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We’ve just experienced a couple of big console launches this year with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A lot goes into releasing a major system; you have to pick the right price, the perfect date, and a lineup of attractive launch titles.
Of course, Sony and Microsoft have a lot of history they can look back on for a little guidance. They and other companies, notably Sega and Nintendo, have worked on the art of the console launch for almost 30 years, and we’ve come a long way from limited-market releases that always came with at least one free game.
You can see this evolution for yourself. Below, we’ve looked back at every major console release, starting with the Nintendo Entertainment System and working all the way up to the recent Xbox One. Note that all of our data is from the U.S. launches, and we’re only including systems that saw a degree of success in that territory (sorry, 3DO fans).
At the end, you’ll find a poll listing each console detailed in the story, so you can vote for the one that you think had the best launch.
Now, let’s get started. We have a long trip through history ahead of us.
Nintendo Entertainment System
Above: The Nintendo Entertainment System started the modern gaming industry.
Image Credit: Nintendo
Launch date: October 18, 1985
Launch price: $199 for the Control Deck (contained the system, two controllers, and Super Mario Bros.) and $249 for the Deluxe Set (contained the system, two controllers, the R.O.B. accessory, the gun-like Zapper controller, Duck Hunt, and Gyroscope)
The story: Despite first showing up in Japan on July 15, 1983, the U.S. didn’t see the Nintendo Entertainment system until late into 1985, and even then, only a fraction of the country actually got its hands on one. That’s because Nintendo originally only released about 100,000 units of the console in New York City as a test market. Nintendo added more test markets throughout 1987, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. The NES finally launched nationally that September.
Notable launch games:
- Super Mario Bros.: Easily one of the most famous launch games ever, Super Mario Bros. sold over 40 million copies, making it one of the most successful titles in the history of the industry. Not bad for a little adventure starring two portly plumbers jumping on turtles and sliding down pipes.
- Duck Hunt: Duck Hunt was a showpiece for the NES’ Zapper accessory, a gun-shaped controller that allowed players to aim and shoot at their TV. The name pretty much says it all; you hunted ducks as they flew around the screen in unpredictable, erratic patterns. However, most players better remember the dog who mercilessly mocked your misses than the scores of ducks they shot down.
Did you know?
Atari, the manufacturer best known for the Atari 2600 console that was famous in the late ’70s and early ’80s, negotiated with Nintendo to release the Famicom (the Japanese name of the Nintendo Entertainment System) in the U.S. in 1983. That deal never came to fruition, causing Nintendo to release and market the NES on its own.
Above: Sega Genesis proudly labelled itself a 16-bit system.
Image Credit: Sega
Launch date: August 14, 1989
Launch price: $189 (came with system, a controller, and Altered Beast)
The story: Sega originally launched the Genesis in Japan in late 1988 (named the Mega Drive there), where the 16-bit system was having a hard time competing with the popular Famicom and PC-Engine (known as the TurboGrafx-16 in the U.S., where it never saw much success). Similar to the NES, the U.S. launch of the Genesis originally started in New York City on August 14, 1989, with a national release on September 15.
The Genesis originally had trouble making an impact in a U.S. market dominated by the Nintendo Entertainment System. Things turned around when Sega replaced the original pack-in game, Altered Beast, with a new mascot-based platformer, Sonic the Hedgehog, in 1991.
Notable launch games:
- Altered Beast: Altered Beast was already a popular beat-em up arcade game before the Genesis’ launch, so Sega packaged this console port with the original bundle of its new system to show off its ability to replicate arcade-style graphics. The game featured a beefy fighter punching and kicking monsters in ancient Greece while collecting power-ups that eventually turn him into a powerful werewolf.
- Golden Axe: Golden Axe was another arcade beat-em up ported for the Genesis’ launch. Two players could fight monsters across a fantasy setting while occasionally riding beasts like dragons. Players could also fill the screen with powerful, magical attacks that got stronger depending on how many potions you had saved.
Did you know?
Just like Nintendo, Sega reached out to Atari to see if it would market its 16-bit system. Negotiations never got as far as Nintendo’s, though. Atari decided to focus its attention on its own Atari ST computer system. Again, like Nintendo, Sega decided to market the U.S. release of the Genesis itself.
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