N64's U.S. Launch
September 28, 1996
Note: I wrote this article, for which I was compensated, for a Japanese Web site called Teleparc <geisen>. I wrote the article in English, and they translated it into Japanese for their readers. The article covers the American launch of the N64, providing contrasts with the Japanese launch. It is now presented in its original, unedited form.
"On September 30th, Dinosaurs Will Fly!" was the slogan used to promote the new release date after the American launch was delayed from April 1996 to September 1996. At the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) show in May 1996, Nintendo gave the Nintendo 64 a price tag of $249.95 with only the system, one controller, AC adapter and a stereo A/V cable included. For the first time ever in the U.S. though, there was to be no game included with a Nintendo system.
One of the most important dates in the history of the N64 (in North America) is probably a date most gamers won't remember. On August 19, 1996, Nintendo of America announced that the N64 would be available one day earlier, on Sunday, September 29th, instead of September 30th. Why move the release date one day forward? They didn't want anyone to skip work or school to get the system.
But the most important revelation on that date was the announcement of a new price. For on that date, NOA announced that the Nintendo would retail for $199.95. This reduction in price by $50 put the N64 on the same price level as the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. All three systems currently retail for $199.99 in the U.S.
In a somewhat surprising move, the Nintendo 64 was actually released in the U.S. on September 26th -- three days early! This move was not authorized by Nintendo, though. Kay-Bee Toy Store, the #2 or #3 toy retailer in the nation, was the first store to release the N64 without permission. Subsequently, because of the broken release date, Nintendo had to give the go ahead to all stores to be able to sell the N64. Even though Nintendo then said it was OK to sell it early, many gamers found that some retailers refused to sell it until the 28th or the 29th. Canadians particularly had a hard time trying to find a retailer who was selling it early.
The initial shipment across North America for launch day was an allotment of 300,000 systems. Although nothing has been made official yet, the N64 seems to have broken all previous launch day records. On September 9th, 1995, when the Sony PlayStation was launched in the U.S., the PS sold approximately 100,000 systems on launch weekend. It has been estimated by retailers that the N64 will sell 250,000 to 300,000 systems in that same time frame shattering the record held by the PlayStation.
Nintendo 64 was launched with two games: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. The retail price for both of these games are $69.95. However, because of the highly competitive nature of the North American market, the games could be found for $59.99 (or possibly even cheaper) at many of the larger stores across the country. Initial reports suggest that Mario 64 is selling at or very near 1:1 with the system. The amount of stock each store got varied so much that it is hard to correctly assess an accurate number. Besides, some people bought the system at one store and then bought a game at another store because it was cheaper someplace else. As for Pilotwings 64, the game is selling well, but it's been estimated that only 75,000 to 100,000 copies of the game have been shipped (compared with 300,000 copies of Mario 64.)
Besides the two games (actually, some stores only had Mario 64) and the system, the only other accessories out for launch were the RFU adapter ($29.95, what a rip-off) and the colored controllers ($29.95). Colored controllers also sold very well in the U.S. even though some stores only had one color available. For example, the aforementioned Kay-Bee retail chain only had green controllers for some reason. If you're dying to know which color is the most popular in America, it so happens to be black.
Nintendo has built a $54 million warchest of advertising as it takes a more cross-promotional approach. A Kellogg's promo, "One in 64 Wins - Instant Win Game," on 100 million cereal boxes this fall, and key retailers like Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart and Best Buy will also have individual promos. Blockbuster Video will also carry extensive in-store advertising and displays encouraging consumers to try Nintendo's latest hardware offering, whether by sampling or by renting the new game system.
Nintendo, Nickelodeon (a TV channel aimed at kids) and Blockbuster Video (the nation's largest rental chain) joined forces for a $20 million fall watch-and-win promotion. Starting in late September, Blockbuster distributed more than 10 million game pieces in its 3,500 stores and the million-circulation Nintendo Power magazine for the 'Spot the Dot' promo. From October 7-19, Nick viewers will have to hold up the pieces to their TV's to detect the winning 'dot' during its primo 8 to 8:30pm slot.
