The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster

We take midnight launches for granted nowadays. Every time a major title rolls down the pipeline, players expect to line up at midnight at their local GameStop and prepare to hand over their $60, rain, shine, or hurricane. It’s not an exaggeration really. I’ve seen nearly 1,000 players stand in a parking lot during a four hour downpour for Call of Duty. Any major title from last year could expect this kind of reaction, be it Arkham City, Halo: Anniversary, or Uncharted 3. Even more will in 2012, but where did this kind of reaction begin?

The further we get from the late 80s/early 90s, the harder it is for people today to realize that there was a time when video games did not have the kind of mainstream acceptance they do now. Games were kids toys, and controversial ones, according to some. Back in the 1980s, it was rare to see kids and adults both eagerly anticipating anything – at least in public. It would take a special kind of game to get the kids and adults to come out together and stand in line for a single, unifying game release that nobody of any age could stand to be away from… To make matters worse, they had been made to wait a little over a whole extra year for it, while those lucky bastards in Japan had gotten it in 1988.

In 1990, I would have been six years old. Sometimes I honestly wish I had been born a few years sooner so I could have enjoyed the 1980s a little longer. Think about it. You were witnessing the passing of the Atari age and the birth of the first Nintendo generation. Imagine it like being in the theater during the first night showing of Steamboat Willy. Maybe you didn’t know where Mickey Mouse or Disney were going, but you at least knew that you were witnessing the birth of something huge. Even at the age of six, I knew something magical was going on in 1990 when we walked through the mall on that cold winter day and saw rows of people piling out of Service Merchandise. Remember, this was before the era of dedicated game stores. The same applied to Toys R’ Us across the parking lot. What were they after? What was this giant deal that had kids and adults piled in line for what seemed like the biggest deal ever?

Keep in mind that this game was released after Christmas in the heart of what we today call the “Winter Drought”. Not much happens in January in today’s gaming world, but in 1990, one of the single biggest blockbusters of all time was released: Super Mario Bros. 3. It was the crowning achievement of the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game that defined a generation was landing on the street after a year of teasing from the gaming media. To top it off, the 90-minute Nintendo commercial The Wizard had been released the previous Fall, and NBC had just begun airing The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 on Saturday mornings in an hour block with Captain N: The Game Master.

This was the single greatest time to be a Nintendo kid. You were not only watching the meteoric rise of the Super Mario Brothers, but you were also witnessing the birth of the blockbuster video game release. People stood in line for consoles during Christmas shopping season, but standing in line for games weren’t common, and when it did happen, it was usually the cult group of hardcore gamers lining up early on a Saturday morning. Midnight releases didn’t happen. Super Mario Bros. 3 changed that. It wasn’t a game release; it was a cultural phenomenon frozen in time, just like in later years during the releases of games like Final Fantasy VII or Halo 2.

After Super Mario Bros. 3 landed, the NES began its march into the sunset and we said goodbye to the 8-bit era. It was the close of a time of rebirth and discovery. The Atari era and the Nintendo era couldn’t have been more different culturally. The Atari era gave birth to the modern console industry before the great collapse of 1984, but the time of the NES shaped the industry into the familiar form it has evolved into today. Once a generation there is that one game that everyone looks back upon and remembers as the peak of it’s time. Super Mario Bros. 3 was that moment in 1990 that defined the 8-bit generation of players. What will we look back on as the defining moment of this generation?

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