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NES launch titles

The NES launch titles were the 18 games released alongside the Nintendo Entertainment System during its North American launch on October 18, 1985. All of the launch titles belong to the Black Box series of games. The lineup was something of a mixed bag, but it was carefully balanced for a tepid American market.

When the NES launched, there were eighteen games available for it, a line-up that included four sports games, three light gun games, two ROB games, two racing games, an edutainment title, and six other miscellaneous games. Many of them were conversions from arcade titles, which is unsurprising since arcade games were Nintendo’s core business at the time.

List of NES launch titles

10-Yard Fight
Baseball
Clu Clu Land
Donkey Kong Jr Math
Duck Hunt
Excitebike
Golf
Gyromite (together with the Robotic Operating Buddy)
Hogan’s Alley
Ice Climber
Kung Fu
Mach Rider
Pinball
Stack-Up
Super Mario Bros.
Tennis
Wild Gunman
Wrecking Crew

NES Launch Titles in depth

I’ve read some critiques of the NES launch titles, and I’ve heard some say that the lineup was much stronger than earlier consoles, and I’ve also heard it called uninteresting, compared to what came later. It proves you can’t please everyone.

From a collector standpoint today, the NES launch titles present a challenge that the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Coleco Vision do not. All of their launch titles were reasonably successful. They didn’t necessarily all go on to become smash hits, but they are all among the most common titles available for their respective consoles. Some of the NES launch titles are rare and expensive. So not only is the library larger, but some of the titles will take a much longer time to track down, especially if you want boxed examples.

Not every launch title is built to be a hit. Sure, there was the one kid in my class who had everything, so he got the NES in the fall of 1985 and bought every title, but for most families, the NES was an expensive outlay in 1985 or 1986, and most families bought just one or two titles in addition to what came with the console.The job of this lineup of launch titles was to get you in the door. The video game console industry took a beating in 1983 and 1984, so the NES launch titles job was to get people excited about video games again.

If you’re looking to collect the NES launch titles, one thing to keep in mind is that early NES cartridges were held together by five Phillips-head screws. Later issues were held together by three security screws. If you’re a purist, look for the variants with five screws.

10-Yard Fight

NES launch title 10 Yard Fight

10 Yard Fight was both a sports title and an arcade conversion.

10 Yard Fight is a little unique in that it is both a sports title and a licensed arcade conversion. It wasn’t a Nintendo title but rather was licensed from Irem, a source Nintendo tapped for one of the other successful titles on this list.

10 Yard Fight is an early 1980s implementation of American football. The Tecmo football titles that followed later in the decade were better, but that was OK. 10 Yard Fight just needed to be good enough to get Nintendo into the game. And in that regard, it succeeded.

It needed the simplicity of the football games on earlier consoles, but graphics comparable to the football games on home computers. And in this regard, it succeeded. 10 Yard Fight is by no means the biggest hit on this list, but it certainly wasn’t a flop, either.

Baseball

NES launch title baseball

Baseball provided another sports game in the launch title lineup.

Here’s another early sports title, like 10 Yard Fight, that wasn’t as good as the titles that would come later from third parties. But it fit comfortably between the baseball implementations on earlier second generation consoles and the baseball games available on computers, providing nice graphics and simpler gameplay. Did it play as easily as the baseball games on other consoles? Yes. Did it look and sound better? Also yes. And it helped the console appeal to people who weren’t interested in arcade conversions.

It wasn’t as good as RBI Baseball or Baseball Stars, but it didn’t need to be. It got the NES in the game and hinted at the great baseball implementations that would come later on the system. This is another title that wasn’t a huge hit but also didn’t flop.

Clu Clu Land

NES launch title clu clu land

Clu Clu Land is a puzzle/maze game and is rather collectible today.

This title, part of Ninendo’s Action Series, is a puzzle/maze game. In Clu Cu Land you play a balloonfish that swims around in a maze uncovering golden ingots while avoiding sea urchins and black holes.

