Sad But True: We Can't Prove When Super Mario Bros. Came OutBy Frank Cifaldi
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?
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?
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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