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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 2 of 3 Next
 

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?


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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.

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


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