Image of the Nintendo Entertainment System, a video game system by Nintendo 1986

The Nintendo Entertainment System

Nintendo Entertainment System - Resetting the Game

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Nintendo 1985

 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.

Manual for the Nintendo NES video game system

Video game console? No, it’s a Control Deck!

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.

Launch box and games for NES, a home video game system by Nintendo

Launch NES box and games

Video arcade game system PlayChoice, by Nintendo

YOU HAVE NO CHOICE! PlayChoice. Ever notice how weird the word “choice” is?

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 also is the only configuration of the NES that comes packed 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 remakes notwithstanding. It also jumps into arcades in North America as VS. Super Mario Bros. in 1986. Released for the home on the Famicom in October of 1988, Super Mario Bros. 3 flies high in the arcades as one of the titles featured in Nintendo’s multi-game PlayChoice arcade machines in July of 1989. By the end of 1990 SMB3 has sold 2.6 million copies for the home in Japan alone.

JUMP: The making of Super Mario Bros.

Title screen for Super Mario Bros., a video game for the Famicom by Nintendo 1985

Welcome to the Mushroom Kingdom


Introducing the NES, 1985 ad

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.

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Comments >>

  1. avatarAguyinaRPG

    Very nice article! Just a few comments.

    “All this fancy new hardware gets its debut at the 1985 winter CES in Las Vegas”, it was in January of 1984 that the AVS first premiered. It went through four CES’ before solidifying and finally finding interest.

    “releasing their 7800 ProSystem console in 1987” January of ’86.

    “Power Glove, released in 1990 by Mattel.” Another date one. Holiday season of 1990.

    There’s also two things which I think are often a bit oversimplified in explaining the NES. First is the 10-NES chip, which initially wasn’t there to lock out third parties at first. The actual standards for licensing deals only began in January of 1986, as explained in the Iwata Asks on the Famicom. There’s a lot missing in our knowledge about the construction of the NES such as why they went for extra pin connectors (Gyromite containing the converter might indicate that it wasn’t always an intentional decision) and I think we’re too quick to jump on Nintendo really having a plan regarding the “seal of quality” . Nobody has really asked why it was initiated in the first place, only what it meant when it was already 1987.

    Secondly is the time frame about the success of the NES here. 1987 was the breakthrough year and the one of true recovery for the industry. They went from 1 million to 4 million game machines, which was the biggest percentage boost over its whole life span. I believe they cut ties with Worlds of Wonder that year too, so it really goes to show just how gargantuan Nintendo had become with their only real competition anywhere being NEC with the PC Engine (until the Genesis’ “second launch”).

    Very engaging overview though. I love the way that you guys write and present things. Looking forward to more!


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