With the NES firmly entrenched in America’s national retail distribution network, Nintendo’s first impossible challenge was surmounted. They’d convinced corporate buyers that their goods were worthy, that their business model was crash-proof, and that people actually did still enjoy videogames. The next step, then, was to transform their new console into a money-making machine. And what better way to do that than by convincing consumers -- or rather, consumers’ kids -- that the NES had an amazing library of must-own games?
In the days before the Internet, that meant one of two things: multimedia tie-ins, or a newsletter. The tie-ins would come in time with the likes of Captain N and the Nintendo Comics System. But in the early NES days, when Nintendo was still a plucky up-and-comer on whose shoulders rested the burden of proof, the newsletter was the best option. And thus, the Nintendo Fun Club.
Membership in the Nintendo Fun Club didn’t net a gamer much -- just a handful of promotional mailings, and maybe a badge or something. But there was a single compelling, value-added feature about membership: The Fun Club News. Initially little more than a literal newsletter produced on the cheap, the newsletter quickly ballooned in size and scope and quality as its subscriber base grew into the millions. By the fourth issue, it was basically a mini-magazine, crammed with previews, tips, and fluffy mini-features.
For game-starved kids who had just come into possession of a new NES, the newsletter was practically consumerist pornography, and best of all it was free. Every other month, the postman would bring a new issue crammed with tantalizing hints of upcoming games -- painfully tantalizing in the case of Zelda II, which ended up being more than a year out from release thanks to its various delays -- while promoting worthy titles that might otherwise have been overlooked -- Howard Phillips’ pseudonymous shilling for The Goonies II turned my circle of NES-owning friends into instant fans.
Nintendo no doubt invested a fair amount of cash into the newsletter -- hence its subsequent transformation into the for-pay Nintendo Power -- but it was a brilliant investment. The NES launched at a unique time in the history of gaming, as the old American giants were too enfeebled and timid to immediately counter the NES, and Japanese competitors were biding their time until they could battle the system with technological superiority.
All told, Nintendo had the U.S. market to themselves for almost two years before the Sega Master System arrived... and they made the most of that time, hitting gamers with a rapid onslaught of top-notch titles and persistent promotion to build awareness of their software.
The Fun Club Newsletter was simply the vanguard of a furious entrenchment effort that also included memorable commercials -- a generation can still perform the Zelda rap on command -- and arcade machines specifically designed to showcase top NES titles for a quarter. In recent years, Nintendo has become adept at creating new markets and new opportunities for selling games. When the NES launched, however, the market was all but handed to them on a silver platter.
To their credit -- and the eventual delight of 34 million NES owners -- they seized it without hesitation.