Nintendo Entertainment System
Prior to 1983 Nintendo had released arcade games, and a series of portable "game and Watch" devices, but it's the unforgettable home console the Famicom (short for Family Computer) which rocketed them to video game success. The Famicom is the original Japanese name for the system released 2 years later in North America as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
The NES was an 8 bit console, and competed with the Sega Master System for domination of the 8bit era. In terms of sales and popularity, the NES was the winner there.
The design of the NES was vastly different from the design of the Famicom. The Famicom featured a top loading slot for games that were inserted vertically. Also the two controllers were permanently attached to the device. The system featured a red and off-white color scheme instead of the shades of gray that the NES has.
The system launched with 18 games including: 10-Yard Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Golf, Gyromite, Hogan's Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, Mach Rider, Pinball, Stack Up, Super Mario Bros, Tennis, Wild Gunman, and Wrecking Crew.
The NES was the system that made the name Nintendo synonymous with video games. Games like Super Mario Bros, Zelda, and Duck Hunt were universally known. Even if you weren't a gamer, you knew those games. Over 700 games games were released for the NES.
Nintendo was careful not to fall into the same trap that led to the demise of the Atari 2600. They actively sought out third parties to develop games for the NES, but also kept a strict licensing process to prevent third parties from abusing their rights and flooding the market with shovel-ware.
The license dictated that a company could only release so many games per year, and the games must pass Nintendo certification to get the Nintendo Seal of Approval on the box and cartridge. Many companies got around this by releasing games under additional company names. For example, Konami published games under both the Konami name, and Ultra games.
A chip inside the system prevented unlicensed games from being played on the system, but certain unlicensed publishers found work-arounds to create and sell unlicensed games for the system. The biggest one being Atari owned Tengen which produced a large amount of black cartridge games. This allowed them to publish games for the system without having to pay Nintendo's royalty fees.
The NES suffered from a couple of problems, that nearly every who had one will remember. The problems made it difficult for the system to load up games, and would leave the user with a blinking red light, or a screen full of gibberish. These problems were the result of a cheap PIN connector which wore out as games were inserted and removed into the system, as well as an issue with the lockout chip. If the cartridges were dirty or the systems connector was corroded, gamers would have to resort to blowing into their systems/games, and literally beating the console until it decided to load. while these seem like silly fixes, they did work most of the time. Now it's best to to use Q-Tips dipped in rubbing alcohol to clean the pins a cartridge.
These problems were resolved with a redesigned NES system which is quite rare and expensive, called the top loader. The system still sports the gray NES color scheme and loads cartridges vertically. The lock out chip was also removed.
Getting a Nintendo Entertainment System:
The standard NES console is still easily found. The going price online is roughly $70, though if you look around your local video game stores you can probably find one for half that price. The top-loading NES systems are quite rare and go for over $100.
The patent on the original NES has expired and tons of knock-offs are now being produced. Companies like Yobo and Innex release NES clones likes the Retro Duo, FC Twin/FC3 which are affordable. These knockoffs and very cheaply produced and the sound emulation isn't perfect but they are a good alternative for someone who doesn't want to spend the cash for an old system that they have to maintain in order to play games. The biggest selling point for these are that they just work. They don't have the lockout chip, and the pin connectors are new so you don't have to worry about cleaning every game. These systems go for $40-50, but usually also play either SNES games, Genesis games, or both.
Cartridges for the NES are also still easily found, and very cheap, but they are slowly disappearing. I can't imagine they'll still be easily found several years from now. The majority of games for the NES go for $4-$10, but there are several rare consumer titles released titles that can go up to $100, a one even as high as $17,000.
Many popular NES games are also available on the Wii Virtual Console.