Today’s research was rather productive. I went through the rest of 1983-1986 in Playthings and also skimmed 1987. I located the moment when videogames seem to have finally returned to toy stores – July 1986. Nintendo purchased a two-page ad, and there was also the announcement that Nintendo partnered with Worlds of Wonder to sell the NES. This isn’t to say videogames weren’t still being sold – in 1985, Atari sold 1 million 2600s – pretty impressive for a ‘dead’ system. Also, INTV was trying to sell the Intellivision II. However, fewer than about 25% of toy stores would even bother with videogames. If you look at the advertising, as well as Ron Judy’s statements, Nintendo is VERY careful to avoid ANY mention of ‘videogame’ or ‘cartridge’ – they state there is a video laser gun, a video robot, and ‘arcade-quality graphics’ (which is 100% true, since the games could also be found on the Nintendo VS and Play Choice 10!). ROB the Robot is also interesting. In 1985, the top-selling toys included robots. Further, two popular brands were Bandai’s Luv Bot and Tomy’s Omnibot – both of which look AWFULLY similar to ROB. What’s more…if you look at the bots very carefully, the ‘sad’ expression of the eyes and particularly the levitating head are both VERY similar to ET! And ET was a top license of 1983 and 1984! It’s extremely fun to come across something like this in the archive.
This ROB/Omnibot/ET story just goes to show that game historians can’t be limited to JUST what’s going on in the world of games – we must look at the larger context of what is happening in the world and in the toy and electronics industries. Otherwise, we are too narrow-minded.
I also dug through catalogs from Sears, JC Penny, and Montgomery Ward from 1982-1986. The museum didn’t have a few, but the findings were interesting. Sears sold videogames in 1983, but pretty much dropped the products in 1984 (they had a small computer selection). Montgomery Ward was more tenacious, selling videogames up through 1984 at extremely discounted prices. However, JC Penny didn’t carry anything except a few handhelds like Coleco’s Donkey Kong and the Game & Watch. This and reports from Playthings clearly demonstrate that videogames weren’t ‘dead’ and ‘nobody was buying’ them. Rather, plenty of people were buying (again, 1 million Atari 2600 customers in 1985), but at extremely discounted prices. This was mostly to clear out old inventory – hardly anyone was developing new games for the 2600, 5200, and ColecoVision, and Intellivision II (check those years on Mobygames). So product was available for cheap, people bought it, but the retailer made little money, the distributor didn’t make anything, and the hardware and software manufacturers didn’t make a dime either since there was little product being produced.
Tomorrow, I hope to finish going through 1981 and earlier issues of Playthings (doubtful I can look at 1971 – 1981, as that’s an awful lot of shelf space, but I want to at least go back as far as 1975 to see the home TV tennis shakeout and the problems with handheld electronic games around 1980). There are also some trade catalogs. Finally, I will be looking for documents that would shed light on the home computer industry.