Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Oct 19th 2010 at 03:30:00 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Launch Games, Launch Game, NES, Super Mario Bros., R.O.B.

Twenty Five years ago today, the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in the United States.  Before its run was over with the release of Wario's Woods in 1994, the system became the bestselling video game console of all time (a mark that would not be passed for many years), the company's name literally became synonymous with gaming, and the NES' library had achieved a special place in the hearts and minds of gamers the world over.  Even today, the system is usually recognized as the most popular of all retro consoles, and many gamers continue to collect games in cartridge format or play them via the Wii's Virtual Console or emulation. 


That success was far from guaranteed when the system launched in the U.S. on October 18, 1985.  In fact, many onlookers felt dubious about the chances for Nintendo's console to succeed in the post-crash market of the mid-1980s.  And even though the system had been moderately successful in the two years since it had launched in Japan (as the Family Computer), the kind of reception it would receive amongst American audiences was widely unknown.  For this reason, the U.S. release was a limited one.  The October 1985 date was for the New York City test market, and the full nationwide launch wouldn't be until February of 1986 after Nintendo saw some success in New York (and a few other markets).

Long before Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, or Contra became household names, Nintendo launched a product in the U.S. that had to convince a skeptical audience that it was worth investing in a new console.  What was it like to purchase a brand new Nintendo Entertainment Center in October of '85 (or February of 1986)?  What was the system launch like? Did those early decisions help the system achieve later greatness? Read on!

Part 1: The Games

The launch lineup consisted of eighteen games!  This was almost twice the amount of games that launched in the U.S. with the Atari VCS, and half again as many games as had launched with the Colecovision.  In some ways, this was a curious decision.  While it afforded gamers a high degree of choice, it also served as a reminder that chief catalyst for the gaming crash a few years earlier had been a market flooded with low-quality games.  Fortunately for Nintendo, their launch titles were not low quality.  But, standing in a store 25 years ago, it might be hard for a gamer not to think that they were seeing more of the same practice that had killed enthusiasm and sales for Atari a short time ago.


The launch lineup took cues from Atari. As we've covered previously, the Atari VCS launch featured games with very short, descriptive titles (Combat, Blackjack, Street Racer, etc.).  This let consumers know what they were buying, whereas a game named after a character might not.  For the most part, Nintendo followed suit.  Roughly half of the launch games featured titles which made gameplay elements explicitly obvious (10 Yard Fight, Baseball, Duck Hunt, Golf, Kung Fu, Pinball, Soccer, and Tennis) and another set made it easy to guess what the game featured (Excitebike, Ice Climber, Stack-Up, and Wild Gunman).  Unlike Atari, however, Nintendo did include a few of their well known IPs in the launch lineup: Mario (Super Mario Bros.) and Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong Jr. Math) both made the cut, only leaving gamers scratching their head over titles like Clu Clu Land, Hogans Alley, Gyromite, and Wrecking Crew.  In any case, like Atari, Nintendo offered a wide variety of launch titles, the scope of which wouldn't be offered again until Sony's PS2 launch almost 15 years later.


The launch lineup featured the system's iconic game (and character).  The NES launch has several solid titles, but none were as important as Super Mario Bros.  Mario was already a well known character based on the success of the Mario Bros. games and Mario's link to Donkey Kong, but Miyamoto's side-scrolling masterpiece was the game to define the console from day 1.  Some of the launch bundles included the game, and it would go on to become the best-selling game of all time (a mark not passed until Wii Sports recently took the crown) .  Few launch lineups in history have featured a game that made it into the all-time top 10, and all of them are games that launched with Nintendo systems.

Quality assured.  In another nod to the video game crash, Nintendo included the Nintendo Seal of Quality on its titles to (hopefully) let consumers know that the games they were buying were bug-free, high quality titles.  The seal may not have meant much in 1985, but by the time the NES was in homes across the country a few years later the seal came to represent an important departure from the flooded market that came to symbolize the latter days of the 2600's run.


(Note: I plan to cover many of these games in the blog individually in the future, but in the meantime there is an excellent run-down of the basics of each launch game here:  http://matwolf.com/blog/n...-original-18-nes-games-2/  I shamelessly stole their images of box art, too.)

Part 2: The System

The D-Pad.  Nintendo was not technically the first console maker or video game company to include a standard D-Pad, but they certainly popularized it.  Nintendo's games were designed with the D-pad in mind, and anyone who has tried playing a Super Mario Bros. or Zelda game with an arcade stick knows that the experience is lacking.  The D-Pad also signaled that the console would be more than a platform for arcade ports (which used joysticks), but that plenty of new content produced specifically for the console and its controller would be coming.


The graphics and sound. It is easy to forget that the NES once was a powerhouse system, as today when most of us look back on the 8-bit days we think about the simplicity of the visuals and sounds.  Put simply, even Nintendo's launch games blew away anything that had been seen on a console up to that point, and rivaled some of the best computer graphics and sound of the era.  Seamless scrolling, character RAM, 20+ colors, dedicated audio, and region-specific refresh rates all meant that the NES was a system that had both innovated and capitalized on the best of what was available in mid-1980s hardware.  And while the launch lineup was impressive, the games in the system's later years would demonstrate just how impressive the processors inside the NES were.


