Sad But True: We Can't Prove When Super Mario Bros. Came Out
Super Mario Bros. is one of video game history's greatest treasures. Its massive world full of colorful characters and hidden secrets informed the design of just about every action-adventure game that came after it. It spawned numerous sequels, television shows, comic books, merchandising, and even a feature film.
And at over 40 million copies sold worldwide (not counting the various ports and reimaginings over the last couple decades), this is arguably the game that brought business back to an American home video game industry that had plummeted to next to nothing in the early '80s, the victim of an oversaturated market that left stores full of excess inventory that was practically given away.
And yet, we don't know exactly when the game came out. In fact, talk to enough people and you'll come to find out that we can't even agree on the year the game came out, at least in the United States (in Japan, we know exactly when it shipped: September 13, 1985).
This isn't Amelia Earhart or the Bermuda Triangle we're talking about here: this is one of the highest grossing consumer entertainment products in history, introduced less than 30 years ago, and we can't seem to get the date right.
I decided recently to try to set this right. I wanted to prove, once and for all, exactly when Super Mario Bros. invaded North America. I wanted to put this whole embarrassing mess behind us so that the history books of the future could be properly informed, and so that places like Wikipedia would have a definitive source to cite.
Did I find the answer? Well, sort of. Read on to see just how difficult this search turned out to be.
First, A History Lesson
Back in 1985, Nintendo of America was a pretty small venture, dealing primarily in arcade game distribution (if anyone in the U.S. knew the name, they associated it with Donkey Kong), the licensing of its properties to other companies, and its handheld Game & Watch LCD games. So when it showed off a prototype of what would become the Nintendo Entertainment System at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show that January, buyers scoffed.
The system was huge in its native Japan, where it was known as the Family Computer -- it pushed 2.5 million units in 1984 alone, along with 15 million game cartridges. But American retail buyers, still burned by the video game industry crash of 1983, didn't care. Video games were dead and buried; they were toy store poison. People were fired over bum video game deals that resulted in shelves being crammed with five dollar clearance titles, and no matter how great these new Nintendo games may have looked, no one was about to take that risk again.
Nintendo of America's strength was in recognizing that there was still a market to be claimed. It wasn't as if the crash caused kids to stop buying games -- in fact, 1983 was a record year for cartridge sales, and quarters were still piling up in arcade machines around the country, too. The problem was that the home games paled in comparison to those in the arcade.
The NES, meanwhile, actually offered something resembling the arcade experience at home, or at least a reasonable facsimile. In the case of many of Nintendo's own games, the hardware was literally the same as what was powering their arcade counterparts, meaning they were truly arcade-perfect. A common theme in talking to Nintendo employees of the time is that if players just got their hands on the system, they'd be sold.
"We had a pretty strong belief that if we could get the consumer to try the product or experience the product, they would believe it was a new form of entertainment that they wanted to participate in," Gail Tilden, who was in charge of the company's PR and marketing at the time, once told me.
So instead of waiting for buyers to warm up to the idea, Nintendo risked everything by offering stores an unbelievably sweet deal: rather than being stuck with unsold inventory, Nintendo would buy back any unsold merchandise. They would even come in and set up the displays and demonstrate the games. All a store would have to sacrifice would be shelf space.
This all culminated in a test market launch limited to the areas surrounding New York City lasting from October of 1985 through Christmas Eve. A sort of "SWAT team" of Nintendo employees worked out of a rundown rented warehouse in Hackensack, New Jersey, delivering inventory and decorations by hand, setting up and tearing down displays, and showing off the games to any shoppers who would listen. Even company president Minoru Arakawa himself could occasionally be seen running a TV set up a flight of stairs.
"He was just one of the guys," Howard Phillips, who worked for Nintendo at the time, told me. "He'd go out there and do a lot of this stuff with us. He wouldn't necessarily run all the TVs up, but he might run one up, just to see what it was like. He was that kind of guy."
The test market wasn't a complete sellout, but it was encouraging enough to eventually go national. At first the system was bundled with two titles, Duck Hunt and Gyromite, meant to show off its Zapper light gun and R.O.B. the Robot accessories (marketing the system as something more like a toy than a game console like Atari's products was probably an easier sell for shops).
By the end of 1986, with the system available nationwide, Nintendo started offering an optional system bundle that included Super Mario Bros. in the box. As the story goes, the move sparked a surge in sales that revived the home video game industry and put an NES in nearly one in five American homes. But was the game available before this?