Nintendo announced the NES Classic Edition four months ago. That’s one third of one orbit around the Earth’s sun. The announcement immediately went viral, sending traffic needles spiking across the web. If Nintendo didn’t know the NES Classic Edition was going to be a hit on the morning of July 14, it knew it by the afternoon.
Here’s a sampling that I collected of various writers talking about the traffic windfalls the announcement brought with it. Shortly after publishing the news, and suggesting the NES Classic Edition would be a hit, Wired’s Chris Kohler tweeted:
Another clue: LOTS of traffic on the WIRED story.— Chris Kohler (@kobunheat) July 14, 2016
And Kotaku’s Jason Schreier corroborating its popularity:
@kobunheat 200K pageviews on our story - already almost as much as the Zelda announcement post, and it's only been three hours— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) July 14, 2016
And Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland matching the pattern:
@jasonschreier @kobunheat Same general pattern here. Google News seems hot on it.— Kyle Orland (@KyleOrl) July 14, 2016
The NES Classic Edition stories also dominated the charts at both Polygon and The Verge that day, easily staking top spots in July despite the preponderance of Pokémon Go stories.
All Nintendo had to do, over the next four months leading up to its release, is make sure it could deliver enough. And now, just as stores are opening to sell it on its launch day, it’s ... out of stock. Everywhere.
At my local GameStop in Philadelphia, there were more than 20 people in line an hour early ... for just five units. They were on the phone, coordinating with loved ones at the Best Buy in South Philly, at another GameStop further out, others hoping to get their name on a list once the store opened. One of our staff went to a midnight launch at a Target in suburban Cincinnati and managed to be fifth in line. They only had six units.
Colleagues are messaging me on Slack, asking me how to get one. You can’t. A casual glance at a Twitter search for NES Classic indicates, what’s this ... oh, it’s sold out everywhere. Your next, best chance is when Amazon puts its NES Classic stock up for sale at 2 p.m. PT today. Good luck.
Nintendo will issue a statement with some variant of, “We’re so thrilled that customers are as excited about the NES Classic Edition as we are.” Or maybe it’ll be, “We continue to be surprised at the demand and will work to meet it this holiday.” Or perhaps they’ll be honest and say the truth and, as best I can tell, there are only two possible answers: Nintendo is being underhanded or Nintendo is incompetent.
This isn’t the first time Nintendo has had difficulty fulfilling demand for a product. In fact, it’s something of a pattern. Do a quick search for Nintendo Wii managed scarcity and find the hundreds of stories asking, one way or another, Why can’t Nintendo keep the Wii in stock.
Yes, the Wii was successful. But so is the new iPhone, and you can go into any Apple Store in America and walk out with one. The Wii was hard to come by for years. It wasn’t cutting edge technology, by design. It was designed to be affordable. There was no fancy RAM, shortages of which kept the PlayStation 3 hard to come by for a couple months. They just didn’t fulfill demand. One year later. Two years later. All the while, keeping the media narrative of the hottest toy in town alive.
Anyone who buys or, worse still, collects amiibos is all too familiar with this pattern. Simple toy, relatively easy to manufacture, is impossible to find. There are preorders, there are email lists, there’s price gouging from scalpers on marketplaces like eBay.
As of Oct. 2015, Nintendo sold over 21 million amiibos, an impressive figure to be sure for just one year. Meanwhile, Activision had some sold 250 million Skylanders figures as of June 2015, less than four years after the franchise debuted. You don’t hear about Skylanders scalping much, do you?
So either Nintendo is constraining supply, in order to drive hype and awareness and the allure of exclusivity — a holiday narrative as applicable to the NES Classic as it was for Tickle Me Elmo — or Nintendo is just consistently bad at assessing demand and then meeting it.
Could it be that we take Nintendo at its word and the company is just that bad at judging demand? And it’s been that bad for an actual decade now? This explanation feels a lot better because it means that Nintendo isn’t willingly asking loyal customers and fans to wait in the cold in the middle of the night, or show up to work late, all because they’re eager to relive their childhood memories or, better still, buy a gift for a child so they can share that experience.
Like the Wii, and amiibos, the NES Classic isn’t a complicated piece of machinery. The controller is a near clone of a 31-year-old piece of electronics. The console itself is mostly air, the electronics inside a low-cost system on a chip. This shouldn’t be difficult to manufacture. If it somehow was difficult to get the part they needed, there’s no shortage of SoCs powerful enough to emulate an NES. If the chips were available and Nintendo’s initial expectations were off, it had four months to align them. If it didn’t or couldn’t align them, Nintendo still had time to communicate to customers a better plan than “Just show up to a store and wait outside.” It’s a great product (read my review!) ... which makes this shortage all the more frustrating.
These are Nintendo’s most loyal customers, and every single time Nintendo screws up a shipment or creates scarcity, managed or not, it’s showing those customers that it either doesn’t care or can’t be bothered to figure out what’s wrong with its chronic inability to meet demand. There is no third option and, honestly, I don’t know what’s worse.
Update: Nintendo has issued the following statement:
The Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition system is a hot item, and we are working hard to keep up with consumer demand. There will be a steady flow of additional systems through the holiday shopping season and into the new year. Please contact your local retailers to check product availability. A selection of participating retailers can be found at www.Nintendo.com/nes-classic.