At $200 A Pop, Will Super Nintendo Have Legs? $200 A Pop, Will Super Nintendo Have Legs?

With the speed of Super Mario racing to rescue the princess, Larson Lee flew into his dad's car without shoes and socks when he heard the news he was waiting for. After pestering Nintendo of America's 800-number operator for weeks, he had confirmed that the new 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System was being unpacked at his local video-game store. Within 15 minutes, the 9-year-old San Franciscan got his dad to plunk down some $200 for the latest in home video entertainment. "If we waited for Christmas, I didn't know if we would be able to find one," says his father, Larry G. Lee. Besides, after six long months of hard lobbying from Larson, "I figured life would be a lot easier if I bought it now."

One of 32 million U. S. customers already enthralled with Nintendo's 8-bit machine, Larson isn't the only one going crazy for the new system. "We're very excited about it," says Michael Goldstein, vice-chairman of Toys `R' Us, which had its cache of Super NESes flown to the East Coast in late August to get a jump on rivals. The Nintendo Entertainment Center, a shop in Daly City, Calif., reports it sold out its stock of 60 systems in three days. "It's the hottest product on the market in 1991," said Gary M. Jacobson, a toy analyst at Kidder, Peabody & Co. Nintendo expects to ship up to 2.5 million units in the next six months.

STAYING POWER? The early frenzy over the 16-bit machine seems to dispel fears that players would simply shun the system, which also requires pricey game cartridges going for $50 a pop. The 16-bit system provides richer, more vivid graphics in an array of colors, producing an effect that's close to arcade quality. "It's the difference between a prop and jet," says Scott Bauhofer, merchandise manager for personal electronics with Good Guys Inc., a chain of 32 California and Nevada stores. Philips will collaborate with Nintendo on a CD-ROM capability to allow future games to contain actual movie footage.

With 1990 U. S. sales of $3.4 billion, Nintendo expects the new system to rack up $700 million. But outsiders still wonder if, after the fanatics finish devouring the first few batches, such an expensive machine will have the staying power of the cheaper, 8-bit Nintendo, whose suggested retail price has stayed around $99.

Then there are the parents who vow to resist. Larry Lee says his son benefits from Nintendo by avidly reading manuals on the game and writing up his own Nintendo guide on the family computer. But Sandra Powers of San Francisco does not expect to buy Super NES for her two boys. "We just had our talk about no Nintendo during school," she says. Cindy Elsbree of Gilroy, Calif., is also hesitant: "With $200 I would probably find something with more educational value."

And Nintendo, which has dominated the 8-bit market, has been beaten to the punch in 16-bit systems by Sega of America's Genesis, with its hot game featuring a speedy hedgehog named Sonic. Sega, which vows to make 16 bits the undisputed standard for video games, has been sold out since July. And Sega's systems are compatible with older 8-bit versions through a $35 adapter, giving Sega a software library for Genesis that is currently seven times that of Nintendo's Super NES. Nintendo intends to maintain its 8-bit market separately, while promoting Super NES to advanced players. About 18 Super NES games will be out by Christmas.

Plenty of people want Nintendo to succeed. It accounts for an astounding 16% of the total U. S. toy market, so the success of Super NES will affect toy retailers deeply. And if Nintendo can't crank them out fast enough, analyst Jacobson figures traditional toymakers such as Tyco Toys Inc. and Mattel Inc. will profit by selling their own low-tech products to kids and parents who want something under the tree but can't get their hands on Super NES. Whether for retailers or other toymakers, the Super Mario Brothers' next big adventure could be rescuing Christmas.