Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Sep 18th 2010 at 10:10:37 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch games, launch game, SNES, Super Mario World

Ah, the late August of 1991!  Bryan Adams' song from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was burning up the charts, Terminator 2 was blowing up the box office , and eager Nintendo fans were getting a chance to finally buy the console that had gone on sale in Japan as the Super Famicom almost a full year earlier. 

The North American launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a bit surprising in several ways.  For one, the unit was the last of the fourth generation of consoles to launch in the United States, launching more than two years after the release of both the Turbo Grafx-16 and the Sega Genesis.  By contrast, the original and highly successful Nintendo Entertainment System had been the first major console to the market in both Japan and the United States.  Many observers felt that interest in gaming was starting to dwindle, as it had towards the end of Ataris market dominance.  Sales of NEC and Segas machines were modest compared to the sales the NES had seen during the height of its popularity, and clearance price NES carts and systems on store shelves suggested that Nintendos time, like Ataris before it, had perhaps passed.

In an article from Time Magazine a few months before the August 23, 1991 release of the console, writer Philip Elmer-DeWitt penned that

Sometime in the next few months, an argument is going to break out in the 30 million families infected by the Nintendo video-game craze. The kids, primed by saturation advertising, are going to tell their parents they gotta have the awesome new 16-bit Nintendo system for Christmas. The parents, remembering the hundreds of dollars they have invested in the old 8-bit Nintendo, are going to say, "No way."... The machine will also be backed by a $95 million nonstop marketing blitz designed to convince every American preadolescent that life without 16 bits wouldn't be worth living. It's not going to be an easy sell.

It seemed that Nintendo was facing a tough road, and it is debatable whether a launch day full of some questionable decisions did much to brighten the initial outlook for the SNES.  Though the unit would go on to be quite successful, there were several notable and, in retrospect, perhaps poor launch day decisions.

There were only three games available on launch day, and only two on shelves.   Super Mario World was packed in with the SNES, and while the game remains one of the standouts of the SNES library, gamers looking for variety in other titles were left with little to choose from.  Given the length of time that the console had been out in Japan and the depth of the library that had been built up by mid 1991, it seems that Nintendo should have had more options for the earliest adopters.

2/3 of the launch day games weren't representative of popular genres or franchises. While both F-Zero and Pilotwings (the other two launch games) are strong titles in their own right and showcase some of the SNES hardware capabilities, neither flight sims nor futuristic racing games were especially popular in late 1991.  It seems odd that the SNES didn't launch with any titles geared towards fans of action games, sports games, RPGs, puzzle games, or any number of other genres.  In fact, given the popularity of the arcade and the success of arcade conversions (such as shmups and beat em ups) on the TG-16 and Genesis, Nintendo missed an opportunity to show how well their system could handle some of the most popular genres.  Given the widespread popularity of many first and third party NES games, the lack of a launch day Metroid, Zelda, Contra, Tetris, or Mega Man is surprising.

There was a lack of hype.   Today, a console launch is issued in by major announcements, extensive gaming and mainstream press coverage, midnight releases, and an overall media blitz.  Though Nintendo did put aside almost $100 million to market the unit in the US, one need not look much further than its own Nintendo Power to see that the console was still playing second fiddle to Nintendo's earlier NES and Game Boy at the SNES launch.  The issue of Nintendo Power that coincided with the SNES launch featured a cover story on Super Mario World, but only about 25% of the issue touched on titles for the new system.  Most other major gaming publications dedicated even less space to the console's launch, perhaps because there just weren't many games to cover!

The console was not backwards compatible.  Many of the reviews and reports surrounding the SNES pointed to the fact that it would be unable to play NES or Game Boy games.  Considering the rather large NES cart library that many families had built, this seemed like quite the oversight.  By contrast, Sega's Genesis console was compatible with the earlier games for its system (via a converter) and the Atari 7800 had been compatible with 2600 games.  So, Nintendo's decision not to include support seemed out of step with what consumers wanted.  The Super Game Boy wouldn't see release until some three years later (1994), after the console had already become popular.

