How Nintendo Conquered Manhattan in 1985

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getty images

A number of things crossed Bruce Lowry’s mind as he listened to Nintendo of Japan President Hiroshi Yamauchi speak. It was 1985, and the company—flush with capital thanks to the success of arcade sensation Donkey Kong—was poised to move into the American home console market. Yamauchi seemed completely undeterred by the fact that retailers were still stinging from the 1983 implosion of video games: oversaturation and poor quality control had led to systems from Atari and Coleco collecting dust in bargain bins. The former had even buried hundreds of thousands of unsold cartridges in the New Mexico desert, a metaphor for the collapsing industry as a whole.

But Lowry, who had been hired by Nintendo as Vice President of Sales after a stint at Pioneer, also knew things could be different under Yamauchi’s watch if they employed the right strategy. For one, Nintendo’s Famicom (“family computer”) system had sold 2.5 million units in Japan; for another, the games themselves looked far more sophisticated than previous offerings. Lowry’s own sons had played a prototype system and declared it “the real thing,” with the home versions virtual carbon copies of the arcade experience.

A slow rollout of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Lowry figured, could work. If retailers and consumers were exposed to the game play and ad copy was worded to avoid direct comparison to the market losers, they might have a chance. Houston would be a good place to start. Or Nashville. Someplace, Lowry says, where “if we made a mistake, it wouldn’t have destroyed things. We could figure it out.”

Shoppers try out the NES during the fall 1985 mall tour, via Howard Phillips

Lowry’s internal strategy was broken by Yamauchi’s announcement: the North American debut of the NES would happen in New York City. It had the highest concentration of press, the biggest vendors, and the cache of being a cultural epicenter. It was also an area hit hard by Atari’s collapse, with those same retailers ready to suffocate any video game advocate within arm’s reach.

“We’re launching in New York,” Yamauchi said, his daughter translating, “because that’s where success happens.”

The room grew silent. Lowry sighed. “Leaving Pioneer,” he says, “suddenly seemed like the stupidest mistake of my life.”

The Game Plan

For Lowry and the dozens of Nintendo of America employees who migrated from company headquarters in Seattle to the East Coast in the fall of 1985, selling a gaming system presented a challenge. Though they knew the NES was a giant leap forward, the marketplace was prepared to treat any electronic entertainment like poison. In order to even be heard, they’d have to change the narrative.

The Famicom was originally put on display during the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, where Nintendo had dubbed it the Advanced Video System and paired it with strange accessories like a cassette recorder and keyboard; one game professed to tell fortunes. With no children around at an industry trade show, they weren’t sure how much interest they were going to get, but Lowry remembers seeing some buyers gambling on their Golf title. “They kept coming back,” he says. I noticed that when they kept slapping money down on the monitor. It was a good sign.”

No one doubted the games were addictive, but the aesthetics of the clunky-looking system were lacking: Staffers sat down and began refining the control deck to appeal more to children. At the time, the toy industry was awash in robots like Transformers. Nintendo’s Japanese designers developed the R.O.B., or Robotic Operating Buddy, which sported a binocular-shaped head and could “assist” players with objectives in specific games. Nintendo also decided to include the Zapper, a light gun that could take aim at the targets in Duck Hunt.

The company figured the accessories would further distance themselves from past console failures. To help prove it, they conducted extensive market research in Paramus, New Jersey in the summer of 1985. Lowry remembers holding up the Zapper and telling a mother, “It comes with a gun!”

“Not in my house it doesn’t,” she said.

With electronics already being manufactured, there was no opportunity to return to the drawing board. The NES launch was set for late October, which concerned Lowry greatly. “For a Christmas item, you want to be in stores starting in August,” he says. “It was a hugely compressed window of time.”

A trade ad hyping the arrival of R.O.B., Nintendo's attempt to connect with the robot-toy trend of the mid-1980s, via Howard Phillips

But Yamauchi was unwavering. His son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, was running Nintendo of America and had a gentle way of pushing the team forward, encouraging the belief the NES was different and that the industry could be resuscitated with the right strategy. The company leased a base of operations in Hackensack, New Jersey, a musty warehouse where inventory would be stored, seven-foot tall retail displays built, and sales calls made. Employees—arcade distributors and later company VPs Al Stone and Ron Judy, warehouse manager Howard Phillips, contracted sales guru Sam Borofsky, and development chair Don James among them—all worked in concert to set up what amounted to a satellite operation.

