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.