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Sad But True: We Can't Prove When Super Mario Bros. Came Out

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Sad But True: We Can't Prove When Super Mario Bros. Came Out

March 28, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

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?


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Comments


Prash Nelson-Smythe
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This is a great illustration of how unknown even recent history can be.

It's tempting to think that we have an accurately recorded or remembered sequence of events that constitute "history" but there is so much that is unobserved or forgotten. In many cases the collective memory of a population distorts past events so that they fit the current mindset (seems to happen a lot in gaming).

So much of this information is lost and we'll never be able to get it back. It's actually quite liberating to accept this fact and move on with life. Almost everything is unknown.

Kyle Orland
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For me, Super Mario Bros. came out on August 17, 1989, my 7th birthday and the day we brought our NES home from Circuit City. TAKE THAT HISTORY!

Also, great piece!

Kris Graft
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Careful! Someone will update the release date in Wikipedia to August 17, 1989.

Mike Siciliano
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Wow. I would have never guessed that I received my NES before you, and I'm younger than you too. Got it around '88 or so. Don't recall when or how. I just know it was around that time (the gray Zapper kind of helps me narrow down the time period).

Kyle Orland
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@Kris: someone said it on the Internet... that means it's GOOD ENOUGH FOR WIKIPEDIA!

Amir Sharar
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I got it even later. I did play SMB in 86 though, a rich friend of mine imported one from the US. But never had my own copy until much later.

My uncle worked as a distributor and got me an NES in Christmas 86 with no pack in game, but he got me The Legend of Zelda. And that was the only game I had until 1990 when we got another NES with SMB and Duckhunt. Never got SMB and 3 for myself, always played them at friends houses.

Wyatt Epp
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A couple years back I actually had a Super Mario Brothers arcade machine. I always assumed that it had been fitted into the Popeye cabinet as an aftermarket conversion, but you've given me reason to question this. Very interesting.

Frank Cifaldi
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Wyatt: that is very likely. Vs. Super Mario Bros was sold exclusively as a conversion kit. I want to say primarily for Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong Jr., but Popeye makes sense too.

If you're referring to what I was saying about Steven Kent's quote, what I'm questioning is his assertion that there was a phantom arcade version of Super Mario Bros. that predates both the Famicom game and the arcade machine you owned, Vs. Super Mario Bros. There is no proof for that at all.

I'm not trying to call Steve Kent out specifically here (his book is an invaluable asset to me!), but my point is we as historians should question everything, including our colleagues.

Sean Owen
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There absolutely was an arcade version that predated the release of the console. I used to play it every day after school. Most of my excitement about the release of the original console came from the announcement that Super Mario Bros would be available on it.

The console version had minor differences from the arcade version as well that I remember quite distinctly. In particular, those familiar with the game will recall one place where you can get infinite 1ups by bouncing on a turtle shell as it walks down one of the staircases before a level-end castle. In the arcade version you could do the same (especially valuable knowledge since those infinite lives saved you actual quarters). It was harder, though, as in the arcade version the turtles in question where the bouncing kind with wings and red shells.

Oh my misspent youth.

Frank Cifaldi
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Sean: the arcade version did not predate the console version. The game wrapped up development in mid-1985 in Japan, came out on the Famicom in September, came out on the NES...whenever it came out, and it debuted as a Vs. System arcade game in 1986. I unfortunately don't have access to my coin-op trade mag collection right now but I believe it debuted at a trade show in February 1986 and launched soon after.

Harold Myles
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The earliest I can remember playing the SMB Arcade Version (in a gas station) was around the time that Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. So no doubt there was an arcade version in the U.S. in 1986.

Ron Dippold
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I certainly don't miss the days before having an Internet exobrain. Well, I miss some things - but certainly not that.

Ben Hopper
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Really good article. However, I'm curious if the author has read the book "Game Over" by David Sheff, which I found to be an amazing account of Nintendo's history.

Frank Cifaldi
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Of course I have Ben. Several times. The only reason it's not mentioned in the article is because Sheff does not attempt to date the U.S. launch of Super Mario Bros. anywhere in the book. It's the same reason I didn't list Leonard Herman's Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Video Games, Super Mario by Jeff Ryan, etc.

jim devos
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He must have not read it very thoroughly. Scheff does in fact date SMB's release, and even mentions it on the very first page of his book.

http://www.amazon.com/Game-Over-Nintendo-Conquered-World/dp/06797
36220

Use the "click to look inside!" feature. It's right there.

Frank Cifaldi
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Jim: Yes, he says 1985, which is when the game was first released in Japan. Nowhere in the book does he attempt to specify when the game came out in the United States.

Thomas Arnold
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Too bad it wasn't October 20th, my birthday.

Matt Walker
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I vividly remember that SMB arcade game (definitely not the VS one). It was got me interested in the NES as a kid! The reason I wanted an NES so bad was because I would actually be able to play "arcade games" at home without having to feed it quarters.

