The launch of the NES Classic Edition on Friday offered a welcome respite for weary Americans. Instead of being angry about the presidential election, we could instead be momentarily angry about Nintendo's inadequate shipments of their new mini-console.
As Mike noted last week, the short-shipped console makes good business sense, but it sucks for consumers. I saw no end of enthusiastic Nintendo fans complaining over the weekend about how they were fed up at last with the company's history of under-shipping their products, and how this was the last straw. That's anecdotal, of course, and there's no way to know how many people actually meant what they wrote as they vented their frustration on the internet. Still, I could understand if some long-time enthusiasts have reached a boiling point. Nintendo's been doing this for a long time; I'd even go so far as to call it a foundational feature of their games business.
As a matter of fact, I saw an interesting claim on Twitter on Friday. Unfortunately, I don't remember who posted it, and thanks to Twitter's fire-and-forget interface and miserable search feature I'm literally incapable of searching far enough back to find the original post or confirm its authenticity. But, in short, it included a screen cap of what was purported to be an internal memo from 1985 encountering artificial scarcity to drive the perception of demand for its new console. I'm willing to accept it as true, not only because it lines up with Nintendo's practices over the years, but also because it makes perfect sense in the context of the NES having launched in 1985.
As any student of video game history knows, Nintendo faced an uphill struggle in bringing the NES to market in America. Their original plan had been to kick the system off (as the "Advanced Video System") in 1984, but that ambition was scuttled when the entire U.S. retail supply chain looked at its massive inventory of overstocked first-generation consoles and games being sold for a fraction of their value and said, "No way, guys." The market crash that broke up Atari played hell with retailers, and they had zero interest in bringing on more game console inventory and losing even more money.
The one console manufacturer to weather the Atari collapse in pretty good shape turned out to be Coleco. Their ColecoVision/ADAM console/PC combo had helped inspire the concept behind the Nintendo AVS — a game system that could be expanded to a PC — but the similarity between the AVS and ADAM played a large part in frightening retailers away from Nintendo's new product. The ADAM had sold terribly, partly due to the crash and due in part to its delayed launch and excessive price. Based on its console business alone, Coleco should have been wiped out harder than any other gaming company of the early ’80s.
Luckily for Coleco, they also sold a hot, hot toy product that helped them remain in the black: The Cabbage Patch Kids. These strange, gnomic little cloth dolls were all the rage several Christmases in the running; for whatever reason, kids and parents couldn't get enough of the dolls. Maybe it was the underlying gimmick of the toy line: Each doll was "unique," with a slightly different combination of features than others, and it came with its own birth certificate that included a unique name, building up the adoption metaphor. In any case, Cabbage Patch Kids inspired one of the first-ever product-specific consumer shopping frenzies, as stores couldn't keep them in stock. As soon as a shipment arrived, parents would clamber over one another to secure one — and, yes, some even resold them through the classifieds, the analogue media equivalent of eBay scalpers.
I don't think it's a coincidence that Nintendo adopted a Cabbage Patch-like tactic of retail scarcity (real or perceived) a year after that consumer mania saved a company that almost was a direct competitor to the NES. It's not like Nintendo was unaware of Coleco, after all; Donkey Kong had been a pack-in title for the ColecoVision, and the ADAM version of the game caused some friction with Nintendo's president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi. Nintendo has a reputation for doing things its own way, but it hardly seems beyond the bounds of reason that "their own way" may have been inspired in large part by Coleco's salvation.
After all, like Coleco, Nintendo was a toy company that went into the video games business. Retailers classified video games as toys well into the ’90s, too. It makes perfect sense that Nintendo would have adopted a toy sales tactic from a spiritually similar company (and former business partner), treating its game console as a toy.
Certainly the NES itself proved difficult to find once it began to blow up. My brother and I wanted an NES at Christmas 1987, and we pooled together our cash to buy one. But there were none to be found for weeks anywhere in the city — I know, because I called every retailer I could think of more or less daily to ask. Ultimately, my father found one at a Meijer halfway across the country about a month later while traveling to attend a funeral. Hot NES games proved equally elusive at times; I spent a summer vacation hunting for the original Castlevania, which had gone out of print and was nowhere to be found across the middle portion of the U.S. A few years later, that same scarcity (or perception thereof) caused me to stalk Toys R Us every day after my summer job in my desperate search for Street Fighter II for Super NES. I managed to secure a Nintendo 64 before it sold out at Christmas 1996, and 10 years later I stood in line with a few dozen other people one chilly morning at 5 a.m. at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf in order to reserve a Wii — a system that became so eagerly sought-after that a little hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant around the corner from my apartment had a system on sale for $100 over MSRP for a few month until, presumably, someone gave in and bought it.
This isn't necessarily a defense of Nintendo's tactics, mind you. I get the need to build hype, and their desire not to flood the retail market and go the way of Atari, but there's also a point at which scarcity cuts into consumer enthusiasm and sales. It's a 30-year-old tactic at this point; does it still work? At what point does Nintendo's conservatism, an essential survival tactic 30 years ago, cut into its ability to survive today? I guess we'll see how things shake out for the NES Classic Edition. Like my review said, it's a great little system... if you can find one.