by Joshua Rogers

With the NES beginning to make waves through the USA throughout 1985 and 1986, Nintendo, with worldwide domination on its agenda, began looking to other regions to market its console The company, however, lacked the distribution networks which it had enjoyed in Japan and which it had been lent in America by the Worlds of Wonder toy company. Outside of these two countries, Nintendo’s operations were minimal and, up until this point in history, it had simply received orders from locally-based companies for its arcade and Game&Watch units with few considerations of the local markets it was exporting its products to. 

However, for Nintendo, the NES was different. Anticipating a worldwide success, the company developed stringent terms for the companies distributing its console, including restricting marketing material, dictating costs, and limiting the games each distributor would receive. While these distributors would see a certain level of autonomy in its actions – due to their knowledge and preferred flavours of the local market – both Nintendo’s American, and Japanese, offices, would always have the final say in the decision-making process. Nothing would happen without the head office’s knowledge – and direct approval.

The world divided into NES Regions

In congruence with utilising different third-party distributors in different countries, Nintendo separated the ability for games from different parts of the world to work with consoles sold in other parts of the world. This meant that, for example, games sold in the USA would not work on consoles sold in Europe, and vice-versa. Using its trademarked lock-out chip, which it also employed to defend against copyright infringement, the company split up the consoles into four major regions. These were colloquially known as the: PAL-A, PAL-B, Asian, and NTSC regions. While this form of region-locking was not exactly unknown, it is noteworthy that the so-called PAL region was split into two – meaning games from one part of the PAL region would not work in some others.

The first third-party distributor to release the NES was a small company named “Active Boeki”, introducing the NES into South East Asia (specifically, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia) in June 1986. Just a few months later, Sweden received the NES, distributed by the local company Bergsala. While other countries such as India, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, all began to see the NES on the shelves coming into 1987 – each with partially individualised advertising campaigns curated by the local distributors – some major markets were missing official releases.

Unlike other regions, where small-to-medium-sized companies handled the distribution of the NES, Nintendo brokered a larger deal with the massive toy company Mattel – of Barbie fame – to handle distribution in three major geographical regions: Italy, the UK and Ireland, and Australia/New Zealand. Utilising its distribution networks in each of these countries, Mattel would market an exclusive version of the NES – called the “Mattel Version NES”, which would only function with games bought in the Mattel regions – i.e. “PAL-A” games.

Mattel NES Action Set for PAL

Nintendo vs Sega

The NES arrived in Australia around July 1987 to a lacklustre reception. Mattel had prepared for the levels of success seen in Japan and the USA – including the pre-ordering of tens of thousands of units. But its marketing of the console as a toy, rather than a videogame, saw the console straggle behind its major competitors. This may not have all been Mattel’s fault. Mattel’s expertise was in the sale of toys, but it’s likely that Nintendo themselves pushed for the marketing of the console as a children’s toy rather than as a videogame systemas this was the successful strategy used in the USA. For Nintendo, what worked in America, had to work elsewhere. The landscape of the Australian videogaming market, however, demanded much more interesting games than what the NES had to offer – with consumers being made up of young adults looking for action-packed fun, not small children looking for small-time gimmicks.

The NES’ direct competition in Australia was the Sega Master System, released approximately at the same time as Nintendo’s system. Sega had contracted the Australian company OziSoft to market its products. Ozisoft not only had a greater level of autonomy than Mattel but was already in the local videogames market and had been publishing and distributing games for home computing since 1982. OziSoft’s marketing strategy was to be the “cool” console – marketed towards teenagers and young adults with games filled with guns, action, and blood. Unlike the NES, the Master System was to be associated with “fun”, rather than “cute”. For OziSoft/Sega, this marketing strategy paid off, with Sega-Mania hitting Australia and Nintendo trailing behind. Sega consistently saw at least 60% market-share all the way until circa-1994.

Unlike the USA, Australia had not suffered any significant crash in the sale of videogames in the mid-1980s: videogaming had simply switched from the early home pong style consoles to microcomputers. This meant that when the NES was released in Australia in 1987, the microcomputing market offered more powerful systems – with much more interesting games. At the initial time of release, the NES’ hardware was over 4 years old and, due to restrictions imposed by Nintendo on the release schedules for more captivating games, Mattel were unable to distribute some of the more appealing games available in Japan and America at that time. With the abundance of significantly cheaper – and newer – games for the likes of the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, it was much more likely that the televisions of the average Australian would be preoccupied with these systems over Nintendo’s.

Mattel Club Nintendo Australia

Just a kid’s toy

Ultimately, the NES never saw the successes in Australia that it did in other regions. While Nintendo did eventually gain market-dominance in Australia with the release of the Gameboy and the SNES around 1994, Sega’s and the various Microsystems’ games should still be remembered as being the real winners of the late-1980s and early 1990s in Australia. For the millions of people that grew up during this time playing videogames, it’s the microcomputers and Sega consoles that come to mind when thinking about their childhood gaming memories – the Nintendo was just a kid’s toy.