The challenge is that the only way to change direction is to run into a turning post, located throughout each game stage.If you run into a sea urchin, you die. You can also stun a sea urchin with a sound wave, which allows you to push them off a screen, similar in concept to the powerups in the more familiar Pac Man.

The ingot graphic appears in The Legend of Zelda, and the bounce sound is the same as the jump sound in Super Mario Bros. So the game may look and sound familiar even if you haven’t played it much.

This title didn’t prove as popular as most of the others, so it’s one of the more difficult and expensive titles on this list. But elements of the game became minigames in later, more successful titles on subsequent Nintendo platforms.

Donkey Kong Jr Math

NES launch title Donkey Kong Jr Math

This NES launch title didn’t make the world a better place.

A lot of the lists of NES launch titles omit this one. It’s a curious choice today, especially considering Nintendo had Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr in its portfolio and didn’t release either of them until June 1986.

But this title helped to sell the console. Well, theoretically. Earlier consoles had a few educational titles available, and the availability of this title gave kids the argument that the NES wouldn’t necessarily bring their grades down. They could buy this console and this cartridge would help them with their math.

Judging from this game’s scarcity today, The argument didn’t lead to very many parents buying this title. And let’s be honest, saying Dad could play football on it was probably a more convincing argument.

But it provides a rare title for collectors to try to chase down today.

Duck Hunt

NES launch title Duck Hunt

Duck Hunt was a huge success on the NES.

This was one of the pack in titles, and it bolstered the argument that the system was something new and different. Instead of using the d-pad controller, it used a light gun. Light pens were a familiar technology on computers, although they were definitely something people talked about more than they bought. The light gun worked on pretty much the same principle, and it caught on better. It seems people found it more fun to shoot things then to draw things.

It was a simple game, where ducks flew on the screen, and you tried to take aim and shoot them. You were supposed to stand at a distance, although I knew people who would hold it right up against the screen, which worked and was much easier. But if you played the way you were supposed to play, you missed sometimes, and the dog would jump up and make fun of you.

It was a simple game by modern standards, but at the time, we hadn’t seen anything like it on a home console.

Excitebike

NES launch title Excitebike

This NES launch title was designed to address one of the strengths computer games had over console games.

The knock on game consoles prior to 1985 had been the computers could play more complex games, and that computer games offered options for customizability and programmability that game consoles couldn’t do. Excitebike was part of a series of titles that tried to offset that argument. You could race on pre-built tracks included on the cartridge, but you could also make your own tracks and race on those.

It was a novel idea in 1985, and this title sold well. It also helped sell the console. If the idea of racing a dirt bike didn’t sound fun to you, it suggested that future titles would offer a similar level of customizability, and maybe one of those would be interesting.

This title shows Nintendo studied the ups and downs of the market, and they didn’t stop at studying Coleco and Atari. They anticipated Commodore and were ready for them as well.

Golf

NES launch title Golf

There was no shortage of sports games among the NES launch titles.

Golf seems like a curious launch title for the NES, and golf is certainly an acquired taste, and one could certainly argue that playing it on your TV screen misses half the point.

But there are people who enjoy golf games on computers and consoles, and the existence of a golf game helped set the NES apart from the Atari 2600.

It helped sell the idea that the NES was something different, even if you didn’t have any interest in golf. But a fair few did, because this title isn’t especially rare. Better golf games came along in ensuing years, but the idea here wasn’t to generate all of the blockbuster hits from the get-go. Like the other sports titles in this lineup, its job was to set the stage for what was to come.

Gyromite

NES launch title Gyromite

This launch title did better in concept than in practice. The robot games are collectible today.

This launch title’s appeal was clearer in 1985 or 1986 then it is today. Part of the appeal of the NES was that it came with a robotic pal that could play multiplayer games with you when your friends couldn’t come over. Robots were a big deal in the 1980s, and the idea of a robot that played video games with you was a novel idea.

It sounded good to the early adopters. In practice, you played the game a few times, but got bored with it. While I knew people who bought the NES with the R.O.B. accessory, it didn’t take terribly long for the novelty to wear off, and mostly sat on the shelf looking on while everyone spent hours playing one of the other titles. It’s a good thing robots don’t have emotions.