The arcade version I had played had 2 screens, if I remember correctly - one was playing SMB and the other was Duck Hunt.

Frank Cifaldi
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Matt, you were playing Vs. Super Mario Bros. on a Vs. DualSystem, with Vs. Duck Hunt on the other monitor. There is no 1984 Super Mario Bros. arcade game.

Nathan Mehl
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Frank: he could potentially be conflating it with the PlayChoice-10 version, although you're probably right that he's just misremembering the VS one.

Matt Walker
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Allright, you're right - I was getting the Vs. version confused with the PlayChoice-10 version when stating it WASN'T Vs. SO that would mean I WAS playing the Vs. one.

Luke Meeken
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Frank: I definitely didn't see it before the console release, but my neighborhood Domino's Pizza had a single-screen arcade version of Super Mario Bros in the early 90s. Was there a non-Vs. version released after the console release, as well?

Nathan Mehl
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Luke: the single-screen SMB was almost certainly a PlayChoice 10 or a pirate mod. I don't think there was ever an official Nintendo standalone single-screen SMB, although I invite correction on that count.

Frank Cifaldi
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Okay, let's try to set this straight:

There was a single-screen, Mario-only cabinet called Vs. Super Mario Bros. It was part of the Vs. Series line of games from Nintendo, which was being promoted pre-NES and in the first year or two that the NES was out. The arcade version is slightly modified from the original game, with some different layouts and warp zones and stuff. If you've played it on its own you played it on a Vs. UniSystem, if you've played it (like Matt did) with another game on screen two, you played it on a Vs. DualSystem. Vs. Super Mario Bros. debuted sometime in 1986, I believe it was first shown at an arcade trade show around February.

Mario was also available on the (later) PlayChoice-10 system. This was essentially an arcade cabinet with slots for ten (slightly modified) NES games, with a second screen that displayed instructions.

Joe Zachery
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All you have to do is find the legal fingerprints. Products such as video games must be copyrighted and there is a legal trail.

Frank Cifaldi
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Joe, read the article, I spell out exactly when the game was copyrighted and even link to the submission. It didn't help.

David Dayton
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Frank -- excellent job. I'm happy someone else is finally digging into this little problem! I tried getting some NOA folks to comment when I was researching the TMK article, but kept running into dead-ends. I'm going to have to update mine to reflect your new findings!

You note that Tilden remembers a guy buying "all fifteen" titles. Did Tilden specify 15 exactly, or just "all" of the launch titles?

Frank Cifaldi
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Hey David, thanks for inspiring this article. Sorry it took me a year and a half to reply to your email, and that my reply was a three-page article.

From my 2010 interview with Gail: "I think he might have bought all 15 cartridges that were sold separately."

I didn't record my call with Bruce Lowry, but he also said there were 15 games, unprompted.

I didn't specifically ask about the count to anyone else, but looking through my notes: Don James didn't happen to mention the number, and the closest Howard Phillips came was in this discussion about the selection process:

"I distinctly remember him dropping the box of cartridges on my desk and saying, 'Which ones of these should we bring to the U.S.?' And I said what do you mean? And he said 'We should bring maybe 15 games, but it should be games for everybody!' And so I said okay, and I played through all of them, out of that came down with a short list of well, here's the ones that are not dreck."

(the "dreck" thing makes more sense in context...he's not saying that the 15 games were merely passable, he's saying that he got rid of the dreck first and they whittled it down from there)

David Dayton
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Hmm. The continual reference to 15 titles would seem to lock in SMB as a release game, as we'd only have 14 titles without it -- unless, of course, it was planned for launch but delayed.

Hayden Dawson
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What about approaching the 'mystery' of any test market of a cabinet from the angle of the arcades themselves? If nintendo was looking to get real world data at the time, they likely would have looked for places they knew the game would get play. The top local arcades, roller rinks, bowling alleys, mini-golflands, etc. They also may have needed to use existing pinball/cigarette machine distributors to handle the day-to-day upkeep and coin collecting. If you have any rumors on where these tests might have been, that should cut down on the possible locations even more.

Frank Cifaldi
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Hayden they didn't do cabinet tests of the arcade game, they did a retail test for the home system with the games. The arcade game debuted AFTER the home game (we think).

A W
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I remember having a friend that had the Rob Robot Nes with the Gyromite game (I think it was called.) Did Nintendo sell that version of the system along side of the Duck / Hunt Mario version and then later just discontinue it in favor of the latter? For some reason I always considered Rob Robot to be the earlier version of the NES systems.

On a side note I never actually got to see Rob work, because my friend never had batteries.

Bill Loguidice
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Great job, Frank. I hope this leads to - at minimum - some dated receipts surfacing, though I wonder if specific items would be listed on them back then...

