N64 Pile
Image: Nintendo Life / Zion Grassl

In 2021, getting hold of a Switch, PS5 or Xbox Series X for Christmas might be a struggle, but back in 1996, it was the Nintendo 64 that was the must-have festive gift in North America.

The Indianapolis Star's Rory Appleton has been digging through newspaper reports from the period to shed a light on the carnage that occurred when Nintendo launched its 64-bit system in the country.

The Star's November 26th 1996 issue featured a front-cover report on what items were expected to be popular that holiday season and the N64 was listed alongside Chicken Limbo, the Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM video game and Star Wars action figures – but it was Sesame Street's 'Tickle Me Elmo' that was predicted to be the hottest ticket.

Even so, the newspaper said that none of these items should prove difficult to find in the run-up to Christmas – a prediction that was proven wrong by a subsequent report, just a few days later, which told of customers lining up outside of stores in order to avoid disappointment.

Appleton explains:

Jim Davis, media manager of Best Buy on West 38th Street, gave his simple Nintendo 64 prognosis to the Star in a Dec. 15 article: "If you can find one, buy it."

Davis had been handing out rain checks to customers since Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, when he went to work to find 30 people lined up outside for [the] cutting edge gaming console.

"Maybe Santa can write your little darlings an I.O.U. and put Nintendo 64 game cartridges and accessories under the tree, for now," the article read.

A Target advertisement in the same issue broadsided Nintendo for the shortage: “Due to continued unprecedented demand and the manufacturer’s inability to ship sufficient product, only limited quantities of the Nintendo 64 system and games… will be available.”

Just as is the case today with sites like eBay, there were avenues for resellers back in 1996: the classified ads. Appleton continues:

As December rolled on, the Star and News' classified spaces began to fill with brief ads for the hot commodities.

The Nintendo 64, released in the United States in September at a $199.99 retail price, was offered for as much as $600 by Dec. 23.

But Elmo was the real pot of gold.

By Dec. 17, a shaking, giggling doll that was just over $30 after tax in stores was selling for as much as $400.

On Dec. 19, someone was offering a "new" Tickle Me Elmo who had somehow lost his box for $350.

The Dec. 23 edition of the News included an entire column of Tickle Me Elmo resale ads, with dozens available for as much as $700 a pop. Several intrepid sellers claimed part of the money from their Elmos would go to charity, while others held auction-style bidding wars (remember, eBay was in its infancy at this time) in print.

The N64 would go on to be one of Nintendo's more modest hits, selling only 32.93 million units worldwide (compared to the SNES, which sold 49.10 million, and the NES, which sold 61.91 million). However, the system was clearly in high demand for its first festive season, and it inspired one of the best videos in the history of YouTube to boot.

[source eu.indystar.com]