A TV ad rolled for Batman: Arkham City, with moody music, brooding Bruce Wayne slamming thug skulls to the pavement and white font accolades floating by the gliding Batman. “Things have really changed since Pong,” said my Dad, sitting next to me. He uses that line every time he sees a video game made in the last 20 years.
It is true. Selling Pong today would be a hell of a lot harder. Album ads are usually banked on the reputation or mystique of the artist, if not the music itself, and film trailers are tailored to lure in audiences with selections of the very film. Certainly many games today can get by on their namesakes -- Halo, Mario, Call of Duty, what have you -- but there’s a clear section of game history where video games were still searching for its place in the entertainment industry, and perhaps nothing is more evident of that then some of the astonishingly weird advertisements used to sell them.
Nintendo wasn’t the first to use indulgent, live-action ads for their products1 and by Skyrim it won’t be the last2, but any grown-up kid of the 80s/90s will tell you the house of Mario’s were certainly the ones that stuck. For better or worse.
Nintendo dominated not only the industry but the culture of gaming for over a decade. The fact that many an aunt and uncle still earnestly call every video game “a Nintendo” speaks volumes on that behalf. Nintendo launched their own magazine, flourished with record industry-level sales and, for a short, vital period, cruised with insignificant competition. Nintendo managed to control both the market and the schoolyard conversation. It wasn’t a control born out of hierarchy but of genuine success. Nintendo was not a Sony or a Microsoft or an Apple when it began its move into home console markets -- it wasn’t even an Atari. Up until the late ‘70s, it was a card and novelty toy company, and to make things even worse, the Nintendo Entertainment System’s debut came shortly after a massive crash in the industry caused by a flood of weak, expensive products. The interest in home video games was thought to be extinct, and Nintendo couldn’t even get an order for their first system at its CES debut3. If Nintendo couldn’t sell a “video game” on the flat end of a tech fad, they’d sell something else, something a toy company would be familiar with. Fun.
The thing that always stuck for me about the North American commercials was that instead of having the product speak for itself -- directly or even abstractedly -- they were these bizarre variations on testimonials, on how much fun it was to play Nintendo. Kids stepping up to bat for the challenge of the games. Kids rapping about the merits of playing Zelda. Kids literally being blown away by the power of Nintendo. Paul Rudd in a trench coat looking mighty impressed by Pilotwings. Nintendo’s power came to them by pushing for certified software from trusted sources and of course their own, polished material, but no matter how deep they went in to the virtual, their sensibilities as a toy company always rooted in reality.
Many experts cite the R.O.B. add-on for the NES, an adorable robot with limited functionality, as one of the major influences for Nintendo’s immediate success in North America. It was a real, physical object that accompanied a drab, grey box. Nintendo spoke to an impulsive audience that their little grey box would be infinitely more satisfying than the ones that broke their precious hearts years ago. It’s a routine Nintendo would return to time after time, from the momentous hype for the Rumble Pak, a small Nintendo 64 attachment which shivers when you get hurt in the game, to the Wii, which reeled in parents across the globe with the promise of flailing about their living room.
Nintendo needed to sell not only itself in North America, but video games as a whole. With consumer apathy for industry as a risky element, the idea of creating advertisements out of pixels could not have seemed viable. All this said, the advertisements out of Japan tell a slightly different story. In that they tell a story at all.
The crash that slew so many companies in the western world simply floated past Japan. While Nintendo had to make peace with North American audiences, Japanese buyers proved to be much warmer to the Famicom’s debut. The result seems to be advertisements that didn’t treat consumers a complete stranger. Where an advertisement for Zelda in North America is a man in a black sweater and a funny voice listing the names of monsters you’ll fight, an ad for Zelda in Japan is a pop-choreographed dance routine starring all the fully costumed characters. A Japanese Metroid commercial shows a live-action Samus running, jumping, blasting space foes about the cosmos. And a Mother commercial (never released in English, predecessor to Earthbound) is an elegant, if vague, dramatic recreation of events from the game, reminding players that there’s “No crying until the ending.”
That direction in advertising eventually caught in a big way for the West, sometime around the time that the word “Yoshi” entered the playground vernacular. Suddenly consumers were no longer being introduced to Donkey Kong Country or Zelda, they were being shown how bewildering it looks for chimps to ride choppers on the highway and how much was on the line if they don’t complete Majora’s Mask. Competition followed suit like there was little alternative. Sony made it their signature to have grown men dress up like Crash Bandicoot4 and other mascots. Even selling a game based on certain emotional merits never faded, the Gears of War campaign having a signature use of melancholic sounds matched to its juxtaposing machismo5.
Games have come a long way since Pong. Today the term “uncanny valley” is being used for stiff virtual marionettes in Final Fantasy and Heavy Rain, and the visual spectacle can certainly carry a lot of weight. Still, consumers are still real people, not made up of pixels, polygons and code. Nintendo realized very early on that a digital product can only sell itself so far, but tapping into a real person requires very real, goofy looking things.