With the NES, Nintendo Perfected the Console Launch
Nintendo has never topped their first console launch. Neither has anyone else.
There are few concepts average consumers fear more than “new.” To them, new is just some marketing buzzword for “unproven.” They fear the possibility that this unproven item will somehow make a fool out of them, and few people want to invest in a product that just makes them look like a fool.
The average gamer is no different. When a new concept like VR comes along, there is a sense of hesitation in the air, which ultimately stems from the same fear of the unknown. There’s a risk that goes along with supporting an unproven concept that goes well beyond financial loss. It’s the risk of feeling ashamed that you were one of the consumers who believed in something that doesn’t live up to its promises.
Remarkably, video game consoles feel immune from the full brunt of this fear and hesitation. While nobody wants to buy a console that ultimately turns out to be a failure, the word “new” actually excites people when it’s applied to a debuting system. The fear that usually accompanies new items is replaced with a refreshing sense of hope. They are seen as the gateway to a new era. The best era yet.
This same sense of hope is what is currently fueling the Nintendo Switch’s hype train. Put aside the hardware specs, the games revealed thus far, and every other tangible detail we know about the system. What is really selling the Switch is the promise that it is going to offer a new experience the likes of which gaming has never been capable of providing before. It’s the same promise that has sold every console before it.
Well, almost every console. Nintendo did not enjoy this same level of anticipation when they launched the Nintendo Entertainment System. Quite the opposite.
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You’ve probably heard the story. The video game industry crashed in 1983 just as it seemed to be flourishing. As the weeks wore on and the value of the industry’s leaders fell sharply, people began to understand the truth of the matter. There were too many consoles on the market, too many games that failed to meet any kind of quality standards, and zero accountability. People realized that there was little reason to buy a $200 video game console (almost $500 today) when they could put that money towards a home computer that could play games anyway.
The moment that consumers began to look at video game consoles in purely financial terms is the moment that the entire industry fell apart. Video game consoles had been a luxury purchase for some time before that. The trouble was that they lost the mystique that once made them appealing regardless of price.
Imagine if that mentality existed now. What if modern consumers looked at a console like the Nintendo Switch and said, “Eh. I’ve got a smartphone/computer/tablet that can also play games. Seems kind of silly to spend that much on something that only does that.” It would be almost impossible to justify making video game consoles at all.
Truth be told, Nintendo had no business making a video game console in 1983. However, they were perfectly safe making one in 1982, which is when the principal development of the Nintendo Famicom began. The original plan was for Nintendo to release the Famicom as a 16-bit home computer system complete with keyboard and floppy disk drive. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi felt that this setup would be too intimidating and cost too much. They wanted to be in the video game business and, at the time, the video game business was booming.
By the time that the Famicom actually released in Japan on July 15th, 1983, that was not necessarily the case. While the full brunt of the crash wouldn’t really set in until 1985, it was clear by that point that things were trending downward globally. Still, Nintendo looked at the success of the Famicom in Japan and saw no reason why they couldn’t replicate it in America.
Their initial plan was to team up with Atari and let them market the console to Western gamers. That plan fell apart when a misunderstanding led Atari to believe that Nintendo allowed Coleco to publish a version of Donkey Kong on the Coleco Adam computer. That version of Donkey Kong was developed without Nintendo’s knowledge, but by the time the whole mess was cleared up, Atari CEO Ray Kassar had been fired and the agreement fell apart.
This meant that Nintendo would need to market the game in America by themselves. It must have seemed like a disaster at the time, but it was actually the best thing that could have happened because it allowed Nintendo to escape the mistakes that Atari still clung to.
At this point in the story, people like to quickly summarize the success of the NES by stating that Nintendo marketed it like a toy and avoided the nasty stigma that came with video game consoles at the time. That’s not an entirely inaccurate interpretation of the event. Nintendo did devote a sizeable portion of their advertising to R.O.B. the robot in an attempt to present the NES as a more sophisticated and advanced device. He was their infamous “Trojan Horse.”
The problem with that version of the story is that it makes it sound like Nintendo deceived consumers in order to help the NES succeed. While it’s true that they employed a bit of chicanery in order to open people’s minds, the NES ultimately succeeded because Nintendo ensured that those who took the chance on an NES once it launched nationwide received one of the most consumer-friendly video game devices ever made.
