Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi began planning a 16-bit successor to the Famicom in the mid-1980s. He placed Masayuki Uemura, designer of the original Famicom, in charge of the secretive project, his only request that the R&D team be poised to enter the ‘next generation’ market by 1990. However, Nintendo’s global dominance of the video game industry removed any sense of urgency from the project. Why hurry to make the Famicom obsolete while it continued to bolster company profits month after month?
By the start of the new decade the tectonic plates of the video game world had begun to shift and grind. Sega had sold more than 1 million consoles in the US. While these figures were dwarfed by Nintendo’s 31.7 million sales, Sega was making inroads. Its suite of licensed games and advertising campaigns, emphasizing the 16-bit capabilities of its machine, made Nintendo’s proclamation that it would only enter the 16-bit market when it was ready began to appear bullish.
Yamauchi applied pressure on Uemura and his team, still leaving the technical specifics to the engineers, but requesting that they attempt to make the Famicom’s successor compatible with its predecessor’s games. But the functionality added $75 to the system’s estimated manufacturing cost and Yamauchi decided that the price increase was too significant to warrant backward compatibility.
The team had better luck elsewhere. The new machine, dubbed the Super Family Computer (Super NES in the West), could generate 32,000 colours, a far greater number than the Mega Drive’s 512, providing a useful advertising hook. Likewise, its Super FX chip facilitated some of the earliest 3D effects – put to effective use in games such as Star Fox and Secret of Mana.
The excitement that preceded the Super Famicom’s Japanese launch in 1991 was unprecedented in games. After seven years of market dominance in Japan, Nintendo and its mascot had come to define the medium. On 21 November 1990 the launch of Nintendo’s second home video game system brought unparalleled disruption to Japan’s streets. The company had kept the launch date a delayed secret, so pre-orders ran out as the nation panic-bought. Some stores required customers to pay the full ¥32,000 (£169) in advance to secure a system, while others opted for a lottery system to decide which would-be buyers would receive a console. Nintendo shipped 300,000 units the night of the console’s launch in ‘Operation Midnight’. 100 ten-ton trucks each carrying 3,000 machines were used to collect the stock from secret warehouses in an effort to outwit the Yakuza (gangsters), who were rumoured to be planning to hijack some of the trucks.
While high drama may have been part of Nintendo’s launch plans, much of what happened next could not have been anticipated. With 1.5 million pre-orders and just 300,000 units in stock across the country, four out of five customers were to be disappointed. One toy shop near Shakujii Koen train station in Tokyo received just six units. Adults called in sick in order to go shopping and, as a result of traffic problems, the Japanese government requested that in future, console launches take place at weekends. Within a year 4 million Super Famicoms were in Japanese homes.
However, the US launch was less auspicious. Sega’s system had taken root and despite a $25 million marketing plan, by the end of 1991 the system had only shifted 700,000 units. Nintendo’s machine caught up with, then overtook, Sega’s. The company encouraged quality third-party releases by limiting licensees to three games a year. Any game that earned 30 or more points in the Nintendo rating system didn’t count toward the three and would be featured in the company’s magazine, Nintendo Power. The incentive worked and the Super Famicom library of games is one of video gaming’s strongest. When the system was discontinued, Nintendo had sold 49.10 million units worldwide, the best-selling console of its era.