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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 Previous Page 3 of 3
 

The First Sale

Early one morning, according to two witnesses I've spoken to, members of Nintendo's team headed into the legendary FAO Schwarz in New York and quietly sat back, out of sight, patiently waiting to watch the first Nintendo Entertainment System to ever run through the cash register.

A display at FAO Schwarz was considered the height of success in the toy world at that time, and Nintendo had spent a considerable sum erecting a 15x15' display, built by Don James the night before.

As Bruce Lowry remembers it, he, along with several Nintendo employees that included Gail Tilden and sales head Ron Judy, hid behind the store's pillars, out of sight, waiting patiently for someone to come in and buy one.

That first sale, Tilden recalls, was to a man who purchased the system and, unexpectedly, all fifteen additional games. As it turns out, Tilden laughs, he worked for a Japanese competitor.

Tilden, Lowry and Judy split off from the rest of the crew, headed over to the Ritz Carlton hotel bar, and enjoyed a celebratory bloody mary. It was just one sale, and no one was quite sure how many more there would be, but hey, at least they'd gotten this far.

And that was the first time the Nintendo Entertainment System -- and presumably, Super Mario Bros. -- was sold in the United States. But was it Friday, October 18, as Nintendo's records say?

"I wouldn't have had a bloody mary on a work day," Tilden tells me. "I'm quite certain it wasn't Friday."

So when was it? Well, we have a few dates to work with. The aforementioned Milwaukee Journal report, published Saturday, October 5, says that the NES is coming "next Tuesday." Depending on how you interpret that phrase, that could be referring either to October 8 or October 15. I emailed Semrad to see if he remembered anything (or at the very least, to ask how he'd interpret his own writing from over two decades ago), but didn't get a reply in time for this article.
On Thursday, October 10, Nintendo threw a launch party for the Nintendo Entertainment System at a trendy club (Bruce Lowry remembers it being at Studio 54, Tilden remembers it being at a place called The Visage). A giant R.O.B. sat in the middle of the club, with silver-plated R.O.B. units around the place as showpieces, and many of the games were set up to play.

We have no paper records for this, but Tilden says she'll never forget the date: it's the same day beloved Broadway actor Yul Brynner died, a PR nightmare for someone trying to launch a new product in New York.

Tilden seems certain that it would have been one of the following Saturdays that she watched the first sale happen: either October 12 or October 19, just one day after Nintendo's official October 18 date.

On Monday, October 14, United Press International distributed a story announcing the NES. The report, which highlights the system's "three dimensional imagery" and "dramatic sounds," was clearly sourced from official Nintendo materials.

That same day, 30 and 60-second television commercials began airing in the New York area, according to AdWeek. The full version is probably lost to time, though the 30-second version is on YouTube.

When I contacted Bruce Lowry and told him what I was trying to find out, he told me, unprompted, that "October 18 was the ship date." When I asked Tilden if it would make sense to put out news statements and air commercials four days before shipment, she said that yes, it did, though she couldn't specifically recall if this is how the NES roll-out happened.

Assuming that Semrad's original newspaper report was somehow misinformed about the system's launch date, that leaves our most likely candidates either Saturday, October 12 or Saturday, October 19. The latter seems more likely, considering that Nintendo's internal date -- and the publication date on many of the games' copyright submissions -- is October 18. Perhaps, as Lowry said, this was the "ship date," meaning the date units arrived in stores, and not the date that the first unit was sold.

The Trail Ends

Assuming as we are that Super Mario Bros. was available for sale on the same day as the NES, all of this research is pointing to that first sale being on October 19, but without any real paper evidence to prove it, I'm just not satisfied.

I got in contact with FAO Schwarz (or more specifically Toys R Us, its new owner). The gentleman I spoke to acknowledged that the store was indeed the site of the first NES sale: or at least, that's what they're saying as part of the 150th anniversary celebration.

They don't seem to have any actual record of this, nor do they have any sales data going back that far to verify the date. The claim seems to have come directly from Nintendo, which is pretty much our last hope for substantiating the real release date for Super Mario Bros.

I contacted United Press International, on the off chance someone there could verify that October 14 publication date, but had no luck. I called the Seattle Mariners and left an unanswered voicemail for former Nintendo VP Howard Lincoln, tracked down former VP of sales Ron Judy to a horse breeder he's associated with, put in a request to Nintendo to ask if I could speak to Rob Thompson (one of three employees who were at the company in 1985), dug through every news and periodical archive available to me, and even called in a favor to a friend of a friend of Minoru Arakawa's, all of it with no luck.

As I was wrapping up this article, Nintendo finally responded to my requests for help. After a few back-and-forth emails clarifying my questions, the company thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of this article but has to "politely decline at this time given the limited resources as we're gearing up for other projects." Whatever that means.

But Wait, There's More

Just as this article was finished and ready for publication, I received an email from an anonymous but reliable tipster with access to information I don't have.

According to my source, who I believe is citing an internal database, the NES indeed had a ship date of October 18, 1985. However, Super Mario Bros. itself was listed in this same database as being released November 17, 1985.

I can not think of a more perfect bookend to this journey. I can neither prove nor disprove this date -- all of the evidence we have so far could support it. Indeed, the first advertisement we have for Super Mario Bros. is a Macy's store ad dated...November 17.

It is easy to imagine a scenario where Super Mario Bros. -- which had only been out in Japan for one month at the time of the NES launch -- may have experienced a slight manufacturing delay after a planned launch with the system. Then again, that's all conjecture.

So it looks like we're back at square one. We still don't know the release date for one of video games' greatest literary works, and rather than finding out when that might be from the very same company that published it, we're relying on deep research and anonymous tipsters to lead us in the right direction.

If this is the state of video game preservation in 2012, 50 years after Spacewar!, we're in trouble.


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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.

Thierry Tremblay
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There really was a Super Mario Bros arcade game cabinet. This was my first exposure to this game.

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

David Cummins
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Thanks for the article. I can't say that the launch date was a burning question in my brain, but I found your methodology and the looseness of modern history quite fascinating.

BobbyK Richardson
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Seriously that's a lot of work for a drop of history!

As for the November 17 advertisement, most likely Nintendo realized SMB was their biggest game so they started running independent ads for it.

Thierry Tremblay
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For what is is worth, I remember playing Super Mario Bros in the arcades before I even heard of the NES. When Super Mario Bros got bundled with the NES the following months? year?, I remember thinking something along the line of "Oh, Nintendo is recycling their old arcade games for this new console".

I remember the arcade version to be much more difficult than the NES one, which makes sense for a coin-up arcade game where your call is to maximize profits. I know for sure I played it in the summer as this was in an amusement park arcade in Montreal (La Ronde). I believe this was in the summer before Super Mario Bros came to the NES, but I could be wrong.


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