Prior to arriving, Lowry had made his first official vendor call to Woolworth’s. It was brief. “No way,” their buyer said. “Not touching it. See ya.”

Later, Lowry would pitch in to unload the first inventory shipment from Japan. The salesman remembers looking at the towering pile of NES systems, which took up an entire side of the warehouse, and wondered where they were all going to go.

Multi-Player

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While Lowry was knocking on doors that were subsequently slamming shut, Gail Tilden was busy trying to convince both the media and consumers that the NES was worth a shot. Hired as a Vice President of Brand Management in 1983 after a former colleague went on maternity leave, Tilden knew little about the implosion of console gaming. “I liked playing Frogger,” she says. “And Pac-Man. Nintendo, to me, was the Donkey Kong company.”

Tilden joined the team in New Jersey and set about trying to draw media interest for the system’s official launch party in October at a trendy spot called the Visage. Unfortunately, the event coincided with the death of actor Yul Brynner and the terrorist hijacking of a ship. “There was real news and soft news,” she says. “We were non-news.”

Attempts to entice a major ad agency to handle commercials proved equally frustrating. Lee Clow, who had just co-created the infamous Apple Orwellian 1984 commercial, didn’t even bother submitting a bid because Nintendo was so small. Others told them the name Nintendo was unpronounceable and would have to be changed. Eventually, Tilden found a smaller agency, Geers Gross, to tackle a series of commercials to air in the local market. “We shot two or three at one time,” she says. “The director ended up in the hospital with exhaustion.”

To combat what Lowry perceived as a poor impression of video games, an early spot depicted a mother watching her children slaughter the waterfowl of Duck Hunt in the safety of their living room. “At the time, drugs were in arcades and it was a bad element,” he says. “We came up with the concept of … Mom has her family home again. People didn’t want kids in arcades.”

Print ads avoided words like “video games” and “cartridges,” which carried negative connotations. Instead, they focused on R.O.B. or the “control deck” and “game paks” available. Tilden also learned a lesson from failed software, which packaged their primitive graphics in boxes with thrilling artwork. (Marketing expert Borofsky had worked for Atari and was quick to point out their mistakes.) “We didn’t want to over-promise,” she says. “We used pixels right on the box so people would know what they were getting.”

Nintendo also had sub-categories for games, which ranged from $20 to $35 each. “One of the categories was Education, which was Donkey Kong, Jr. Math,” Tilden says. “Then you had a programmable game with ExciteBike. That was part of the idea of separating ourselves, making sure people knew there were selections for everyone.”

The Hackensack team delivered their own inventory to stores, which revealed a culture clash: Nintendo’s Seattle exports didn’t think twice about leaving a cargo van unattended in the Bronx. “Everything was getting stolen out of the back,” Tilden says, laughing. “It was a different New York back then.”

Every weekend, Tilden and other employees would venture out to a mall in New York or New Jersey to set up a display intended to pull in foot traffic. Store owners shrugged, but Nintendo had wisely hired Mets players like Mookie Wilson and Ron Darling to draw attention. The pair would sign autographs and compete against shoppers in Baseball. Kids who tried the NES were enthralled, though Tilden had little patience for R.O.B., which had a glacial non-urgency in performing for a crowd. “It was hilarious to try and make him do anything,” she says. “The thing moved at the speed of grass growing.”

Titles like Duck Hunt were what Tilden calls “pick up and play games,” which required virtually no instruction—making them perfect for passersby. Nintendo had a total of 15 to 18 offerings that season, though no one can say for certain that their future signature hit, Super Mario Bros., was among them. Store ads featured the title—which was already available in Japan—though it could have been reprinted from a master list provided by the company before the game had actually shipped.