Nick will air promo spots supporting the contest, which it values at $3.5 million in media. There will also be radio support and promotions in the top 15 markets. The rest of the $20 million is derived from interactive retail displays (game stations setup to play Mario 64 in stores) and hardware Nintendo commits to Blockbuster Video.
The record-breaking sales of the Nintendo 64 are even more impressive considering the N64 was released early without any television advertising from Nintendo of America. In fact, there has been very little advertising for the system at all. Most of it is scheduled to occur after the system is released. Unfortunately, anxious gamers who see the N64 on TV in October may be disappointed to find that the next big batch of systems (probably another 300,000 or so) won't be hitting the stores until the end of October or the beginning of November.
The only pre-launch advertising for the N64 had come courtesy of some of Nintendo's partners. During the first week of September, Toys "R" Us, who is by far the nation's leading toy retailer, set up a "Test Drive Arcade" in all their stores across the country. Approximately 3 to 5 N64's with Mario 64 (along with one PlayStation with Crash Bandicoot and one Saturn with Nights) were available for consumers to try. This was one of the major factors which helped escalate the hype in time for launch. You could also find commercials from Blockbuster Video (the nation's largest rental chain) and Kellogg's Cereal (probably the most popular maker of kid's cereal) with some N64 clips in it. Although these two companies did a little bit of television advertising, the main part of their agreement with Nintendo is the real media advertising described above.
Nintendo is spending approximately $20 million (that number may actually be quite a bit higher) on TV advertising from September 30th until Christmas Eve. At the core of their campaign is a new slogan -- "Change The System". It's quite ironic how only one year ago Nintendo was saying, "Who Needs a New System?" to try to prevent gamers from jumping onto the 32-bit boat. Now they are telling Americans to "Change the System!"
Nintendo's television advertising campaign is scheduled to start running on September 30th. There will be three different "spots" (i.e. commercials) aired. The first spot is with kids playing another video game system and complaining about it. Then a crowd yells the new Nintendo slogan, "Change The System". That 'other' video game system is then replaced with a Nintendo 64. Another commercial has a "prototypical gameplayer," as Nintendo calls them, demonstrate Super Mario 64 to show everyone "the superb realism of the Nintendo 64." Finally, there is an advertising spot only with footage of upcoming Nintendo 64 games. None of these commercials have been aired yet as of this writing. Apparently, Nintendo has already been advertising up in Canada for weeks before the launch even though the U.S. campaign doesn't start until after the system has been out.
Just like there was a drought of games in Japan after the N64 launch, there is going to be a small drought here in the U.S. too. Nintendo is trying to milk Super Mario 64 for all it's worth. The next game after Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 isn't scheduled to appear until November—slightly over a month with only two games.
Here's the current release schedule for North America: Wave Race 64 - Nov 4th; Mortal Kombat Trilogy (Williams) - Nov 11th; Cruis'n USA 64 (Nintendo) and Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey (Williams) - Nov 18th; Killer Instinct Gold (Nintendo) - Nov 25th; Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (Acclaim) - Mid-November; Blast Corps, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, and Tetrisphere - Dec 2nd; NBA Hangtime (Williams) - Dec 9th. That's only 12 titles, including Mario 64 and Pilotwings.
The lack of games in 1996 is a cause of concern to some people, but the system should sell extremely well throughout the holiday season. Nintendo has Killer Instinct Gold and Mortal Kombat Trilogy to appeal to mass-market consumers. Many hard core gamers may think those games are crap, but the fact of the matter is that every game in those series' sell over a million copies. Nintendo also has a game from the extremely popular Star Wars franchise. And judging from initial reports, Wave Race 64 may become the next F-Zero.
Nintendo couldn't have hoped for a better N64 launch (except maybe if it was if a little more coordinated), and the Nintendo 64 is looking extremely hot going into the all-important holiday season. In the U.S., a whopping 75% of all video game sales take place from October to December. Our only complaint is that you guys will get all those great games months before us!