August 2016 represents the 25th anniversary of the release of the Super NES in North America. Though not quite as hard to investigate as the release of the NES, it wasn't released along with a huge marketing blitz for a specific day like modern console releases. This article gives an overview of the launch of the SNES in North America. The nation-wide release date of the console was September 9th, 1991, but it was available earlier in California, possibly as early as August 21st, 1991.
I have to admit, as a nine year old boy living in rural Canada, the release of the SNES hardly warranted a mention. As a result I can't give a first hand account of the launch. I doubt it even got a mention in the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalogue, which would have been the main source for knowing about upcoming games at that time. I got a NES for Christmas in 1989, and probably was enjoying games like Super Mario Bros 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 when the SNES was released. It probably did not help that the system was not launched until late 1991 in Canada (see below for more details), and with little fanfare. I got my SNES for Christmas 1992, getting hyped after picking up some second hand Nintendo Power magazines that covered the launch. I think I even got a hint book called Play Action Strategies: Super Nintendo before getting the system (such is my memories of this guide book that the first games added to this site were the order they appeared in this guide).
Lead up to the release of the Super NES
The Super NES was first announced at the January 1991 CES, two months after the Super Famicom was available in Japan. The system was not shown off at that point. They gave a tentative release date of "September 1991". This is when the system officially was given the name "Super NES". Prior to that, it was known using the code-name "SFX" or "NES-SFX", which means Nintendo Entertainment System - Special Effects. The EGM article below that states this also speculated that the system could have launched as a peripheral to the NES rather than as a separate system, but obviously that didn't happen.
Although one might have expected the official reveal of the console to have been at the Summer 1991 CES (held June 1-4), it actually was first revealed in the June 1991 issue of Nintendo Power. The SNES was a big part of the Summer CES. Someone uploaded some video coverage of the event, which reveals that the design system, logo and games were complete at that time. Even at the Summer CES, an exact launch date was not given, though the Quartermann rumour list in the August 1991 issue of EGM states they intended to have a September 1st release date. This date may have actually been given out prior to the CES, as it was noted in an article in the May 1st edition of the Tampa Bay Times:
Nintendo, the leader in the home video game business, plans to introduce on June 1 a new game deck that will make obsolete the Nintendo machines now in 28-million American homes.
United States release date
Unlike the release of the NES, it was relatively easy to track down the exactly when the launch of the Super NES happened. This article from the September 10, 1991 edition of the New York Times states it precisely. The nation-wide launch of the Super NES happened on September 9, 1991, with a retail price of $199.95, with a Super Mario World pack-in. They also launched with Pilotwings and F-Zero, with carts costing $49.95. Nintendo Power, in the October 1991 issue also gives a September 1991 release time.
However, unlike modern day console releases, there wasn't an exact launch date everywhere. The Super NES came out about three weeks earlier than the nation-wide launch date in California. From the Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California), August 27, 1991:
Last weekend, months after video-game addicts started calling, Dave Adams finally was able to sell them what they craved: Super Nintendo.
This indicates that the Super NES may have been available as early as August 21, 1991. It is uncertain why it came out early in California, except that this might be where the shipments from Japan were unloaded. There was also a USENET post from August 26th 1991, which states a Toys-R-Us store was selling the system on August 22nd (the guy also states he bought his on the 23nd):
The SNES made it to Toys-R-Us here the afternoon of 8-22-91. They received about a dozen of them, and they appear to be going fast. I haven't found them anywhere else yet. The package price is $199.99, and includes everything needed to us it (control unit, power adapter, RF adapter, AV cable, 2 controllers ) plus Super Mario World. There were also 2 other games available. Pilot Wings, and F-Zero, both for $49.99.
The November 1991 issue of EGM states the release date was August 23rd, 1991:
An article in the August 30th edition of the Orlando Sentinel seems to indicate that the system may have been available in Florida/Georgia (the authors were based out of Atlanta) by the end of August. However, given that the authors' preview some games that were probably not released until after launch, this may be a description of their experiences at the Summer CES.
It's here - the long-awaited Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 16 bits of playing power at your fingertips.
Looking back to my time on the Digital Press message board, there was a lot of debate on when the exact launch date. In all likelihood, retailers started to sell it as soon as they got stock, which appears to be between August 21st and August 23rd in California. Looking at rec.game.video, there were several posts from August that confirm a late August release. An article by 1up for the 15th anniversary state an earlier date of August 13, 1991, but they don't state where that date comes from. I'm guessing someone posted it by mistake on Wikipedia, so I looked into when this date was added to the Super NES article. My investigation of that shows that a date of August 14th was added by an anonymous user with a Canadian IP on October 30th 2005, and almost immediately changed by someone else to the 13th. No justification was given for these edits, and I would assume this is where the 1up article got its date from. There is an anecdote on the Digital Press thread of someone getting it on the 13th, but at this point I would say that it is just hearsay.
