In an attempt to break into the North American gaming market, the president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, requested employee Shigeru Miyamoto to helm a new project. Being the first time he ever found himself designing a game, Mr. Miyamoto took cues from various inspirations such as Popeye, Beauty and the Beast, and King Kong. The result was the 1981 arcade hit Donkey Kong, which fulfilled Mr. Yamauchi’s goal when it proved popular in the United States and Canada. As a testament to its success, by June of 1982, it had sold 60,000 cabinets, earning a profit of $180 million.
As the arcade scene was enjoying the height of its popularity, the video game market as a whole began to experience periods of rapid growth. Much of this growth could be attributed to the success of the Atari 2600 – the first successful console to utilize interchangeable cartridges. Many third-party developers sought to exploit this rapidly growing industry – Nintendo among them. Suddenly, Donkey Kong saw itself ported and packaged with the ColecoVision – one of the Atari 2600’s top competitors. However, Nintendo did not intend to remain a third-party developer for long.
Since 1980, designer Masayuki Uemura had been leading Nintendo’s R&D team with the intent to create a gaming system of their own. Their aim was for their product to be less expensive than its competitors while also performing at a level no one could match in the foreseeable future. In order to keep costs low, the team opted against using keyboards, modems, or floppy disks. If they were to develop any add-ons, a 15-pin expansion port connection could allow the use of peripheral devices. Having found success with his Game & Watch product line, which proposed the novel concept of portability in the medium, Gunpei Yokoi designed the console’s controller. The controls on a Game & Watch console were intended to replace the bulky joysticks found on arcade cabinets.
The console, dubbed the Family Computer or Famicom, launched on July 15, 1983. Its launch titles included ports of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Popeye. The Famicom sold well, but consumers quickly began complaining about the units freezing during gameplay. Upon discovering a faulty circuit, Nintendo recalled all of the consoles, suspending production until the issue was resolved. This cost the company millions of dollars. Despite this setback, they reissued the console with a new motherboard. This allowed the Famicom to outsell its primary competitor at the time: the Sega SG-1000. As 1984 drew to a close, Nintendo had sold over 2.5 million units. In the face of this success there was only one logical thing to do: turn their attention to markets abroad.
This proved to be easier said than done. One of the biggest obstacles Nintendo faced was convincing a skeptical public to adopt their system. The reason behind their potential consumers’ lack of faith in the industry stemmed from an event retrospectively dubbed the Video Game Crash of 1983. The Japanese themselves referred to it as the Atari Shock, which was an apt name given that company’s role in the recession. Popular culture attributes the crash to two high-profile disasters – the subpar Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man and the adaptation of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the latter of which became one of the most infamous titles in the medium. However, it’s inaccurate to assume those two games were the sole cause of the crash. If anything, they were symptoms of larger problem the medium as a whole was facing: oversaturation. Because the idea of publishers was a largely foreign concept in gaming at the time, there were few barriers to entry. Coupled with no quick method of determining whether or not a given game adorning store shelves was a quality product, consumers collectively turned their back on consoles.
Nintendo attempted to negotiate with Atari to release the Famicom outside of Japan where it would be known as the Nintendo Enhanced Video System. The companies appeared to have reached an agreement, and the contract papers were to be signed at the 1983 Summer Consumer Electronics Show. However, at the last minute, Atari refused to sign. Coleco, one of their primary competitors, demonstrated a prototype of Donkey Kong for their upcoming Coleco Adam computer system. Though a port had appeared on their earlier console, the ColecoVision, Atari had the exclusive distribution rights in the computer market. Atari then perceived this as Nintendo dealing with Coleco behind their backs. The issue was cleared up, but Atari’s financial problems as a result of the crash ensured they could not proceed with the deal. With nobody willing or able to distribute their product in North America, Nintendo had no choice but to proceed alone.
Mr. Yamauchi assessed that Atari collapsed because they gave too much freedom to third-party developers, swamping their system with barely functional games. They implemented a lockout chip to prevent unauthorized games from being played in their system. Unfortunately, even after taking these precautions, they had to deal with American retailers believing video games to be a passing fad. In order to have any chance of selling the Famicom to a foreign market, Nintendo had to downplay their product’s status as a video game console. Therefore, they decided to market it as a home computer called the Nintendo Advanced Video System (AVS). The AVS was to be then outfitted with a keyboard, cassette data recorder, and a cartridge containing a BASIC interpreter. Tying everything together would be a wireless infrared interface.
Nintendo showcased the AVS at the Consumer Electronics Show in the winter of 1985. Attendees were vaguely impressed, though they didn’t care for the keyboard or the wireless design. Still wary due to the 1983 crash, retailers didn’t order a single system. Even worse, the American gaming press felt the console could have any success in North America. One of the most damning statements came from the March 1985 issue of Electronic Games magazine wherein a writer felt that “this could be a miscalculation on Nintendo’s part”.
That summer, Nintendo returned to the Consumer Electronic Show with a new version of the AVS. They designed the system so it would not resemble a video game console at all, avoiding terms associated with the industry by calling the cartridges “Paks” and the console the “Control Deck”. This new model would also have a front-loading chamber as opposed to the Famicom’s top-loading slot. To further disguise its true nature, the console was renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Enforcing its status as a toy rather than a console were two peripherals: a toy called R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) and a light gun. Even after R.O.B. helped generate interest, retailers were still unwilling to distribute the console. From there, Nintendo redoubled their efforts, effecting telemarketing campaigns and demonstrations in shopping malls. Retailers at last relented upon learning they wouldn’t have to pay anything upfront. After ninety days, retailers would either pay or return everything to Nintendo. With the console slated for a launch in October of 1985, they knew they would need to make their launch an impactful one. To this end, they decided to bundle each console with one of their games. Luckily for them, Shigeru Miyamoto was putting the finishing touches on a game perfect for such a monumental task. Its name was Super Mario Bros.
Released in 1985 as a North American launch title, Super Mario Bros. quickly became one of the bestselling games in history, eventually moving over 40 million copies. Both the game and the console on which it debuted are credited with reviving the North American industry from the brink of death. As one of the most famous games in existence, could Super Mario Bros. still have a rightful claim as one of the greatest of all time?