented the NES from going the same route as Atari and ensured the games industry’s survival.
Ironically, Nintendo later reversed that policy with WiiWare and now the Switch eShop, so we get some titles with lightly questionable quality after all.
Though some credit things like R.O.B. and the NES’s overall style with keeping it from self-destructing, it’s hard to justify those claims. The 1986 survey that tried to find out how many NES owners bought it because of the R.O.B. toy and style only surveyed 200 people.
By the end of the following year, Family Computing Magazine pointed to the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Zelda as reasons to own the NES, saying R.O.B. was cute, but basically pointless. Sorry buddy.