Super Nintendo Turns 25: Inside Its Uphill Battle for U.S. Domination

The classic gaming console launched on Aug. 23, 1991 — and wasn't quite the instant success Nintendo expected.
The classic gaming console launched on Aug. 23, 1991 — and wasn't quite the instant success Nintendo expected.

The Super Nintendo may be among the most beloved video game consoles of all time, but when it launched in the U.S. 25 years ago Tuesday, it faced an uphill battle.

The system had been a smash upon release in Japan a year earlier, under the name Super Famicom, but the U.S. launch didn't quite re-create that magic.

"It wasn't the same kind of pandemonium as there was in Japan," Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation, tells Heat Vision. "They sold out their initial amount of units and it was successful, but there definitely wasn't the fervor that was expected."

Though kids were clamoring for the new 16-bit system — the first with cool attributes like buttons on top of the controller — parents were skeptical it was worth the hefty price tag. At $199, it was $50 more than the Sega Genesis and double the cost of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Parents had already spent hundreds on the NES and cartridges over the years — and if the SNES couldn't even play NES games, why had they spent all that money in the first place?

The SNES was paired with Super Mario World — a classic indeed, but to skeptical parents whose wallets had to be pried open to purchase the system, it didn't look much different than Super Mario Bros. 3. The only SNES titles available on shelves on launch day were F-Zero and Pilotwings, both of which showed off the console's new capabilities, but which paled in comparison to the 100 or so titles available on the Genesis. Influential hits like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (April 1992), Super Mario Kart (September 1992) and Super Metroid (April 1994) were still months or years away from release in the U.S.

The 1991 news coverage above gives a taste of the parental backlash that was taking place at the time. Supposedly, there were support groups for parents of kids with Nintendo — though it looks pretty staged. 

"So it has come to this. Therapy sessions for families you can call Ninten-pendent. Psychologists offices might get more crowded this holiday season," says the reporter via voice-over. (Later, he appears with his body superimposed over an F-Zero car ... which was a cool trick for 1991, apparently.)

Here's a look at a Nintendo brochure touting the SNES ahead of its release (note the working title for 'Link to the Past.')

Had Sega not been an option, it's likely the SNES launch would have gone more smoothly. But plopping down nearly $200 for a system that did not yet have a full library of games was a hard pill to swallow for many parents.

Even kids noticed some parts of the initial SNES slate was lacking. By this point, gaming had become such a communal activity for kids that the fact that the racing game F-Zero was single-player may have hurt the launch in hindsight. Harris notes that had Super Mario Kart been part of SNES' initial slate, that could have been a game-changer for the system.

But eventually all that didn't matter. In 1992, a year after release, SNES sold 3.5 million units in the U.S., trailing Genesis by half a million. But a year later the tables had turned, with SNES topping Genesis by 600,000 with 4.3 million units sold. 

Eventually, Nintendo won out in the battle for console domination, as chronicled in Harris' excellent Console Wars. And the rest was history.