Despite these oversights, Nintendo did do a few things right on launch day.

The launch package was a good bundle deal.  Though its $200 price tag (a little over $300 adjusted for inflation) put it at twice the cost of a NES and made it a bit more expensive than its contemporary competitors, Nintendo packaged in two controllers, two kinds of AV cables, Super Mario World, and a coupon for $50 off a future game purchase.  Considering SNES games regularly cost $60-$70 or more, this was almost the equivalent of giving buyers a second game .

The pack-in game was a killer app. Considered by many to be the best SNES game, Nintendo took a gamble that Super Mario World would be enough to bring NES owners into the SNES fold.  And to some extent, they were correct.  Nintendo didn't take many risks by including this title: they didn't reinvent the Mario franchise, they didn't hedge their bets on an unknown character or IP, and they didn't choose a game that would later look dated compared to the technology seen in future SNES titles.

They had it where it counted. Nintendo's machine was attractive not only to gamers looking for the next Mario fix, but also to those excited about hardware specs.  The SNES outperformed either the TG-16 or Genesis in almost every technical category.  In an era where graphics were central to much of the advertising surrounding games and systems alike, Nintendoc clearly had the upper hand by entering he fray late. 

Overall, the SNES launch wasn't the brightest moment for a console that would eventually go on to win the 16-bit console wars. Nonetheless, all three of these launch games are still considered some of the top titles for the system, and Nintendo quickly rolled out more games in a variety of genres so that by the holiday season, they had begin to build an install base.

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Looking back the SNES launch was a bit on the weird side.  I remember almost no hype, though there were at least two issues of Nintendo Power with decent sized features, along with the great fold-poster featuring single pics of Japanese SNES games (I kept it on the wall by my bed).  The features talked about the development of the console and how it was reshaped for the NA market, as well as why the controllers are different.  Very good stuff.

I would regularly drool over every available tidbit I could, which is why I remember how quiet the SNES launch was (as opposed to the N64 launch).  Unfortunately for me I had the dang system in layaway for the first three months (I was 14 and dead broke), so all I could do was read those Nintendo Power issues and dream.  To get my fix I would ride my bike to the local Target (about 30 minutes away) and play the Super Mario World demo unit.  My greatest moment during this time was beating SMW and watching the ending while shoppers walked around me, oblivious to the joy I had.

Despite these hardships, when I finally got the system it was all the sweeter.
I recently read through the Nintendo Power magazines before during and after the launch, and your absolutely right. For the launch of a new system is was quite underwhelming (in terms of coverage).

Although I didnt get it until it had been out for a couple years (1994 maybe?). It was the first system that I purchased with my own earned money (and a traded in Genesis, which I got by trading in an NES). I remember reading the Nintendo Power magazines like crazy in order to decide which game to purchase, since I could only afford one. It was like I had my own personal launch years after the system had come out, but with a vastly larger library to choose from.

Keep up the great blogging!!
I never realized that it only launched with those 3 titles....
It is almost unbelievable that it had comparitively no press and so many hurdles ahead of it and it ended up being (IMO) one of the most successful/influential systems ever. (of its time at the very least)
I already owned a Genesis when the SNES launched and since I wasn't in a financial position to have more than one current gen console, I never even gave a thought to wanting to pick up the SNES.

Also, I think Sega did a much better job counter-marketing the SNES than Nintendo did promoting it.  The success of Sonic the Hedgehog, which  had been released less than two months before the SNES launch, was enough to satisfy my platforming itch and seemed like a bigger leap past the NES platformers (including the SMB games) than Super Mario World did.  Also, Sega already had a solid lineup of titles that rivaled anything planned for the first few months of the SNES' release.
@Izret101:Lol, I never did either.  Like I said before, it was months before I got my hands on that machine.  I think I might have survived the whole time dreaming about Final Fantasy II.

Actually this kind of shows where Nintendo got the cahones to launch the N64 with only three games (but tons of hype).
Good article. Although I know plenty about the SNES, I didn't know many details concerning the launch.

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