According to economists, video games are an infinity-dollar-a-year business. 1.2 billion people play video games, which means there are now more gamers than Hindus. We have so many games being played that the World Health Organization recognizes gaming addiction as an actual health issue. So it's hard to picture how dead and buried the industry seemed in 1984.
Part of the reason for the slump was titles like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a clumsy, incoherent maze game based on the love between a boy and his alien, and Chase The Chuckwagon, a game based on dog food. Stupid games like these were everywhere and growing in numbers, so stores stopped selling them altogether. Try to picture Battlefield Earth, The Last Airbender, and every Fantastic Four film all coming out at the same time, and every movie theater saying "Forget this" and becoming racquetball courts.
Obviously, something happened to resurrect the market. Otherwise we'd all have gone back to reading and spending time with one another. So what was it? An artistic revolution? An inventive developer? No, it was a bizarre chain of events that started with one businessman throwing a temper tantrum.
Ray Kassar was the CEO of Atari in the early '80s. The company had dominated the video game industry since they released the Atari 2600 home console in 1977, but 1982 was a rough year. That was when they released both the famously diarrhea-like E.T. and the maybe worse home port of Pac-Man. Both games were returned in massive numbers by dissatisfied customers. Atari would have made more people happy and turned a better profit if the employees had taped pictures of their genitals to $10 bills and went door to door surprising people with them.
But in 1983, a new opportunity came when a 94-year-old playing card company called Nintendo asked Atari to help them release their new Famicom console in North America. The two companies agreed to meet and sign a contract at the June 1983 Consumer Electronics Show. While strolling the convention floor before the signing, Kassar happened to walk by the booth of the company's old rival, Coleco Industries. He saw their new Coleco Adam computer system running Donkey Kong, a game made by his future business partners, Nintendo.
Kassar was shocked to see a Nintendo game running on his competitors' new hardware. He thought these folks were involved in some kind of scheme. The Nintendo guys, in fact, had no idea what Coleco was doing, probably wouldn't have brought Atari to that very public place where they were doing it, and could have cleared the whole thing up with a minute of reasoned discussion. But you didn't get to be a CEO in the '80s by having reasoned discussions.
Kassar absolutely lost his shit. Like a child throwing a temper tantrum because he thought his best buddy was playing with somebody else, he decided that Atari's friendship with Nintendo was over. He pulled the Famicom contract, leaving Nintendo with nobody to distribute their console in North America. They didn't know it at the time, but Kassar's grown-ass man fit was the best thing that could've happened to them ... and to anybody who wanted to make a video game ever again.
Faced with a lack of other potential partners, Nintendo said to hell with it and decided to release the Famicom in America themselves. The problem was that by the time they were ready to do it, the video game industry there was completely dead -- killed mainly by Atari, which manufactured so many unwanted copies of their games (especially E.T.) that they had to dump them in a New Mexico landfill, a grim pop culture mass grave. This created a ripple effect that made customers distrust video game developers long before EA made that the industry standard. So Nintendo was looking at this world where stores didn't want to waste shelf space on these unlovable "video games."
Now consider this: Say all you have are rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks. You've got rocks for days. You need to sell some of these rocks, but nobody's buying rocks anymore, because some asshole just flooded the market with low-quality rocks, and now everyone hates rocks. So do you give up? No, you rename your rocks "door stops" or "paperweights" or "coyote bashers." They're still the same rocks, but now you're selling them to people who didn't know they wanted to buy rocks. This will all be in our book, Fighting Wild Animals With Rocks: We Forgot This Was An Economics Metaphor.
That's basically what Nintendo did. If toy stores didn't want to sell a video game system, they wouldn't call it a video game -- they'd call it a "toy" or a "fun box with a wide-penised sex envelope." Obviously, they were still video games, but when nobody's buying rocks, you sell "coyote bashers." It was a lot like calling Charles Manson a famous songwriter -- technically accurate, but still a tricky way to get a Wild Gunman into your home, which would be an awesome joke if anyone remembered that was a Nintendo Entertainment System launch title.
But Nintendo didn't merely stop saying "video games." They did everything they could to differentiate themselves from Atari in the minds of retailers. Atari 2600 cartridges stuck out from the body of the system, so Nintendo cartridges would tuck neatly inside like a VCR. Atari called their console a "video computer," so Nintendo's product would be an "entertainment system." Atari's aging system had a wood grain design, so Nintendo went with a futuristic gray. They used a little plus-shaped nub instead of a joystick. If the Atari 2600 was called the "Never Nipplebite," Nintendo would have set themselves apart by biting someone's tits off.
Nintendo even bundled the newly renamed NES with R.O.B., the fairly useless peripheral that helped sell the idea that the console was a toy. It was supposed to play video games with you, like some kind of robo-friend, but the only command it knew was "TRICK STORE OWNERS." R.O.B. was a shameful lie. If robots ever become self-aware, they'll feel about R.O.B. the way humans feel about Manifest Destiny.
It's important to note here that to Atari, calling their products "toys" was sacrilege. These were sophisticated computers, and there was no way Atari would have used anything close to this marketing strategy if they'd released the Famicon, as was originally planned. Nintendo was making a huge gamble by taking a very un-Atari approach to marketing their console.
And it worked! Store owners were more than happy to stock Nintendo's new "electronic toy," and once kids got their hands on games like Super Mario Bros. (and to a much lesser extent Wild Gunman), it didn't matter if Nintendo called it the Super Go Eff Yourself System -- players were hooked. Nintendo's success emboldened other companies to reenter the previously dead market, allowing it to grow and expand into what it is today. Because of a petty misunderstanding that cost them a contract with Atari, Nintendo took a counterintuitive approach and ended up saving the entire gaming industry.
And none of it would have happened if Ray Kassar had just calmed the fuck down.
Jeff Silvers is a freelance writer who has never accidentally bailed out an industry with his explosive temper. He has a blog at jeffsilvers.com.
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