The Drawing Board
After the dust
settled from failed talks between Nintendo and Atari in 1984, the video
game industry in the U.S. was in serious trouble. Prices on new titles
were dipping to $5 and below, while toy stores were refusing to buy anything
at all from Atari for fear of more losses. Despite the slump overseas,
however, Nintendo was still raking in the dough with their Famicom in Japan.
Determined to milk the 8-Bit console on an international scale, Nintendo
set its sights on capturing the risky, yet lucrative games market of the
If anyone could
have revived the ailing industry, it was Nintendo. They had the hardware,
and the games to conquer America, but it was going to be uphill all the
way. At the time, toy wholesalers were refusing to buy anything with the
words "video game" on it. To beat the negative perception, Nintendo had
to design a console clearly different from Atari and the generation of
machines that had come before it. The result was the AVS (Advanced Video
System), a console that looked "futuristic" (in that dated '80s sort of
way) and included a light gun and keyboard attachments.
at the Winter 1984 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the AVS
made a splash with its pamphlets, which trumpeted "The future of American
home video game entertainment." Although first impressions with toy resellers
were good, nobody took the bait -- it all hit too close to home with those
dreaded video games.
Back at the
drawing board, NOA tried to differentiate the Famicom even further from
Atari's notion of console gaming. The emphasis shifted to a new controller
design, a packed-in light gun (the Zapper), and an incredibly cool (albeit
gimmicky) little friend named R.O.B. (the Robotic Operating Buddy). It
was absolutely vital that the new system have no vestiges of previous home
consoles. It's not a video game -- it's an "entertainment system." It doesn't
use cartridges -- it uses "game paks," and you weren't just playing a game
-- you were engaging in pure "entertainment."
It wasn't a
cartridge, it was a "Game Pak"
Like the AVS
before it, reaction to the NES' premiere at the Summer 1985 CES was lukewarm.
Thankfully, Nintendo's wizened leader Yamauchi, known even back then for
his stubbornness, refused to acknowledge popular opinion at the time. He
demanded that the NES be test marketed to see what would happen. He gave
Nintendo of America a $50 million budget and ordered them to spread the
love in New York City.
Toy stores in
New York were among the hardest hit by the home video game market crash
of 1984. Those that survived the losses weren't about to take more chances
on video games from an unknown Japanese company whose name they couldn't
even pronounce. Nintendo's marketing team had their task set out for them.
was slow and gradual. The first major company to express interest was Toys
'R' Us, and in October 1985, the NES made its debut on their shelves. To
back the in-store promotions, Nintendo blitzed the area with special demo
kiosks and the first "Now you're playing with power!" TV ads. Their travails
paid off -- about 50,000 NES packages were sold, exciting retailers and
reassuring Yamauchi that the "entertainment system" was, indeed, a viable
including Los Angeles and Chicago, were test marketed in early 1986, with
a national release to finally occur in June. By the end of the year, a
whopping one million NES units made their way into American homes. That
figure climbed to 5 million in 1987 and exploded to over 12 million in
1988. The rest, as they say, is history.
At last, gamers
and retailers realized that Nintendo really was playing with power.