When Linda Luoma pays $199.99 for the new Nintendo video game deck, it will be in part because her 3-year-old daughter, Britney, already has given Nintendo's popular Super Mario character what might be his ultimate test.
Last year, Britney dropped six Nintendo game cartridges into the toilet at her Columbia home. This year, she did the same thing with an entire Nintendo appliance -- the Game Boy portable model.
"We put them out to dry and they still work," said Ms. Luoma, whose 7- and 11-year-old sons are the family's heaviest Nintendo users.
For many loyal Nintendo households, the long-heralded arrival of the new Nintendo, with its more powerful computer chip and better graphics quality, means an unavoidable upgrade.
There are 32 million old Nintendos in U.S. homes, more than 30 percent of all homes.
But the way Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Japan designed the new system, it requires all-new game cartridges and controllers. And, while old Nintendo cartridges are regularly discounted to $20 or even $15 these days, the two new ones, featuring the experiences of skydiving and driving "proton-powered hovercars," will have an average retail price of $49.95, according to Nintendo.
Some have predicted a backlash against the new systems because of their lack of compatibility with the old cartridges, Wall Street has no such fears.
"They'll ship 2 million by year-end," said Gary M. Jacobson, who analyzes stocks of toy-makers for Kidder Peabody. "It will be very, very successful."
Mr. Jacobson said Nintendo's revenues from the new game will be "supply-dependent" at first, which means retailers will sell "however many pieces Nintendo can get into the country."
Technically, the new system runs on a 16-bit microprocessor instead of the previous eight-bit chip, allowing it to provide "enhanced graphics, multiple scrolling screens" and "digital stereo sound," according to Nintendo's U.S. subsidiary, which expects to gross $4 billion this year out of total video game industry sales of $4.7 billion.
For Britney Luoma, leaning out of the shopping cart to touch the glass display case in which Super Nintendo is ensconced at Toys R Us, the discussion translates into more Mario.
Nintendo's most popular cartoon character, Super Mario bounces around the television screen when Nintendo is hooked up to it, responding to the hand-held controller to jump around obstacles as he heads for his goal on the other side of a fast-moving screen.
To give you an idea of how big a star Mario is, Nintendo has sold 8 million copies of his previous adventure, "Super Mario Bros. 3." Mario has found his way onto more than 300 licensed products, (( has his own television series coming up on NBC and is to appear in a movie in 1992.
The first 40-unit shipment of the new game deck, including the fourth game featuring Mario, arrived three weeks ago at the Toys R Us store in Catonsville, said Dave DeVault, who runs the extensive video display area at the store.
"They were only here for, at the most, five days," he said, adding that the store received an additional 50 last week.
Other video game sellers, such as Sega and Turbografx, have had 16-bit game decks and games on the market for months, but "everybody was waiting for the new Nintendo set because of Super Mario," said Siete Kiers, manager of the Future Tronics store at the Gallery at Harborplace.
Not yet 4, Britney Luoma already shoots at ducks with Nintendo's "Zapper Light Gun" as they quack across the screen of the now old-fashioned eight-bit game "Mario's Duck Hunt," her mother said.
Asked whether she likes the game, Britney said, "Ducks."