Video game history is in a sorry state. We don’t know the release date of one of the best-selling video games.
Super Mario Brothers, for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), sold more than 40 million copies, including those that came with an NES. It secured Nintendo and the NES’s place in the video game market, revived video gaming in North America, and inspired generations of games and game-makers. But the exact date of its release in the United States is fuzzy, and no one is quite sure when it was. Indeed, discussion of this problem has exceeded 10,000 words on Wikipedia.
We know when it came out in Japan – September 13, 1985.
Let’s set the scene to explain why we don’t know the US release date. It’s 1985 in the United States. Two years ago, consumers stopped buying video games – the market was oversaturated with several consoles competing, all with the same games and similar graphics. Toy stores won’t even listen if you say you’re selling a video game system. Enter Nintendo of America. At the time, it was known only for Donkey Kong, a popular arcade game. Across the Pacific, Nintendo was much bigger. The Famicom – the Japanese equivalent of the NES1 – sold more than 500,000 within the first two months from its Japanese introduction in May 1983. Back in Japan, the president of Nintendo at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, surveyed the wreckage of the North American video game market and saw an opportunity. Kids everywhere are kids, after all. What’s popular in Japan has a pretty good chance of being popular in the United States, right?
Nintendo didn’t have the energy to release the NES at the same time across the United States, so they went to New York, for as they say “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” In October of 1985, Nintendo held a test run of the NES in New York. Official Nintendo sources, such as Super Smash Brothers Brawl, set this day as October 18th. This gives us an early bound for the release date of Super Mario Brothers. The same official Nintendo sources list Super Mario Brothers as one of the games released on that day. However, this database is known to be inaccurate for some other early NES titles (specifically, Soccer is listed in the database as a 1987 release, but is known to have come out during the launch period), lending uncertainty to the date. Not only that, Nintendo themselves also say that Super Mario Brothers was released in March of 19862….
What other information do we have? Well, a column in the Milwaukee Journal (of all papers) previewed the NES on October 5th, and listed Super Mario Brothers as an upcoming game. A Super Mario Brothers cartridge with a production date of the 42nd week of 1985 (October 13-19) has been found3. The US copyright office lists September 14th for the game, October 19th for the box, and October 31st for the instruction manual. And a New York Macy’s ad on November 17th lists Super Mario as one of the games they have. This points to Super Mario Brothers being intended for a launch during the New York test run. So, October 18th? Perhaps not. But there is a strong possibility that it came out sometime in the New York test run.
A Target ad in the Los Angeles Times on March 13, 1986 also lists Super Mario Brothers. This would be the second trial run of the NES, this time in the Los Angeles area. It seems safe to say that March 1986 is our absolute late bound for possible release dates.
What does this mean? It points to the difficulty of retrieving information if detailed records are not kept. That even an incredibly popular game, that they had reason to believe would be popular, has an unknown release date, shows us how easily information can be lost.
1. The Ultimate History of Video Games, Steven L. Kent