While the plumber may have helped move things along, no one game was likely to help retailer apprehension. Regional franchises like the now-defunct Wiz were slowly climbing on board—not because of familiarity with Nintendo, but because of the trust Lowry had built as a Pioneer representative. “It wasn’t anything formal, but I let these guys know we weren’t going to leave them hanging,” he says of Nintendo’s willingness to be flexible with accounts. “If they bought inventory and it didn’t sell, they knew we would help them out.” It wasn’t an explicit promise to return unsold stock, but it helped ease concerns about carrying the $139.99 product at a time Atari systems were rotting on shelves at $50.

”I had retailers saying they’d discount it to $100,” Lowry says. “I said, ‘No, you won’t.’” Nintendo had an absolute conviction in the quality of their product and weren’t willing to compromise, even when pitches didn’t go well: Once, after Lowry’s grandmother passed away, Arakawa was left to demonstrate Baseball for buyers at Sears. “Here’s this engineer from MIT who loved baseball,” Lowry says. He wanted to play all nine innings and they’re just glazed over.”

Eventually, Sears, Macy’s, and other national chains signed on, motivated in part by the sheer hustle demonstrated by Nintendo’s team. But in an era where Walmart was not yet a power player, one account stood out above the rest: Toys “R” Us.

The Final Boss

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As the nation’s then-largest purveyor of playthings, Toys “R” Us had profited handsomely from the Atari craze of the early 1980s. But that meant the company also took a bath when unsold stock began to pile up. By spring 1985, games were being sold for $5 with a $5 rebate from third-party producer Parker Brothers. “They had taken a tremendous hit from the Atari days,” Lowry says.

He sat with the franchise’s buyer—Lowry doesn’t recall his name—who wasn’t radiating enthusiasm. Nearby was Howard Moore, the chain’s Executive Vice President. According to Lowry, the buyer wasn’t swayed by his pitch, by R.O.B., or by the possibility of eating another Atari-sized loss.

“I don’t think we really want to get involved,” he said. Lowry was crushed. Toys “R” Us could set a precedent, but it went both ways. Other stores could be encouraged by their participation, or put off by a lack of it. But before Lowry could protest, Moore intervened. He knew and trusted Lowry.

“Well, that’s why I’m Executive Vice President, Bruce,” he said. “We’ll do it.”

The store went one step further, allowing Nintendo to set up an interactive display at a time when it was not company policy to do so. “That was our biggest move,” Lowry says, along with getting a foot in the door at FAO Schwartz, which featured a massive window set-up viewable from the street. (The store’s buyer happened to be a gamer.) The team was ecstatic—at least until the father of one of the television spot actors saw it and complained. His kid’s contract didn’t include the rights to show it in stores.

The Nintendo Entertainment System officially went on sale in late October across nearly 500 stores in New York, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut. Retailers paid $98 wholesale; $139.99 bought consumers the console, two controllers, R.O.B., the Zapper, Duck Hunt, and Gyromite.

The brochure for Nintendo's Advanced Video System, shown in January 1985 at a trade show but never released, via Howard Phillips

Stores featured giant R.O.B. displays showing off Nintendo’s graphics and features; one had an audience of the robots moving their heads in unison. Kids, Nintendo’s real clientele, passed word around: This was not another Atari. Like Lowry’s children, they recognized something new and different. (The television spots may not have done much to raise awareness; airing late at night, they were bartered, with Nintendo trading consoles for airtime and the barter agency selling the units right back to Toys “R” Us.)

By the time Christmas 1985 drew to a close, Nintendo’s exhausted sales force had managed to move between 50,000 and 90,000 consoles. (Lowry says they exceeded their goal of 50,000 units; Tilden believes a New York Times story citing 90,000 consoles may have been Nintendo’s attempt to exaggerate for media.) Either way, it was enough for the team to feel good about moving their efforts to Los Angeles and then nationally. By 1988, sales had grown to $1.7 billion; in 1989, 9 million systems were sold. When the NES was finally retired in the 1990s, more than 60 million had been installed. The media went from writing obituaries for the game industry to wondering who could challenge Nintendo, which was quickly becoming one of the all-time biggest success stories in the toy world.

