Super Mario Nation

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In October 1985, Nintendo of America’s president, Minoru Arakawa, proved his product’s viability by releasing it in New York, a city generally considered one of the toughest markets in America. To persuade retailers to carry the NES, he promised to buy back any unsold items and set up his own elaborate displays in stores. The system sold out at almost every location.

Nintendo’s impressive graphics, speed, and game control quickly developed an avid following. The NES came with Super Mario Bros., an arcade game based on a popular character named Mario, a plumber who had first appeared in Donkey Kong and then gone on to star in several hit games. Mario got his own Saturday-morning cartoon and, indeed, became a cultural fixture. According to the 1990 Q ratings, a series of surveys that grade the recognizability of real and fictitious public figures, more American children recognized Mario than they did Mickey Mouse.

Under Nintendo’s leadership, the home video-game industry became more profitable than ever before. By 1991 more than thirty-three million homes had NES consoles. Though Nintendo charged steep fees for allowing others to publish games on their hardware, many companies became rich doing just that.

In 1989 Sega, another Japanese video-game company, entered the market with a sixteen-bit game system called the Sega Genesis. The console received little attention in 1990, but when Sega of America hired a new president named Tom Kalinske, it took off. Kalinske, a former head of Mattel, began an aggressive attack on Nintendo’s 92 percent market share. He dropped the price of the Genesis nearly to cost; then he set up a large software-development division in the United States to create games that would appeal to American audiences. His strategy was Gillette’s old one: “Give away the razors” in order to “sell the blades.”

Under Kalinske, Sega adopted a new mascot—a hyperactive blue rodent named Sonic the Hedgehog—and adopted an advertising campaign that ridiculed the weaknesses of Nintendo’s six-year-old console.

Nintendo unveiled the sixteen-bit Super NES in time for Christmas 1991. While Nintendo sold every piece of hardware it could bring to the United States, the big surprise was Sega, which sold almost equally well. For the first time ever Nintendo faced real competition. Within a year it had become apparent that Sega had established itself as a much “cooler” company in the minds of the fifteen- to eighteen-year-old boys who made up the bulk of the video-game-buying public. Older players preferred the Genesis because it had better sports games; young players were actually embarrassed to be seen playing games on a Super NES. When Sony ran a focus group, some kids refused to admit that they owned one.

 
VIDEO games have become history; they’re the objects of a nostalgia boom, with collections of older ones being reissued for computer play.

Over the next three years nlntendo and Sega slugged it out while shutting out other competitors. Sega enjoyed a slight lead in the market through most of this period, and nothing Nintendo tried would close the gap. When the extremely brutal game Mortal Kombat (which ends with such impressive fillips as the victor yanking the vanquished’s skeleton bloodily out through his throat) appeared, Nintendo insisted that the publisher take out much of the violence. The uncensored Genesis version outsold the Nintendo version three to one.

Incensed by this new and far gaudier spate of video-game violence, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, and Sen. Herbert Kohl, of Wisconsin, launched an investigation in December 1993. Though they gave grudging praise to Nintendo for editing Mortal Kombat, they condemned the entire industry for recklessly allowing children access to acts of extreme violence. The hearings resulted in the video-game industry’s adopting a rating code to alert parents. When Acclaim released Mortal Kombat II the following year, it carried a warning label.

In 1994 home video-game sales started to soften. By this time industry executives had learned that the market was cyclical, and rather than abandon it, as Mattel had done in the eighties, Nintendo and Sega began developing newer and more powerful systems. Despite the weakening market, Nintendo sold more than seven million copies of a game called Donkey Kong Country that featured superb computer-modeled graphics.

In May 1995 Sega released the heavily promoted thirty-two-bit Saturn system. Overpriced and sent out into the world with very little software, the Saturn did poorly. In September Sony released a new thirty-two-bit system called the PlayStation, which cost a hundred dollars less than the Saturn and did a better job handling three-dimensional games and digitized video. The PlayStation outsold the Saturn in the United States by nearly three to one.