It wasn’t long before you could get an NES in a cut down package that didn’t include R.O.B. or this game, and no one I knew who bought that version missed it. The two launch titles that used R.O.B., as well as R.O.B. itself, are prized collectibles today. Four of the planned six titles in the robot series were never released.

Hogan’s Alley

NES launch title Hogan's Alley

This launch title was a port of Nintendo’s successful arcade game of the same name.

Hogan’s Alley was another light gun game, a home implementation of a shooting gallery-themed arcade game by the same name. It was the most popular coin-operated arcade game of 1985. It took its name from a shooting range on Camp Perry in Ohio operated by the National Guard of the United States. The arcade game was familiar to us in 1985, although it wasn’t the national craze that Donkey Kong or Pac Man had been.

In this game, you shoot gangsters while avoiding innocent civilians. As the game progresses, the setting changes and makes it harder to identify the characters, in addition to the speed increasing.

Hogan’s Alley was popular, though less popular than Duck Hunt since it didn’t come with the console. It sold well, and gave early adopters a game to play when they tired of Duck Hunt. While less common than Duck Hunt, it’s not difficult to locate today.

Ice Climber

NES launch title Ice Climber

This NES launch title was also a conversion of a Nintendo arcade game.

Ice Climber was a conversion of a Nintendo coin-operated arcade title of the same name. It was a 1980s platform climbing game set in an Arctic setting. The two protagonists, Popo and Nana, carry a wooden mallet to bust openings into the ice above and to club enemies. The object is to progress upward, collecting vegetables while avoiding enemies.

You could play in single player mode, or two players could play simultaneously. Multiplayer games where you could play cooperatively against a common enemy were still novel in 1985.

While more enduring than the ROB games, Ice Climber wasn’t a huge hit, relatively speaking. It didn’t sell in Mario or Zelda-like numbers. It’s more common than Clu Clu Land, but not as easy to find today as most of the other NES launch titles.

Kung Fu

NES launch title Kung Fu

This arcade conversion of an Irem title was a huge early hit for the NES.

This arcade conversion, licensed from Irem, the same company Nintendo licensed 10 Yard Fight from, was an early favorite among everyone I knew. Martial arts was already an established genre in computer games by 1985, but Kung Fu is generally credited as being the inspiration for the beat them up genre of games like Street Fighter. Among everyone I knew who had an NES, this was one of the two titles that got the most seat time.

Unlike many of the other franchises, Nintendo didn’t have an exclusive on this title. Irem also licensed it to other publishers, who implemented the same game under the title Kung Fu Master on the Commodore 64 and Atari 2600.

If I’d known this at the time, I would have run out and bought the Commodore implementation, because I really enjoyed this game.

Mach Rider

NES launch title Mach Rider

This NES launch title was another programmable racing game.

Mach Rider is a combination racing/shooter game in a futuristic setting that takes its name from a plastic toy Nintendo issued in 1972. The player controls Mach Rider, who travels from sector to sector on a high-powered superbike, searching for survivors and destroying any enemies in their path.

In each round, the player scores points by destroying enemies and certain obstacles with the machine gun. The number of points a player scores for destroying enemies and obstacles varies depending on the type of enemy or obstacle destroyed. If the player blocks an attacking enemy by ramming it against a hazard on the track, they obtain more points and they replenish Mach Rider’s bullets.

This was another title in Nintendo’s programmable series, giving the ability to create custom tracks.

Mach Rider was popular and is a common, inexpensive title.

Pinball

NES launch title Pinball

Having a couple of traditional games that people already knew the rules for was a boon for early game consoles.

Pinball may seem like an odd choice for a launch title, but the Atari 2600 had a title called Video Pinball. This NES launch title helped sell the console by showing how the NES could make a large playfield that scrolled vertically. If you’d played Video Pinball on the Atari, this title looked quite a bit better.

Better pinball games appeared later for other systems that made this implementation look quaint and simplistic. But in 1985, Pinball for the NES broke new ground, or at least ground that many consumers at the time hadn’t seen before.