Lowry left soon after the launch to head up Sega, which would later prove a worthy adversary; Tilden became editor-in-chief of Nintendo Power, an official magazine that was essentially a giant advertisement for games that quickly reached over a million subscribers. But the true monument to their achievement in Manhattan may have come in 2005, when the company opened a 10,000 square foot Nintendo World store at Rockefeller Center.

“Going into New York, there was really no other option than be successful,” Lowry says. “After Yamauchi was done, we walked out of the hotel room, had a cocktail and said, ‘This changes everything. But we can do it.’ And we did it.”

A Colorful History of Paintball

kadmy/iStock via Getty Images
kadmy/iStock via Getty Images

Having spent a month arguing with no end in sight, Charles Gaines and Hayes Noel decided to resolve their conflict the old-fashioned way. They agreed to a gun duel at 20 paces.

It was the late 1970s and Gaines, a writer and fly fisherman best known for authoring Pumping Iron, a book later turned into a documentary that helped usher Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, had been verbally sparring with his friend Noel about who would be better-equipped as a survivalist. Gaines believed someone with outdoors skills like himself would excel. Noel, a Wall Street stockbroker, thought his urban instincts would prove superior.

After going back and forth like this while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, Gaines returned home to New Hampshire and spotted something in an agricultural catalog. It was the Nel-Spot 007, a gun powered by carbon monoxide (CO2) gas and used to mark trees or cattle using a gelatin ball filled with oil-based paint. Gaines thought it would make for an interesting combat simulator. Instead of testing survivalist skills with ammunition, they could test it with globs of paint.

After getting the guns, Gaines and Noel engaged in a duel that Gaines won—this according to Gaines—and also crept around in the woods hoping to snipe the other, a situation which both men later said they had gotten the upper hand in.

These conflicting narratives failed to settle their argument, and so the two friends decided a bigger, more involved experiment was in order. Purely by accident, they created the game of paintball in the process.

A person playing paintball is pictured
PogodakPB/iStock via Getty Images

Weapons that shoot projectiles using compressed air are nothing new. In the 1940s, Britain’s commercial freighter ships used steam-powered cannons to launch grenades at enemy aircraft. When they were bored, the sailors used the cannons to shoot potatoes or beer bottles instead. Much later, sports teams would adopt T-shirt cannons powered by the same principle to dispense apparel to fans in the upper decks.

The idea to use CO2 for paint came from the Nelson Paint Company in the 1960s. Hoping to assist foresters with marking trees that weren’t easily accessible on foot, the distributor marketed the Nel-Spot 007, which shot the gelatin balls with a resounding splat. Farmers also used them to indicate cattle that had been bred. (Because the paint was used for marking, the guns were and typically are still called paintball markers, not paintball guns.)

By the time Gaines became aware of the device in 1979 or 1980, it still had no practical use outside of agricultural purposes. Along with Noel and another friend, a ski shop owner named Bob Gurnsey, the trio decided to arrange a combat simulator using the Nel-Spot 007. The duel had proven that being hit with the paintballs resulted in no serious injury. (Gaines reportedly tried it on his wife, Shelby, as well, who reported that “It didn’t hurt much.”) Gurnsey developed a rudimentary set of rules for the competition, which would see the three men and nine other competitors attempt to capture flags from four stations in a 100-acre field in Henniker, New Hampshire, a site not far from Gaines’s home. The object would be to grab the flags and head for a premarked exit without being shot.

In order to maintain the central conceit of their debate, Gaines and Noel tried to recruit a cross-section of personalities for the event. There were outdoorsmen like a forester and Vietnam veteran along with would-be urban tacticians like a trauma surgeon and an investment banker. All were armed with the Nel-Spot 007, goggles, camouflage, paintballs, CO2 cartridges, a compass, and a map.

People playing paintball are pictured
JackF/iStock via Getty Images

The competition was held on June 27, 1981. For two hours, the men stalked around the premises, lurking behind foliage and doing their best to seize the flags without being bombarded by paintballs. Gaines grabbed two flags before getting into a stand-off with a Green Beret, who was holed up in an abandoned woodshed. The trauma surgeon wound up shooting nearly half of the dozen players by himself. But in the end, it was the forester, Ritchie White, who emerged the victor, utilizing a stealth strategy that allowed him to covertly grab all the flags and get out without firing a single shot.

