It's commonly held that Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System is one, if not the greatest game of all time. People constantly talk about its historical importance, and how it was largely responsible for the unprecedented success of the NES console.
But when did it come out? Most people say 1986, but no one has ever published a definitive release date. In a truly fascinating bit of investigative reporting, Gamasutra's Frank Cifaldi went on a quest to determine the official, actual release date of the classic game. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so.
After tracking the game through its Japanese release and through retail channels into america, things started getting very murky. The game has always been cited as having been released in 1986, but as Cifaldi finds, it looked far more likely that it came out in the fall of 1985.
Tracking a paper trail that takes him from Nintendo's internal launch date (October 18, 1985) up through former EGM editor Ed Semrad's 1985 Milwaukee Journal entry about the game, Cifaldi finds a number of ads, internal Nintendo launch chronicles, and sweepstakes lists to find convincing evidence that Super Mario Bros. was part of Nintendo's slate of 15 launch games for the NES for fall of 1985.
It gets better from there, with Cifaldi chatting with someone who was possibly there on the day that the first unit sold. Bruce Lowry, Nintendo VP of sales at the time, tells the story of how he and two other Nintendo employees went to FAO Schwartz to watch the first unit be purchased.
Humorously enough, it was bought by a man who worked for a Nintendo competitor, but he bought all 15 of the launch games along with the console. It would seem that is the first registered North American sale of Super Mario Bros. But! There is the question of... the bloody mary.
Three of the employees broke off afterwards to go have a bloody mary at a hotel bar nearby; Gail Tilden, one of the three, says that she never would have gotten a bloody mary on a weekday. That casts some doubt on the theory of a release date of Friday, October 18th.
Can you see why this article is fun? It keeps going from there, running through remembered parties and dates, circling around either Saturday, October 12th or the next Saturday, October 19th as the date of the FAO Schwartz sale.
In the end, Cifaldi has assembled some good-looking evidence pointing towards Saturday, October 19th, 1985. But still, he says he's "just not satisfied." There's no smoking gun, no definitive proof. Nintendo, unfortunately, has been less than helpful, emailing with him a bit before saying they have to "politely decline at this time given the limited resources as we're gearing up for other projects."
Cifaldi has a laugh over the fact that just as he wrapped up his investigation, he got an anonymous tip that pointed him towards November 17 as the launch date. How ridiculous is it, he asks, that 27 years after the game launched, he has to rely on intense investigative journalism and random anonymous tipsters to even get an inkling of when the game came out?
While we may never know the exact North American release date of the greatest game of all time, this story speaks volumes about how difficult it can be to chronicle the history of video games. Props to Cifaldi for chasing down such a winding, ephemeral story. Who knows? The truth might still be out there. Maybe the Cigarette-Smoking Man can cast some light on this.