The NES Put to the Test
After having two swings at bat, Arakawa is understandably demoralized at this point. His boss and father-in-law Hiroshi Yamauchi, however, still refuses to believe that the U.S. market is so completely tainted. He looks to the burgeoning sales of PC games as proof and also has the wind of a 90 percent lock on the Japanese video game market by the Famicom at his back. He demands that NoA finds a way into the market, so Arakawa determines that they will test market the NES in America leading up to Christmas 1985, and in a brash move NYC is chosen as the location. It is figured that, to paraphrase Sinatra, if it can make it there, it’ll make it anywhere. A 50 million dollar budget is allotted from NCL for the test phase, and a NoA base of operations is set up in a dilapidated warehouse in Hackensack, New Jersey. 100,000 NES Deluxe Sets, containing an NES game unit, the ROB robot, a redesigned Zapper light gun, and a copy of Gyromite and Duck Hunt, are shipped to New York HQ. The “Deluxe” labeling is removed from packaging, considering that during the test it will be the only set available to customers. A small group of 30 employees is sent to the East coast, referring to themselves as SWAT teams. Working the phones mercilessly, they harangue buyers for retail outlets to give the NES a chance. Nintendo tells stores that the company will set up, manage and tear-down in-store displays for the system. Arakawa also makes the extraordinary promise to retailers that any NES units remaining unsold will be bought back by Nintendo at full price, 90 days after delivery. Basically, the only thing stores would be sacrificing on the deal is shelf space. Combined with this promise, as well as persistence on the phone, NoA eventually lines up 500 stores for the test launch, including famous toy store FAO Schwarz in Manhattan.
Nintendo is very careful with the terminology used in the marketing of the NES, yet again as a strategy to inoculate against video gaming’s diseased past. The unit is not called a console, but a “Control Deck”. The games do not come on cartridges, but “Game Paks”. Never is it to be described as a video game… it is an Entertainment System! These, and all the other contortions Nintendo puts the NES through, are met with moderate success when released on October 18, 1985: 50,000 of the boxes are sold during the NYC test phase, at $159 a piece. Facilitated by the extensive game selection already in existence for the Famicom, a remarkably large library of 15 additional launch titles is also made available for the NES.
It’s-a me, Mario!
The real key to the success of the NES might not necessarily lie in the “Video game? What video game?” smoke screen, but in a little Italian plumber, which would be the second time Mario leaped to the rescue of NoA. In February of 1986, test marketing moves to the L.A. market, and a second NES bundle is made available. It is labeled as the Control Deck set, and eschews the Zapper gun and ROB. It does come packed, however, with a little something called Super Mario Bros.. Having previously shipped for the Famicom in Japan on Sept. 13, 1985, the game becomes the ultimate system-seller for the NES. It takes the pipes, killer turtles and level jumping from the Nintendo arcade game Mario Bros. and extrapolates them onto a big, scrolling world full of secret pathways that captivate gamers. In its first four months of release, Super Mario Bros. also moves 2.5 million copies as a separately sold cartridge. Over 40 million copies of the game are eventually sold, ports and remakes not withstanding.
The NES Rolls Wide
After the L.A. test comes Chicago and San Francisco, with NES availability eventually spreading to 12 cities over the summer of 1986. By the time Nintendo is marketing the NES nationwide in the fall, between 350,000 to 400,000 sets have been sold. The initial package is rechristened the Deluxe Set, which still includes the Zapper, two controllers, ROB and his Gyromite game. Duck Hunt, wicked fun with the light gun, rounds out the package. Contents of the Control Deck box is then adjusted and renamed the Basic Set, listed for $99 with two controllers and Super Mario Bros.
Video Games Return
In selling the NES, Nintendo and retailers continue to tip-toe around the video game minefield. The artwork on NES game boxes deliberately shows actual in-game graphics, to avoid the over-promise of the elaborate game cover art of previous systems. Big chains take a cautious approach; Sears shoppers can only find the NES for sale in the retailer’s catalog as opposed to taking up space on their store shelves, the company still jittery from the catastrophic collapse of the video game market mere years ago. Not long after the Los Angeles launch, Nintendo also signs a deal with Fremont, CA-based Worlds of Wonder to distribute the NES to stores in 1986, hoping to capitalize on WoW’s extensive distribution chain, fuelled by the wild success of their talking bear toy Teddy Ruxpin, itself an inspiration for the ROB robot. The ex-Atari founders of WoW, along with the mostly ex-atari marketing department of the company, may have been spooked by the idea of pushing another video game system, but word comes down from above: get Nintendo on store shelves or get out. In a strange twist of fate, when WoW ends up filing for bankruptcy in 1987, Nintendo would end up hiring their field representatives, effectively gaining the Atari marketing muscle they had missed out with the previously failed agreement with the company. What would have to be most galling to Atari, Mattel handles NES distribution in Canada and Europe. In the fiscal year 1986, 1.8 million NES units are sold. Powered by hit games such as Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda series and his mentor Gunpei Yokoi’s Metroid games, by Christmas 1987 Nintendo’s console becomes the best-selling toy in America, and retains that title for the next several years. It beats out second place Pictionary by Western Publishing, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe and Mattel’s Barbie. The NES moves 3 million units for the year, contributing to an overall $700 million in sales for the industry. Having single-handedly rescued video games from oblivion, Nintendo now controls a 90 percent share of the market. They have made the video game industry the fastest-growing segment of the toy industry, again.