It’s October 18th, 1985, on a chilly Autumn day in Manhattan, New York City. The mid-80’s made for an interesting time to release a video game console because there’s nothing purposeful about the date at all. Back in those days, to sell a console, Nintendo had to convince retailers to display their product in store windows and on show floors next to stacks of systems and hope parents would buy it for their kids for Christmas. October 18th was simply the day they happened to get that setup completed in our particular store.
There was no Internet.
Commercials were expensive.
The market had been stung by the Atari crash of 1983.
Yet, here we are, at the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System at FAO Schwartz — just 3 years before the store would be made famous in the movie Big. (Wow, I feel old.)
You’re a young kid walking through the store with your family when you see a display unlike anything you have seen before. The first thing that catches your attention is the large eyes of our favorite robotic operating buddy, R.O.B. It’s a pyramid display showcasing an NES Deluxe Set covered in game swatches.
Nearby are interactive kiosks allowing people to play one of the games. There was always one system set up with a Zapper and Duck Hunt, that was for certain. The other could’ve been anything, but it wasn’t Super Mario Bros. for one simple reason: it didn’t exist yet.
Nintendo didn’t launch with Super Mario Bros. There’s some debate about when it was released, and Nintendo did promote it at launch, but the game wasn’t available for sale anywhere until much later. (It had only recently been released in Japan and hadn’t been ported over yet.)
What might be even more incredible to realize is that there was only one SKU to buy the system itself. The Deluxe Set came with a R.O.B., Zapper, and two controllers along with the NES and two games on a single cartridge: Gyromite and Duck Hunt. The box had a mostly black front with only a large image of R.O.B.’s eyes, the Nintendo logo, and the words “Entertainment System” written in yellow.
To own an NES on launch day was to own this set. And those words, Entertainment System, are interesting themselves. Nintendo was terrified to associate their product with Atari, Intellivision, or Colecovision. They wanted to be an “entertainment” system.
Let’s go one step further. Upon gazing upon the NES for the first time, what’s another interesting thing you notice? The way you load the game is sideways and unlike any of the other systems you’re familiar with at the time. (This mechanism was dubbed as Zero Insertion Force or ZIF.) Contrast this even with the japanese version of the NES, the Famicom.
So, why would Nintendo change the way games were loaded when their own system did it vertically as well? Well, again, why did they call it the Entertainment System? As it is, Nintendo wanted US consumers to associate the NES not with other video game consoles, but another product that was more beloved at the time.
That’s right, the iconic look and bundled accessories of the original NES were all meant to make you think not of a video game console…but a movie player. Incredible!
And now you’re hooked! You’ve played the demo games and you want one. “Mom, Dad! Can we buy it? Please! PLEASE?!” Dad looks at the pricetag. It’s $149.99. That sounds like a good price now, but in 1985 this felt like what $314.52 is today. So, right in line with the cost of systems like a Wii U or PS4.
While mom and dad chat quietly, you walk over to the games hanging on the wall. (Nearby the literal stacks of system boxes!) You’re in luck, all 14 of the launch titles (that were sold separately) are there. They are:
- 10-Yard Fight
- Clu Clu Land
- Hogan’s Alley
- Ice Climber
- Kung Fu
- Stack Up
- Wild Gunman
- Wrecking Crew
Wow, 43% of them are sports titles.
Every single game had a look you’ve grown to love today. They all have a black background with slightly altered (enhanced) pixelized details of the game above the title, affectionately known as black-box games. Every game looks like this and you won’t see anything that looks different for four more months when The Legend of Zelda gets released….
That’s right. There’s no Legend of Zelda at launch.
In fact, that’s everything. There are no controllers sold separately because you’re already getting two so why would you need more? There’s no Zapper or R.O.B. in its own box because you are already getting those in the package, too. (Those would only be sold separately a year later when the Basic Set is released.) The NES Advantage won’t come until 1987. The MAX in 1988.
Another interesting tidbit is that Pro Wrestling wasn’t a launch title. It would come out in March, 1987, as part of the 4th wave of black-box games by Nintendo. In fact, the first wrestling game to appear on the NES is also the first 3rd-party title the system would ever see published: Tag Team Wrestling by Data East.
(But Pro Wrestling is still the best wrestling game in NES history, we all know that.)
Console launches have come a long way since Nintendo of America executives had to hit the pavement convincing store owners to market their product in their stores. Toys R Us almost refused as well as they’d been hit hard by the game crash. That leads us to the most amazing factoid of all.
The NES wasn’t sold nationwide until one year later!
By the time the entire country outside of NYC and other big cities got NES systems in their stores, all three Donkey Kong titles were already released. (They arrived in the summer of 1986.) There were about 28 titles available for the system (and sadly Chubby Cherub was one of them). Also, nationwide, you could buy the system in a smaller bundle that included just the NES and two controllers. (This is when Gyromite and R.O.B. became standalone products available in those sweet, sweet boxes.)
Here’s how it was advertised:
Truly a magical time.
Oh, and look over there…your parents said yes and are in line right now. Conglaturation !!! You’re about to own your first NES! Enjoy it!