It was August 23, 1991, that Nintendo finally answered the 16-bit challenge in North America, releasing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES, for short. It’s difficult to appreciate today, with the prosperity Nintendo has enjoyed with its gaming systems over the past twenty years, but when the SNES was released, there was no guarantee of success. The competition had been in the 16-bit market for two years already, with the Sega Genesis debuting in August 14, 1989, and the NEC TurboGrafx-16 launching in August 29, 1991, and Nintendo faced an uphill battle for market share. To make matters more difficult, on its launch date, there were only five games available for the system, which included Super Mario World (packaged within the game box), Gradius III, SimCity, Pilotwings, and F-Zero. No Zelda, no Mega Man, no sports titles of any kind, no puzzle games…that’s it.
Nintendo gambled on the fact that its pre-existing userbase for the predessor of the SNES, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), was huge. 30 million homes had a Nintendo Entertainment System in them, and the NES was already regarded as the most successful gaming system in history. The question that the Nintendo executives had was very simple: could a majority of those past customers be convinced to invest in a new Nintendo system?
The success of the Super Mario Bros. game franchise had not gone unnoticed by these same executives. Which came first in the buying decision priorities of Nintendo’s customers, the desire to play Super Mario or the desire for the system itself? Hedging the bet, and recognizing that Super Mario had entered popular culture as an iconic symbol of gaming, Nintendo helped ensure a commercial success by including a 16-bit “sequel” to the original Super Mario series within the box of the SNES, Super Mario World.
As we all know, things turned out well for Nintendo. It took only one year for sales of the Super Nintendo to match those of the Genesis, and the two fought the 16-bit Console Wars until Sega sabotaged itself with its bizarre Sega Saturn strategy. (A story for another day…) Even in the face of stiff competition from the Sony PlayStation, the Super Nintendo continued to be a strong force in the gaming market. A smaller, redesigned version of the system was put to market, and one of the system’s most popular games, Donkey Kong Country, was not released until late 1994, which promptly sold over 6 million copies! The Super Nintendo sold so well that Nintendo did not cease production of the Super Nintendo until 1999, and only because the Nintendo 64 was poised to launch.
So, Happy 20th Birthday to a system that more than covered its bet, and helped shape the gaming world into what it is today!
The very first Super Nintendo commercial?