And so it’s back to the drawing board for Nintendo, after the disastrous unveiling of the Advanced Video System. All of the computer peripherals are stripped out to both reduce the cost of the system, as well as to remove the bad taste from buyers’ mouths over video game/computer hybrids of the past. Only the game subsystem from the AVS is kept, also known as the Control Deck. The dimensions of the new case, lovingly referred to as the “lunchbox” by the people at NoA, are enlarged to accommodate a new cartridge loading scheme. Instead of being inserted into a slot at the top of the Control Deck, bigger, flatter cartridges are slid into the front of the machine, into a 72-pin zero insertion force (ZIF) connector hidden by a plastic flap, and then pushed down to lock in place. This new loading system is intended to further disguise the game machine, fostering allusions of inserting a video tape into a VCR. It also creates technical troubles down the road, when this movement of the cartridges with every loading causes faults to develop in the ZIF connector. Cartridges are unable to handshake with the 10NES lockout chip installed in each NES (see below), and thus will not run. This leads to the popular meme of blowing on the NES cartridge connectors to get games to run. The controllers for the console revert back to a similar design of the Famicom’s, becoming wired but removable, with the trusty plastic d-pad making a triumphant return. In America, designer Lance Barr puts the finishing touches on the box, applying two-toned grey colouring and a black plastic band.
Robot in Disguise
Gunpei Yokoi and his R&D1 team at NCL come up with an item to even further distinguish the system, as well as capitalize on a current toy trend. 1985 is seeing the toy industry making an attempt at bringing cinematic robot buddies like R2-D2 and C3PO to life with robotic companions for kids. The talking, story-telling bear Teddy Ruxpin from Worlds of Wonder is probably the most popular example of this trend. Others of the era include Playskool’s Casey, a cassette player with a robotic body and LCD face, and the Omnibot by Tomy. We also have Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell’s own attempts at introducing robots into the household from two start-ups: Androbot’s Topo, as well as the Petster robotic pets and the Compurobot I from Axlon. Surfing this wave, Nintendo’s new wingman for its game machine is to be ROB, the acronym standing for Robotic Operating Buddy. It is a plastic robot on a platform that can raise, lower and twist itself, as well as open and close two hand grips in order to pick up objects. A camera in one of the robot’s eyes allow it to receive instructions via light patterns on a TV screen. A game called Gyromite accompanies ROB, with a series of gyroscopic weights that allow the robot to control a second gamepad and help play the game. Only one other game compatible with the device is ever released by Nintendo, titled Stack-Up.
Creating a long-lasting new game-playing device is not the point of ROB, of course. It is used as a trojan horse to get parents to accept another video game device into their homes, as well as distract retailers from their distrust of video games. When the entire remodelled system, now sporting the label Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), is re-introduced at the 1985 June CES in Chicago, ROB creates a more favourable attitude among retailers, but this newfound interest fails to convert into sales for Nintendo’s new game machine.
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 of 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 a 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” labelling is removed from packaging, considering that during the test it will be the only set available to customers. A small group of employees are 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?” smokescreen, but in a little Italian plumber, which would be the second time Mario leapt 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 labelled 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 captivates 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 re-makes 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 re-christened 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. 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. What would have to be most galling to Atari, Mattel handles NES distribution in Canada and Europe. In 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.