If you tried to pre-order an SNES Classic today you were only assured of one thing, and it wasn’t an SNES Classic Edition. Chaos was the order of the day, starting early in the morning and continuing through until the afternoon as websites threw up pre-orders at difficult-to-predict times, selling out instantaneously to whoever happened to be on their computers or manning a robot designed to buy immediately. We were promised more consoles would be coming our way than did with the NES Classic Edition, and it’s possible, if not likely, that more consoles did in fact come. But it would seem that, as usual, Nintendo either badly misunderestimated demand, made a calculated move toward scarcity, or did a little of both. Few seem surprised.
The first sign that things were amiss was when pre-orders went mysteriously live at Walmart long ahead of any other retailer. A little while later the big box started quietly canceling orders, later just getting rid of them altogether and chalking things up to a technical error. Not Nintendo’s fault in any way, of course, but a bad omen, generally speaking. And an especially bad omen considering the history of this “classic” line. Nintendo found itself woefully understocked for massive demand last year for the NES Classic, and we can only assume that a mere fraction of the people who wanted to buy one managed to do so. That experience left everyone who wanted to try their luck at acquiring an SNES Classic a little on edge.
Then came a long silence. Pre-orders had gone live in other territories shortly after launch, but the US was curiously left waiting with virtually no information to go on. Eventually, Nintendo made a single, vague announcement: the SNES Classic Edition would be available for pre-order towards the end of the month. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to be cagey about this sort of thing, but again: precedent. Without a big event or something that could logically serve as launch, anyone who wanted a machine just had to be on notice after the middle of the month.
The day that turned out to be pre-order day started in the dead of night at around 1:00 AM EST, when Best Buy and Amazon both unleashed their stock to the general surprise of the gaming public. It was a boon for anyone who happened to be around and looking at an internet-connected device at the time, but as usual, they sold out within moments. Another round of pre-orders was rumored to hit around 1:00 PM, but only Walmart seemed to pull this off without a snag. Target struggled for a little while before removing the SNES Classic Edition from mine and others carts, GameStop crashed, and despite being listed as an available retailer by Nintendo, Toys R’ Us did not appear to even have an SNES landing page. (Update: Toys R’ Us has announced that it will not be pre-selling the SNES Classic Edtion).
Some of these things clearly don’t rest on Nintendo’s shoulders. Nintendo has no responsibility for the technical operations of either GameStop or Target. But the fact that we’ve seen so many better-coordinated pre-order or product launches certainly speaks to the fact that other manufacturers are keeping tighter controls on their retailers. Witness the Xbox One X, which went on pre-order two days before largely according to schedule and sold out like they were supposed to. Sure, I’ll venture to guess that there were far fewer people going after the Xbox One X, but the basic principles remain the same: a coordinated launch across retailers is in fact possible.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter very much for those on the supply side, which is likely why it happened in the first place. From Nintendo’s perspective, it’s selling all of these units regardless and it would be a mostly unnecessary headache to coordinate some sort of worldwide release. And it may be more or less impossible to meet the colossal demand, even if the SNES Classic Edition seems to be a pretty simple thing to manufacture. From the retailer’s perspective, this is just one of many things it sells on a day-to-day basis, and it may or may not be worth upgrading their server capacity in exchange for the occasional burst in traffic. Target was up and running a few moments later, though GameStop’s website is still down. But for all these parties the end result is the same whether the event is coordinated or not: they sell a bunch of SNES Classic Editions.
Sellouts were bound to happen, if maybe they did not have to happen quite so quickly. We can’t quite know just how limited stock was without poking under the hoods of Walmart and Target. But it would seem that there’s little incentive for this sort of situation not to be a mess. After all, it does little besides drive more hype. But as retailers, Nintendo and scalpers come away happy, it’s a shame that the only people that really lose are the consumers.