How Nintendo Conquered Manhattan in 1985

getty images
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

iStock

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.”

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

The Elder Wand from Harry Potter Will Be Surprisingly Important in Fantastic Beasts 2

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

For about a year now, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has been using an image of the Elder Wand in promotional teases, as pointed out by The Ringer. You surely remember the instrument—which is said to be the most powerful wand to have ever existed in JK Rowling's Wizarding World—from the original Harry Potter series. So just how important will it be to the Fantastic Beasts sequel? Extremely.

According to Pottermore, the Elder Wand (also known as the Deathstick or "The Wand of Destiny") is the most sought after of the three Deathly Hallows. According to "The Tale of the Three Brothers," a fairy tale often told to wizard children, the Elder Wand was given to Antioch Peverell by Death himself. Whoever was able to reunite the wand with the other two Deathly Hallows—the Resurrection Stone and the Cloak of Invisibility—would become the Master of Death.

As such, the Elder Wand is extremely dangerous—and can be made even more so, depending on the intentions of the wizard who possesses it. As Dumbledore once ​said in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, "Those who are knowledgeable about wandlore will agree that wands do indeed absorb the expertise of those who use them."

So how does all of this connect to Fantastic Beasts? While in disguise in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, Gellert Grindelwald didn't carry the Elder Wand—though we know from previous installments that he had acquired it by the time the first movie takes place. Grindelwald stole the wand from Mykew Gregorovitch, stunning the wizard to gain the allegiance of the Elder Wand, sometime before 1926. But while promotional stills indicate that Grindelwald will have physical possession of the wand in this second movie, which witch or wizard has the wand's allegiance is less clear—after all, Newt Scamander captured Grindelwald at the end of the first film, and Tina Goldstein disarmed him.

However, we know from the Harry Potter series that Dumbledore takes possession of the Elder Wand after a duel in 1945, which is the same year the Fantastic Beasts series will end (so it's pretty safe to assume that Dumbledore and Grindelwald will face off in the series' fifth and final film). And Dumbledore's own words about how he came to possess the wand in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are also particularly telling. "I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it," he stated in the novel. "I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it."

We'll have to wait until this weekend to see how it all plays out in The Crimes of Grindelwald, but this is one story that will take several more installments to tell.

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