It started with the price. In order to keep prices down, Nintendo had once again abandoned an elaborate plan to release a glorified computer bearing the NES name, but they could only reduce the price so much. To compensate for this, they offered a few different versions of the console at launch. Those who liked the idea of owning a video game console, but not the costs typically associated with that idea, could buy an NES by itself for $89.99. More daring consumers could opt for the $199.99 Deluxe Set that included R.O.B., the NES Zapper, two controllers, and a copy of Gyromite and Duck Hunt.
However, the best set of the bunch was the $99.99 bundle that included an NES and a copy of Super Mario Bros. After all, how could someone that is interested in buying an NES at $89.99 pass up spending $10 more to actually get a game to play with his/her console? Knowing that they had found a price point sweet spot with that bundle, Nintendo decided that the game they were essentially going to give away would be Super Mario Bros.
In the current era, a move like this would be unthinkable. Giving away a game is bad enough, but giving away a title that wasn’t just the best game available for the NES at launch but is arguably the greatest game of all-time? That’s lunacy.
Yet, Nintendo knew that once they got people to embrace the idea of buying a video game console again, they had to then convince them to once again trust video games themselves. Remember that one of the reasons the gaming market crashed is because store shelves – more accurately, bargain bins – were flooded with subpar titles that barely qualified as games. By including a heavy hitter like Super Mario Bros. with the NES, Nintendo could remind people of the thrill of gaming while also proving that the NES was a system that offered new experiences.
Their plan to restore people’s faith in games went well-beyond Mario, however, and extended to the 17 carefully curated titles that the NES launched with. While not every NES launch game was an all-time classic (raise your hand if you’ve played Clu Clu Land or Pinball), that’s still quite a few titles to choose from on day one. Certainly more than Nintendo has offered on day one for many of their later consoles, including the Switch.
Most importantly, early NES adopters knew exactly what they were getting when they purchased one of these 17 initial games. Nintendo went out of their way to ensure that most every NES launch title featured cover art that didn’t exaggerate the look or play of the game inside. As part of an inspired piece of marketing, they even stamped each title with an “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality” meant to convey that the game that bore this mark passed the stringent regulations set forth by Nintendo. The same company that brought you the brilliant Super Mario Bros., mind you.
Of course, that part of the arrangement was mostly window dressing. Many gamers have played poor titles bearing that little seal. Still, the seal represented Nintendo’s desire to not sit idly by and let others churn out games for their hardware while they sat back and counted cash. Their overbearing nature would go on to hurt them in later years, but at the time, it was the key to the perfect console launch.
Yes, the perfect launch. The NES debuted at a reasonable price accompanied by a large host of games that had been carefully selected by the console’s manufacturer. Among those games were a few genuine all-time classics and the best of those classics was included with the majority of consoles that were purchased. On top of all this, Nintendo released a plethora of compelling peripherals designed to show the versatility of the console while expanding its broad appeal. How many consoles can you heap such praise on?
The answer is “very few,” which is quite bizarre when you consider that the NES is considered to be the forbearer for nearly every console that would follow. If that’s true, then why is it that subsequent consoles – even those designed by Nintendo – haven’t been as consumer friendly at the time of their launch?
As the years go on, it’s becoming quite clear that companies don’t strive for spectacular launches like the one the NES enjoyed because they no longer have to. The success of the NES’ launch restored consumer faith in the potential of gaming as a form of entertainment in the markets where that faith had been devastated most. While companies just entering the console market – like Sony did with the PlayStation – and companies trying to restore faith in their own name – like Sega attempted to do with the Dreamcast – have faced challenges of their own, nobody had to endure the deep-seeded doubt that plagued the mind of gamers everywhere at the time of the NES’ launch. With their backs to the wall, Nintendo set out to address the concerns of millions through every facet of the NES’ nationwide day one offerings, and they succeeded in doing so because they had to.
The gaming world is different now. The need to blow everyone away from the start isn’t there. In its place is hope and faith in the new for the sake of it being new. In a way, it’s encouraging to know that console manufacturers have years to shape the legacy of their systems. Gamers understand that the day one offerings of a console are just the beginning. This patience and optimism – even when it is cautious optimism – may indeed be the foundations of a thriving video game business that may never again have to endure the sudden fall from grace it did in the early ’80s.
Until such an event occurs, however, you can be sure that we’ll never see another console launch quite like the launch of the NES.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.