The 1986 Myth
Most of our history books -- and there just aren't that many yet, sadly -- tell us that Super Mario Bros. did not come to America until 1986. Most famously, Steven Kent's The Ultimate History of Video Games specifically calls out that the game "had not been introduced" when the system debuted in New York. Chris Kohler in his book Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life says that game "arrived in 1986." Tristan Donovan, in Replay: The History of Video Games (a personal favorite) goes as far as to say the game came out in the United States very specifically in March, 1986.
I had never questioned that the game came out in 1986, even using the date myself in an article I published back in 2010 reflecting on this test market launch. It was only in response to my mistake that I was alerted to this article on Super Mario Bros. fan site The Mushroom Kingdom, which as far as I know was the first to question that date and attempt to do any research to fix it. The article does an admirable job of digging up a paper trail to try and show that the game, despite what historians have said, actually did launch with the system.
Kent himself was asked to clarify, and blogged that his interviews with Nintendo alumni Howard Lincoln, Minoru Arakawa and Howard Philips all told him that the game was not available at launch, and did not come out until the nationwide launch in 1986.
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.
It wasn't just Kent, though. Digging through my own notes, Nintendo's Don James -- who is still with the company to this day -- told me in 2010 that the game came out "about four months later" than the test market launch.
But as any detective or historian will tell you, human memory should not be considered a primary source where possible. Memory's faulty. You need documentation.
The Paper Trail
Before we go on, it should be noted that Nintendo has an internal launch date for both the NES and Super Mario Bros.: October 18, 1985. For most that would be the end of it: we have an official source stating an exact date, end of story. But I want to know where that date came from, and what it actually means. Besides, Nintendo has been wrong about its own history before.
The first thing I did when starting my research was to put in a request to Nintendo to see if it could substantiate this date in any way. Meanwhile, I wanted to see if I could do this myself.
When I told friends and colleagues about this article, just about all of them asked whether finding vintage news coverage would simply solve the mystery. The problem with this logic is that there wasn't really a video game journalism field in 1985. All of the traditional video game magazines had, post-crash, switched focus to the home computer market by then, if they were still around at all.
"I don't know that we got any coverage at that time that we didn't pay for," Tilden once told me. There may have been a small amount of coverage in consumer electronics trade publications then, but in years of searching I haven't been able to locate any.
Other than some minor mentions here and there, we do have one bit of substantial coverage: Ed Semrad, who would later become the editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly, wrote about the NES test launch in the October 5, 1985 edition of his "Video Adventures" column for the Milwaukee Journal. Thankfully Semrad has always been a stickler for details, and he individually lists all of the games planned for launch: the two titles included with the system (Gyromite and Duck Hunt) and 15 individual games sold separately, including Super Mario Bros. Those with eagle eyes might also notice a title slated for 1986 that never actually happened. I won't spoil which one.
Given how specific this report is, Semrad was obviously working directly with Nintendo, or at least its external PR firm. Fellow video game journalists may be tickled to know that Edelman, the guys you call for any of your Microsoft coverage needs, handled the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System. I called to Edelman to see if it had an archive of its old material anywhere, which it doesn't, though I'd like to express my thanks to the receptionist at the New York office for digging around and emailing "five or six people" for me in an attempt to help.
Substantiating Semrad's list of 15 launch games would solidify Super Mario Bros. being a 1985 game, proving the history books wrong, but there's a hitch. Check Wikipedia and you'll find a list of 15 launch games that differs slightly from Semrad's: Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Mach Rider appear in the place of Soccer and...Super Mario Bros.
The citation for this list is Nintendo's own Super Smash Bros. Brawl game for the Wii, released in 2008. Specifically, it cites the in-game Chronicle section, which lists every game published by Nintendo as of December, 2007.
I don't have access to the game myself, but a friend of Gamasutra's managed to get this picture for us, and despite what Wikipedia says, Super Mario Bros. is indeed included among the 10/85 launch list.
I'm not sure how or why the Wikipedia author who wrote this managed to leave off the game, but there you go. Even Nintendo's list seems slightly off (there are 18 games there, not 17), but at least we've managed to prove that Nintendo itself is consistent with that October timeframe.
The paper trail doesn't end here, though. We have four additional pieces of evidence to support Semrad's list and show that Super Mario Bros. was indeed available to purchase during that test market period.
First is this November 17, 1985 advertisement for retailer Macy's in New York, dug up by the aforementioned Super Mario Bros. fan site The Mushroom Kingdom. The ad clearly lists all 15 games available to purchase, and the list is an exact match with the one in Semrad's report, including the mention of Super Mario Bros.
That same list of 15 games also appears on this warranty card supplied to me by a Nintendo collector going by the internet handle of blarky. At the time, Nintendo was running a random giveaway for new NES owners who filled out and returned their warranty cards, with 15 games to choose from. You'll note a serial number of 95,700: we can't verify exactly how many NES systems were shipped to stores during that test market launch (I've heard numbers ranging from 100,000 to 200,000), but I've yet to hear any dispute that it was less than 100k, meaning this warranty card more than likely came with a test market system.
I also have a photograph of a store display from the 1985 test launch, one which I unfortunately am not at liberty to reproduce. However, I've isolated one particular area of interest:
It may be a little difficult to do if you're not intimately familiar with Nintendo's early home games, but identify each screenshot on the display (or just read The Mushroom Kingdom's analysis) and you'll find the two pack-in games (Duck Hunt and Gyromite) and the exact same 15 games on the above lists. That's Super Mario Bros. on the bottom-right, with the blue background. It's an underwater level.
Though not entirely reliable, we also have a filing with the U.S. copyright office: according to this filing, the game (or specifically, the packaging for the game) has a date of publication of October 19, just one day past Nintendo's official internal date. Of course, copyright dates are all over the place -- if you believe the filings, the game itself came out September 14 and the instruction manual came out October 31. I was also recently informed by Library of Congress researcher David Gibson that publication dates are often off by exactly one day in these filings, which could explain a discrepency.
And besides all that, we have at least one source who remembers Super Mario Bros. being there from the beginning. Bruce Lowry, who was the VP of sales at Nintendo of America since practically the company's beginning all the way through the NES launch (when he defected to Sega and launched the Master System!), confirmed to me that Super Mario Bros. was "definitely there" as part of that test market launch.
At this point, calling Super Mario Bros. a launch game for the NES seems like a safe assumption. But was that launch date October 18, as Nintendo says?