Part 3: The Launch

The bundles were a good deal, but the games were pricey.  If you bought a new NES in late '85 or early '86, you most certainly wanted to buy a system bundle and probably didn't end up buying very many games off the bat.  I haven't yet found reliable data, but some web searching suggests that in 1985/1986 NES games were priced between $40-$70 MSRP depending on where you lived.  When their launch went nationwide, Nintendo sold two bundles for consumers interested in buying the system. The Control Deck bundle with 2 controllers, a zapper and Super Mario Bros. retailed for $130 and the Deluxe Set, which included R.O.B., a zapper, two controllers, Gyromite and Duck Hunt sold for $250.  Adjusted for today's inflation, games cost around $100, the control deck cost about $250, and the Deluxe Set cost just shy of $500.  This means that consumers in 1985 were getting the system and accessories for roughly $150 in today's money, and that R.O.B. could be valued at about $150 himself.  That might seem high, until one realizes that robots were all the rage in 1985...


Robotic Operating Buddy. A Japanese newspaper in  July of 1985 announced the upcoming U.S. release of the NES in an article entitled "Nintendo to sell video game player-robot combination in U.S." In the article, they discuss the strategy behind R.O.B.

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Nintendo displayed the Family Computer this year at consumer electronics shows in Las Vegas and Chicago, and has carried out market research. The home video game boom in the U.S., dominated by Atari and Commodore International, peaked out three years ago, and since then the market has contracted with much underselling.

For this reason, the Family Computer, with its attached robot, is to be billed as a different concept from the conventional video game. The robot is run by a cartridge inserted into the computer, and both it and the video screen can be operated simultaneously. The robot measures 22.8 by 18 by 23.5 centimeters.

The robot contains three battery-powered motors which control such operations as picking objects up and putting them down, raising and lowering, and turning around and carrying objects. Commands are sent by a flashing signal from the monitor screen, which is picked up by a light sensor in the robot.

In Japan, the robot sells at a low Y9,800, with two types of cartridges prices at Y4,800 and Y5,800 respectively. In the U.S., the player, robot and cartridge will be sold as a unit for around $100.

From early on, the emphasis was on the robot, as evidenced again by a Guardian article from October of 1985 that mentions Nintendo's console as R.O.B.-centric:

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Toy makers in Britain and North America have been predicting since January that 1985 would be the year of the robot. Or at least of the toy robot.

Nintendo - has its eyes on the toy robot market. Primarily a computer and video games company, it has invented an interactive robot to play some of their video games.

Using a light link to the television, the 10in tall robot adds a new dimension to the video game. Prompted by invisible sensory devices which read messages from the TV screen, the robot performs a variety of spontaneous interactive affect game play. Standing on its stationary 6in base, the robot can assume 60 different lifelike positions by rotating its arms and shoulders left or right, and up or down, and can lift and move objects. It can pick up screen messages from as far away as 15ft, adding tremendous challenge to play strategy.

Nintendo plans to offer four robot games packs with the initial introduction of the system, and up to four additional games will be developed by the end of the year. The robot costs pounds 100 and the games about pounds 15.

Again, today we often think of R.O.B. as an interesting afterthought or as a failed, largely gimmicky accessory for the NES.  But in 1985, most of the press surrounding the launch of the NES focused not on its games, but on this accessory.  This was by Nintendo's design, and suggested from the moment of their first U.S. console release that they were trying to attract interest from a broader population of consumers instead of just gamers.  They would of course repeat this strategy with their most successful console, the Wii.

It was not marketed as a gaming system.Due in large part to the gaming crash of a few years prior, Nintendo marketed the console as a device that allowed for learning and other forms of entertainment beyond simply playing video games.  Their ads focused not on the graphics, the game library, or the features often touted when a new console releases  -- they focused instead on the interactive nature of accessories like R.O.B. and the Zapper.  The first NES commercial in the U.S. is an example of this:


Another example is the 1986 Sears Wishlist catalog, which emphasizes that the NES was a

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fully equipped video system with the most progressive components such as a robot and the light-sensing Zapper Light Gunplus...it's not just for kids.


The art.  As is the case with any new product, good art is important to help sell the attractiveness of the item to the consumer.  Nintendo's emphasis in two areas - the game box design and the system box artwork - most certainly helped move units. The game box design (as seen above) emphasized the graphics of the games .  A drastic departure from the Atari VCS or Colecovision game boxes before it, the NES game boxes showed blown up approximations o f the sprite art that players would find in the game.  Even if the graphics weren't emphasized in marketing, they were certainly emphasized on store shelves.  The art for the systems themselves featured a dark blue/black with stars background.  The control deck set featured the system and hardware floating in space, while the Deluxe set emphasized R.O.B.'s head.  At a time when there was still enthusiasm about the space program, sci-fi was seeing a renaissance in theaters, and robots were all the rage, the art reflected the broader interests of consumers.


In retrospect, much about the NES launch seems strange today.  Most launches haven't followed the same cues (e.g. test markets and a downplayed emphasis on games/graphics), the system itself is no longer known for many of the things that Nintendo chose to highlight at launch, several launch games are still regarded as among the best on the system, and one launch title continued to be the best selling game for the console throughout the system's life.  Nintendo took a huge gamble with the release of the NES, and though their strategy seems a bit unorthodox today, it certainly paid off for them twenty five years ago.

Do you remember anything about the NES launch?  Were you in a test market?  What do you think of their strategy?  I'd love to hear your stories and thoughts, so sound off below!



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
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