Release in Canada
When the Super NES was released, Nintendo obviously expected brisk sales. Due to this, they clearly did not believe they would be able to release the system in Canada until 1992:
The vice-president of Nintendo of Canada, at the Summer CES, pretty much says they didn't want to cut into the sales of the NES, which had not been available as long in Canada. From the June 4th, 1991 edition of the Ottawa Citizen:
However, there were two factors that probably led them to release it in Canada early. First was that the initial sales were underwhelming in the US. In 1991, America was in the midst of a recession. There were plenty of parents who questioned why there was a need to spend money on a new system. From an article dating to September 16, 1991 from the Seattle Times:
The $700 million question is not whether Mario will defeat Bowser's Krazy Koopa Kritters.
The other factor, of course, was the release of Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. Also aiding Sega was the fact that the system was $50 cheaper and had a larger library. From the December 18th 1991 edition of the Austin American Statesman:
Due to these factors, Nintendo decided to release the Super NES in Canada before the Christmas holidays, specifically December 2nd, 1991. They even launched it at a relatively reduced price, probably to stave off the competition from Sega. From the December 3rd 1991 edition of the Ottawa Citizen:
Aiming squarely at Christmas sales, Nintendo of Canada released its much-vaunted ''Super'' Nintendo system in Canada Monday.
Further, it appears that Nintendo also wanted to combat cross-border shopping, according to an article in the December 14th edition of the Windsor Star. However, the quote from the editor of Players' Strategy Guide to Nintendo Games rightly says that it was also to try and prevent Sega from gaining a foothold in Canada.
Super Nintendo arrived in Canada several months ahead of schedule.
In summary, Nintendo had a disappointing start to its release of the Super NES in North America. It was hurt by a weak economy and competition from the Sega Genesis. The SNES would remain behind the Genesis in total sales until late 1994, when the release of Donkey Kong Country put it over the top.
Much like the system itself, there were no specific release dates for games, and they would have hit the shelves as soon as they were shipped to retailers. We can, of course, say that Super Mario World was released simultaneously with the system, as it was a pack-in. F-Zero and Pilotwings were also released on launch date. Several games came shortly afterwards, but their release dates are unlikely to be determined any more precisely than by month.
As I host a large PCB archive, I have the ability to come up with an objective estimate of when games might have come out. About 80-90% of ROM chips come with a manufacturing date stamp, which gives the week number of when it was produced. All games in 1991 were made in Japan, so the timing of release would probably be at least a week or two after the chips were made, to give time for shipping. I specifically have put out a call to try and find the oldest Super Mario World. The oldest chip identified so far has a stamp of 9132, which is the first full week of August, two weeks before the SNES started hitting the shelves. I looked through my archives to find all games that were manufactured by the end of August 1991 (9134), and this is my list:
All of these games could conceivably have come out either at the official nation-wide launch of September 9th 1991, or soon after. I would regard all of the above games as "launch" titles. Note that my PCB archive is hardly comprehensive, so it is possible that other games are in this window. I will point out that the oldest game I have is Pilotwings, but I would imagine the manufacturing of Super Mario World would have started by the time Pilotwings did. This does not include other games that came out near launch, such as Final Fight, Final Fantasy II and Super Castlevania IV. The oldest manufacturing dates for these games would have put them outside of the launch week by at least a few weeks.
So in total there were at least 11 games that came out in the launch window of the SNES. They include three shooters, a racing game, three simulations, two sports games, one platformer and one RPG. The launch lineup was very much a display of the capabilities of Mode 7 (F-Zero, Pilotwings and Drakkhen use it extensively). Super Bases Loaded was also the first game to use the Super NES hi-resolution mode, although I would argue this is one of the most bare-bones baseball games for the system (save maybe Relief Pitcher). Drakkhen was the first RPG for the system, but was soon overshadowed by Final Fantasy II, which came out soon after launch. SimCity and Populous were conversions of popular PC games, which at the time was a big deal since PCs were not ubiquitous like they are now. Gradius III was one of the biggest shooters to come out, but the slowdown problems that plagued it did not make it enduring to the Genesis crowd.
Overall, a launch lineup containing Super Mario World, F-Zero, SimCity and Pilotwings was likely enough to satisfy early adopters, but not enough to blow the Genesis away. In hindsight, if crushing Sega were the goal, they would have released the system before Sonic The Hedgehog came out (which was in June 1991). Super Mario World, although an incredibly deep platformer with branching paths, could not compete with the the coolness of Sonic. Nor could the relatively slow processor in the SNES, which led early games like Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts and Gradius III to have major slowdown problems.
It wasn't until Street Fighter II came out that the SNES really started to hold its own in the console wars. We have to look at the launch of the SNES as an incremental step above the NES, but Nintendo was too hesitant in the face of their first real competition in the console market. Even so, the SNES launched with a solid lineup of games, with titles like Super Mario World, F-Zero and SimCity still holding up to this day.
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