And it was a traditional game that people unfamiliar with video games could pick up quickly, so it had that going for it. Every console still needed a couple of those in the 1980s when the market was still growing.

Stack-Up

NES launch title Stack Up

The ROB accessory didn’t catch on so games like Stack Up are comparatively rarer today.

Stack Up was another game for the ROB accessory. The idea was that you and ROB cooperated to pick up objects and stack them to match the  virtual objects that appeared onscreen. ROB stacked actual physical objects. For an extra challenge, you could play it as a memory game.

Kids loved the idea of playing video games with a robot. But they soon tired of it in practice. That means Stack-Up, like the ROB accessory, didn’t catch on. Nintendo planned six titles that used ROB but only Stack-Up and Gyromite were ever released.

This game is rare as a loose cartridge, and the complete game with the blocks that ROB was supposed to stack is even harder to find.

This is one of those titles that will keep collectors hunting for a long time. And the hunt is probably more fun than the game.

Super Mario Bros.

NES launch title Super Mario Bros

This NES launch title made the console.

This is the big one. Mario Bros was a Donkey Kong spinoff that allowed two players to cooperate in a platform game. It wasn’t quite as big of a hit as Donkey Kong, but it had a following and some name recognition.

Nintendo wanted a launch title that would really set the NES apart, and Super Mario Bros was what they came up with. Unlike its predecessor, the two players didn’t play at the same time cooperatively, but they expanded the world that the characters played in into a large, side scrolling two-dimensional world with a lot more color and movement than players were used to seeing in 1985. And it had a catchy chip tunes theme song.

Mario Bros is an underrated arcade hit. Super Mario Bros was what turned the characters into a franchise rather than a one hit wonder. This title ended up in the arcades, but it was designed to sell the NES.

Tennis

NES launch title Tennis

This launch title showed how far home video games had come since the early 1970s.

Tennis was yet another sports title. And like the other sports NES launch titles, tennis was intended to provide a computer like experience that was better than the implementations on earlier consoles.

There were surprisingly good tennis games on earlier consoles, including the Atari 2600, but this implementation showed off the NES’ improved graphics and sound. And it showed those who’d played Pong a decade or so earlier how far home video games had come in 1985.

Tennis is a common title, though not as common or as easy to find as, say, the two racing titles. But sports games tend to be the least sought after titles in any console’s lineup, so loose copies of Tennis are inexpensive when you do find one. Of course a boxed example is always more challenging. But even a boxed example of Tennis isn’t terribly expensive as long as it isn’t factory sealed.

Wild Gunman

NES launch title Wild Gunman

The third NES launch title to use the light gun proved the least popular.

Wild Gunman is yet another light gun game,adapted from a 1974 electromechanical arcade game. This was the third and least popular of the light gun games in the initial NES launch title lineup. It’s a shooting gallery game set in the wild west. But of the three NES launch titles to use the light gun accessory, Wild Gunman proved the least popular. It’s the least common title today and the hardest to find, and the most expensive of the three. But even though it’s rarer than, say, Kung Fu or Mario, those titles sell for more due to higher demand. More than just rarity plays into price.

I have to admit I never saw this one. Yes, there was that one kid who had all of these titles, but he never talked about this one. That means he talked about this one less than Donkey Kong Jr Math, believe it or not. And those were the two titles he never showed off to me.

Wrecking Crew

NES launch title Wrecking Crew

This launch title was another platform arcade conversion featuring Mario and Luigi.

Wrecking Crew was another NES launch title that was an arcade conversion, this one a lesser known title featuring Mario and Luigi. It was another platformer game, this one with a wrecking theme.

This is another game that can be played single player or two player cooperatively.

The player controls Mario (or Luigi in two-player mode) and attempts to destroy all of a certain set of objects with a large hammer on each of 100 levels while avoiding enemies. The players cannot jump because of the hammer’s weight.

Because the players lack the ability to jump, the player must figure out the optimal order in which to destroy objects.

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