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.”

Stephen King's Maine Home Will Become a Museum and Writer's Retreat

Russ Quinlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Russ Quinlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Early in his career, author Stephen King (It, The Shining, The Outsider) embraced his public persona of being a spooky writer of the macabre. He purchased a 19th-century Victorian mansion in Bangor, Maine in 1980 for $135,000 and spent some Halloweens outside passing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

Now, King’s residence is set to become something of a Bangor landmark. As Rolling Stone reports, King and his wife Tabitha requested that their private home at 47 West Broadway be rezoned as a nonprofit center, which the Bangor City Council granted this week. The plan is to turn the home into a museum devoted to King’s work as well as a writer’s retreat.

King isn’t evicting himself, exactly. While he remains the owner, he and his family have spent less time at the residence over the years, instead residing in Florida or Oxford County, Maine.

Shortly after King purchased the home, he wrote and read aloud an essay addressing why he chose Bangor and his earliest impressions of 47 West Broadway. “I think it disapproved of us at first,” he wrote. “The parlor seemed cold in a way that had little to do with temperature. The cat would not go into that room; the kids avoided it. My oldest son was convinced there were ghosts in the turret towers …” A few months in, King recalled, his family began to settle in.

The Bangor home has morphed into a tourist attraction of sorts over time, with fans of King’s making a pilgrimage to the spot to take photos or idle around its ornate iron gate. Soon they’ll be able to peek inside, though the museum will be by appointment only. It’s not yet known when the home will open to visitors or how writers can apply to stay there.

[h/t Rolling Stone]

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

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