It’s been 30 years since Nintendo’s NES first hit stores in the United States. Or at least, select outlets in New York City.
Widely acknowledged as the most influential video game platform of all time, the console singlehandedly revived the American video game market. Sales of machines produced by the likes of Atari and Mattel were in freefall, prompting widespread doubt that another gaming-only device could compete with (what was considered to be) the future of electronic entertainment: Personal computers.
Enter Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Confident in his product—not least due to its success in Japan—Yamauchi convinced his American executives to launch the newly titled NES (Nintendo Entertainment System, known in its homeland as the Famicon) in New York City. To begin with, it didn’t quite work out.
Retailers weren’t interested in stocking the console, prompting Minoru Arakawa—head of Nintendo America/absurdly brave businessman—to roll his company’s financial dice: He informed retailers that Nintendo would set up in-store displays of the shiny new gaming console for potential purchasers to test out. Free of charge! In addition to this, they would only be required to pay for units actually sold; anything surplus could be returned, no questions asked. For retailers, it seemed like there was nothing to lose and a few agreed to stock the NES.
The best part? Minoru Arakawa hadn’t shared details of his potentially catastrophic gamble with seniors at Nintendo central. Luckily for him, the bold move paid off...eventually. But the NES was no overnight success—retailers sold barely half of the units manufactured during 1985’s holiday season, while the console didn’t officially go on sale countrywide until late the next year.
The NES console hit stores in NYC on October 18th, 1985, costing gamers a dollar shy of three-hundred bucks. Certainly not cheap, even by today’s standards. This ‘deluxe’ package came complete with a ‘zapper light gun’ that was used to play ‘Duck Hunt,’ plus R.O.B., the Robot Operating Buddy. Neither of these ultramodern gimmicks utilizing a conventional control stick was part of Nintendo’s strategy to distance itself from increasingly unpopular gaming systems available at the time.
15 further titles were available upon the NES’s U.S. launch, including Hogan’s Alley, Wild Gunman and Excitebike. What would prove to be Nintendo’s biggest success, Super Mario Bros., had debuted in Japan, though American audiences would have to wait until May 1987 for the plumber’s Stateside debut.
Upon release in Japan, the Famicon had only three titles available; a far cry from the 17 offered to the American market (including 2 games bundled with the console).
The first NES TV commercial aired in the United States in December 1985. And yes, it’s rather cringeworthy. Check it out for yourself:
Nintendo’s console would eventually go on to sell 62 million units worldwide, with 34 million shifted in the United States alone. It wasn’t officially discontinued until 2003, some 20 years after its initial release in Japan.
The NES's launch made a very clear statement: Video games were not only back, but planned to stick around for a very, very long time.
They weren’t wrong.