Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy Godammed Birthday!

I feel almost contractually obligated to deliver some words about today, the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Considering that Chrontendo owes its entire existence to this this occurence, I suppose I should write something about the birth of Nintendo's 8-bit juggernaut.

To mark the special occasion, I decided to not use the standard Wikipedia NES photo.

The thing is, I don' know exactly what occurred on October 18th, the "official" date of the launch of the NES.  Nowadays, a console launch is a carefully coordinated event, with retailers placing orders and receiving product well before the street date.  The release date itself is generally announced well in advance, and fan boys start lining up outside of Best Buys a day or so before the thing actually goes on sale.   None of this was true back in 1985, however.

When Nintendo finally decided to make a concerted effort to sell the Famicom the US, they selected New York City as the test market.  Between 30 to 40 NOA executives and employees relocated from Redmond, Washington to a warehouse in Hackensack, NJ in the summer of 1985.  Armed with a $5 million dollar advertising budget, Nintendo's "SWAT Team," as they called themselves, began setting up promotional events in shopping malls and pestering retailers about carrying their new product. According to David Sheff:

"In October the push began in earnest. In pairs, the SWAT team hit the pavements, visiting department stores and large and small toy and electronics retailers.  They worked to convince companies such as Toys "R" Us, Sears, Circuit City, and Macy's  Although Charles Lazarus, founding chairman of  Toys "R" Us, and a very few others were receptive, most people could not pronounce Nintendo and were not interested in learning how."

The SWAT team themselves built and set up the in-store displays for the NES, and retailers were given the promise that Nintendo would buy back any unsold merchandise after Christmas.  Most stores were still resistant, but through sheer persistence, Nintendo got the console in about 500 locations by Christmas.  The final sales for 1985 were around 50,000.  Here's the first NES commercial aired in the NY area, courtesy of 1UP.

So what happened on October 18th?  Certainly, Nintendo, desperate for sales, didn't deliver consoles, games and displays to stores, and then tell them not to sell anything until that date?  Was 10/18 the date of the first console sold?  According to Gail Tilden, the first unit sold was at FAO Schwarz in Manhattan, though the article linked doesn't specifically date the sale as occurring on 10/18.   Interestingly, Scheff describes an impressive display being set up at FAO Schwarz later in the holiday season, but doesn't mention them as an early adapter of the NES.  Certainly, getting your new product to launch at the oldest and most famous toy store in the US would be a pretty big deal!  It strikes me as odd that if FAO Schwarz was one of the first retailers to commit to the NES, smaller toy stores would be so uninterested in carrying it was well.  And 10/18 was apparently not even always the canonical date for the system's launch.  The old Nintendo website claimed that the NES was "was released in the US in August, 1985." 

Well, regardless of what did or didn't happen 25 years ago today as bunch of overworked Nintendo employees were gradually discovering the horrors of New York winters,  we all fell in love with that ugly gray box.  And 25th years later we still have a weird little fetish for the thing.


Anonymous said...

Happy birthday, NES! No matter how nerdy this sounds, my life would be very different if it weren't for you.

Thank you!

Chris Sobieniak said...

I was 8 when all this was happening that day, but the eventual sight of that "ugly gray box" and what was contained in it certainly got me all worked up over wanting a game system long after the ColecoVision faded to obscurity.