Remember the 1989 Fred Savage/Christian Slater movie The Wizard? It was about an autistic boy and his two friends. They were travelling across the country on their own, while being persued by oppressive adults who don't understand video games, so the boy could compete in the finals of the Nintendo World Championships. Hilarity, as you may recall, ensued.

In 1990, Nintendo of America, Inc., actually set up a circuit of actual championship tournaments in 15 or 20 of the biggest markets in the USA; and thus the Nintendo World Championships were born. Despite the fact that I was 13 at the time, I can recall these events being held in Detroit, Seattle (Nintendo's American home city), Orlando, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and perhaps a dozen other cities. (I actually made it to the semi-finals in Detroit!)

The gist of the tournament was as follows: A Nintendo employee would give you paperwork, another would collect it from you, filled-out, a few minutes later, and then you would be lead to a massive line of NES consoles and monitors, where you would have to achieve certain feats in three different NES titles in order to qualify. If you qualified, you advanced to the quarter-finals, where you were pitted against the other kids that had qualified. It was the same with the semi-finals, and then again in the finals.

The games and what you needed to do while playing them:

Super Mario Brothers: Collect 50 coins
Rad Racer: Complete three laps on the beginner/default track
Tetris: Play for points until you're told to stop

There was a five minute clock on each round. Your score on SMB would be calculated as-is. Your score on Rad Racer would be multiplied by 10, and whatever points you managed to glean from Tetris were multiplied by 25. The average score was about 200,000. Most of the next-round qualifiers scored over 300,000 with some getting up to 600,000 by exploiting the tournament's lack of a rules system -- some would just jump turtle shells for points in SMB for as long as possible, and then move on to Rad Racer and Tetris, if there was still time. As you may recall, the turtle shell-jumping trick netted you x100 and then x1000 points for each successive jump, so if you warped from level 1-2 to level 3-1 and managed to get to the end of the level where you could safely jump that turtle shell, you could reasonably spend a full minute getting higher and higher increments of points per jump, while everyone else was busy hoping for the 1x4 block in Tetris to jack up their scores a bit.

The tournaments were held in January 1990, while the finals were held in September 1990. In keeping with The Wizard, Super Mario Brothers 3 was released to much acclaim in June 1990, and, like the movie, SMB3 was the game played in the final round of the finals. The 20 or so kids that had won their respective markets' tournaments grappled with each other at the finals with the previous SMB/Rad Racer/Tetris combo-cart until only three remained. Those three would duke it out in SMB3, in Orlando.

Since I didn't make it that far, I can't quite recall who won or how it ended, but if I recall correctly, the grand prize was something like a trip to Japan to tour the Nintendo world headquarters, a bedroom makeover from Nintendo, and a check for $10,000 USD. (By way of comparison, the regional winners received checks for $3,333.33 and their parents received a car.)

The Nintendo World Championships remain one of the most impressive marketing campaigns/publicity stunts of the latter 20th century. I can't quite imagine the adolescent fads of today reaching such a litmus of cool.

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