Did the event resolve the debate between Gaines and Noel? Not really. But they were having too much fun to care. So was Bob Jones, a participant and writer for Sports Illustrated who published a story on the competition in 1981. Along with other coverage from TIME and Sports Afield, Gaines, Noel, and Gurnsey were inundated with letters and requests for more information about the rules of the game and the necessary equipment.

Sensing a business opportunity, the three formed the National Survival Game, a business devoted to the burgeoning recreational activity. Gurnsey continued to refine the rules while the others assembled kits consisting of the Nel-Spot 007 and the paintballs. Gaines was able to negotiate a deal with the Nelson Paint Company to license the guns and ammo for non-agricultural purposes.

Soon, they were licensing the National Survival Game brand to franchisees, who opened paintball fields and held organized competitions. By 1982, the National Survival Game was promoting a World Championship, and enthusiasts were modifying the weapons to include pump-action loading, larger magazines, and automatic firing. Because other organizations besides National Survival Game were popping up, the more generic name of paintball was introduced. More importantly, the paint became water-based rather than oil-based for easier clean-up.

While paintball exploded in popularity throughout the 1980s, not everyone was on board. In New Jersey, the guns were considered firearms due to their ability to shoot projectiles at velocity. To acquire a paintball marker, one needed a firearms permit. And even if you had one, you might still leave yourself open to legal problems if you used it to “shoot” at another human being.

The issue wasn’t resolved until 1988, when a paintball enthusiast named Raymond Gong sued the state’s attorney general and Monmouth County prosecutor John Kaye to remove the weapons from the New Jersey Gun Control Act. Judge Alvin Milberg asked for a demonstration and watched as a human target was hit roughly a dozen times without suffering injury. The defense also proved the CO2 cartridge used in a paintball marker was not the equivalent of a cartridge used in a real firearm, a term used to describe ammunition. Gong won and was able to open his own paintball field.

Gaines sold his share in National Survival Game early on, leaving the business to Noel and Gurnsey. The activity has since grown far beyond their initial ambition to settle a friendly debate, with players spending upwards of $169 million annually on equipment. Despite the inherently aggressive nature, it doesn’t seem to be particularly risky, with just 0.2 injuries reported per 1000 participants. While not quite as popular as it was in the early 2000s, there’s still plenty of demand to demonstrate survival skills with one well-aimed paintball.

Friends-Themed Monopoly Lets You Invest in Central Perk

Amazon/Hasbro
Amazon/Hasbro

Central Perk was a key location in the hit sitcom Friends. It’s where Rachel Green got her first job, where Phoebe performed the hit song “Smelly Cat,” and—most importantly—where the group of six New Yorkers spent an exorbitant amount of time sitting on the cafe's well-worn orange couch drinking coffee. But now, you can play as one of the six characters and finally invest back in Central Perk with Friends Monopoly, which is available on Amazon for $25.

In the box you’ll find six tokens, each one representing a different "friend." The purse is Rachel, the sweater-vest is Chandler, the pizza is Joey, the chef's hat is Monica, the acoustic guitar is Phoebe, and the dinosaur is, of course, Ross (though we would have settled for the Holiday Armadillo).

The game operates like regular Monopoly but with a few key Friends twists: To start, rather than invest in hotels and houses, players invest in coffee mugs and orange couches. The train stations have been replaced by modes of transportation from the show, such as Phoebe’s grandmother’s taxi, the boat Joey accidently bought at an auction, and the (slightly creepy) Relaxi Taxi. You’ll also pick up the Central Perk tab rather than pay an “income tax.” And as players go around the board, they’ll find squares with iconic moments of the show, like when the gang fashioned a "very long poking device" to check on Ugly Naked Guy across the street.

If you can't get enough of the fictional Friends cafe, you can always check out this LEGO set that allows you to build your own Central Perk, complete with six mini-figures of the whole gang—plus Gunther.

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