Hayden Dawson
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I was thinking for sure some collector would have that, or a still price marked mint box that might have some sort of date stamp.

Leonard Herman
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Frank, I just noticed that the 3rd edition of Phoenix also had Super Mario Bros released in 1986. The 4th edition has it in the 1985 chapter, but no specific date. (I should have sent that to you last week :) )

Frank Cifaldi
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Lenny! Do you have any material I don't that could help?

Leonard Herman
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Frank, No.

Chris Hardewig
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Hey look, the mystery was solved about 1.5 years ago already
http://themushroomkingdom.net/smb_release.shtml

Frank Cifaldi
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Hey look, someone on the internet replies to articles without reading them.

David Dayton
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Someone on the internet also links to articles without reading them, it seems.

Stephen Chin
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I'm wondering if the mystery arcade version is a mis-rememberance of the Mario Bros. arcade game (no Super) which looked like http://www.ilovethe80s.com/mario_brothers.jpg.

Stacey Kaminski
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That's exactly what I was thinking, Stephen.

George Blott
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Really fun article, Frank. I enjoyed reading it.

Chris Busse
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Nice article! I'm surprised NOA wasn't more helpful.

A W
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It's not that they weren't helpful. It was that they have limited resources atm to pull together information on the old team that was in charge during that period to get an official answer. Nintendo is gearing up to get the Wi U ready for display and distribution. It may not seem like a big job to get a simple question answered, but for a company of that size and longevity, it is important for them to have the correct answer when they can answer.

Frank Cifaldi
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Yeah, I want to echo what A W posted. I don't necessarily think Nintendo was intentionally unhelpful for whatever reason, I tend to think the company's either too busy, that information is too hard to dig up (especially after the office move), or for some red tape reasons they simply can't.

Kurt Reiser
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As I remember, growing up in the 90s playing Mario Super bros in random kids houses after school and fighting over the controllers, I thought it came out like 1993 or some time recently. When I checked the back of the cartridge it said 1986 I was shocked as a kid something from the turn of the last decade was so popular among kids my age. Not soon after that super nes came out.

Matthew Mather
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"Kent also says that "an arcade version of the game predates the NES version and the well-known VS version," and that this original arcade version shipped in 1984. This is interesting given that there is no historical record of this earlier arcade game ever existing, and even more interesting considering that game director Shigeru Miyamoto himself has said that full development on Super Mario Bros. did not start until 1985."

I've seen this machine, and even played it briefly. [EDIT: See below for clarification.] I remember it well because playing the (original?) Super Mario Bros. arcade game was a big factor in deciding that I wanted the NES instead of the Master System for Christmas. I remember it being distinct from the other games because at the time there weren't many other platformers in arcades, and it was the first platformer I remember seeing with scrolling. But for some reason, I can't find any trace of it's existence. (I also don't remember encountering Donkey Kong or Mario Bros. before SMB in arcades, but I was pretty young at the time. But this was definitely SMB and not DK or MB, because I remember the way the screen scrolled as a previous player explored one of the castle dungeons. The rotating fireball-trap thingy left a big impression.)

I don't recall exactly how the levels differed, which is at least partly due to the fact that I only played the arcade version a couple times over a year before we got the NES (in 1987), but I do remember when I first played the NES version I noticed that the first level was completely different to what I remembered, and the castle dungeon layout that I remembered seemed to correspond to a later level. Otherwise, it was mostly the same jumping, fireball-shooting game I played in the arcade.

EDIT: After all the rigamarole, I might just be remembering the Vs. version. Of course, I didn't know it was called that until just now and the wikipedia article didn't mention that version when I last tried to research the subject. Well, anyway, my point is that whatever I played definitely 100% predated the nationwide NES release. My six year old self, quite keen on keeping track of commercials for potential Christmas presents, is pretty sure of that fact.

EDIT 2: Also, this would NOT be 1984, but early 1986, which works with what is known about the Vs. version. Just want to clear that up. Sorry for the confusion.

Craig Page
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I know the exact date, but I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money.

Marlon Moser
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In Donkey Kong, the hero is also named Mario.

Earnest Pettie
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It would make sense to have a Friday ship/release date because the move to Tuesdays was a reaction to people skipping school on Fridays to go buy new music/games

Jeremy Holla
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Great article. Got mine in 87 and never been the same since.

Martin Goldberg
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Frank - Mushroom Kingdom was not the first to question it. As you see in the article he mentions "multiple Wikipedia discussions" that preceded his article. What he's referring to was a series of discussions between myself and several other researchers there that covered pretty much the same material here (and drew the same November conclusion). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Super_Mario_Bros./Archive_1#North_American_Release_Date and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Super_Mario_Bros./Archive_2#1986_NA_release_date and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Super_Mario_Bros./Archive_2#Possible_Confirmation_of_1985_ Release_Date


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