1985: Nintendo releases a limited batch of Nintendo Entertainment Systems in New York City, quietly launching the most influential video game platform of all time.
On this day in 1985, the American video game market was in shambles. Sales of game machines by Atari, Mattel and Coleco had risen to dizzying heights, then collapsed even more quickly.
Retailers didn’t want to listen to the little startup Nintendo of America talk about how its Japanese parent company had a huge hit with the Famicom (the 1983 Asian release of what became NES). In America, videogames were dead, dead,dead. Personal computers were the future, and anything that just played games but couldn’t do your taxes was hopelessly backwards.
But Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi, whose grandfather had started Nintendo as a playing-card company almost a century earlier, believed strongly in the quality of the NES. So he told his American executives to launch it in the most difficult market: New York City. If they could make it there, Yamauchi thought, they could make it anywhere.
They couldn’t make it there. Retailers wouldn’t take the NES. So Nintendo of America head Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi’s son-in-law, took a huge gamble that he didn’t share with the president. He told stores that Nintendo would provide them with product and set up all the displays, and they only had to pay for the ones that sold and could return everything else. For the stores, it was a no-risk proposition, and a few agreed to sell NES.
Nintendo knew it had to get away from the term videogame. So it took its marketing emphasis off of the traditional games played with a controller — even though these comprised the vast majority of Nintendo Entertainment System games — and focused on two accessories that it had released for Famicom in Japan.
The Zapper light gun played the target-shooting game Duck Hunt. And R.O.B. the Robot Operating Buddy whirred and spun around, taking commands from the television, helping you play complex games like Gyromite.
This was light-years ahead of Atari, went the message: It has a robot!
The stench of Atari’s collapse wasn’t the only thing working against Nintendo. In 1985, Japan was not seen as the purveyors of cultural cool. They were the invaders, swallowing up good old homemade American technology with their cheap knockoffs.
“You’re working for the Japs? I hope you fall flat on your ass,” said a security guard to a Nintendo employee as he loaded Nintendo Entertainment System bundles into a store late at night.
Nintendo launched the system with 17 games:
- Duck Hunt (included with console)
- Gyromite (included with console)
- 10-Yard Fight
- Clu Clu Land
- Donkey Kong Jr. Math
- Hogan’s Alley
- Ice Climber
- Kung Fu
- Mach Rider
- Wild Gunman
- Wrecking Crew
What it didn’t have was its trump card: Super Mario Bros., although it had just been released in Japan, was not yet ready for America.
The games were in some cases assembled so hastily that many of them were simply the Japanese circuit boards slapped into an American case: Put a copy of Stack-Up into an NES and the first screen just displays the Japanese title Robot Block.
At this point in the story, you’re expecting to hear that the Nintendo Entertainment System was a huge surprise hit, flew off the shelves and sent retailers into a frenzy begging for more. But that’s not quite what happened. In fact, Nintendo only sold about 50,000 consoles that holiday season — half of what it had manufactured.
But it was enough to convince Arakawa to soldier on, and to convince retailers that Nintendo had a viable product. In early 1986, Nintendo expanded into Los Angeles, then Chicago, then San Francisco.
At the end of that year, Nintendo Entertainment System went national, with Mario leading the charge. Videogames were back.
Source:Chris Kohler, wired,com; Game Over, by David Sheff; The Ultimate History of Video Games, by Steven Kent; others
Photo courtesy Jeremy Parish
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