The history of video game commercials is as colourful and convoluted as the industry itself. Developers had their own styles that they created their commercials in, carving advertising niche's to match their console to appeal to a certain group or individual. In some ways, video game commercials are a kind of lost interest. They are out there, on Youtube, on Retrojunk itself, but you don't really sit down and talk about them or wax nostalgic about commercials. Like in my last article, where I entreated the reader to consider the validity of video game music I know entreat you to consider the validity of the commercials that accompanied the release of games and the consoles. Also, I just want to state here that if you're going to comment, avoid the fanboy crap. We're all gamers here.
History and Examples
(NOTE: I picked what I believe to be the most influential and remembered consoles to list examples for. I know all about the Odyssey/II, Colecovision, Turbografx etc. etc. ad nauseum. I didn't feel they were relevant.)
The Atari 2600 is a favourite of many people. It's not the most powerful console around, nor is it the most stylish. However the Atari 2600 filled a gap when there was no others there to fill it. It provided people with a low cost version of their arcade favourites they could hot swap from the console using their own television.
Uniqueness, emphasizing the novelty of being able to play games on your television -
The marketing for the Atari 2600 monopolized on this unique position the console had. When others began to appear on the market, they highlighted everything the Atari had and could do into the future.
Uniqueness, emphasizing the breadth of library available at the late juncture this was screened at -
Everyone knows the NES. It's got a fanbase millions deep and spawned some of the most beloved franchises in the history of video games. Nintendo needed to appeal to people using a different angle. Unlike Atari, Nintendo threw everything they had at the time into the early commercials.
Early commercial, emphasizing peripherals -
They tried very hard to sell their console using the peripherals and then the extensive library of games later in the life of the system in which they adopted the "Now you're playing with power" catch-phrase.
Library of games, "Playing with power!" catch-phrase -
As Sega's first foray into the world of video games outside of the domestic Japanese market they, like Nintendo, needed to sell their console with a little extra muscle. This would actually be a good time to mention something about these early commercials you may not have noticed.
The early games -
The commercials for the early systems really emphasize the games. They show what the console can do, in relation to colours and scrolling and all of the technical things that dazzled people in the late 80's and early 90's. Modern commercials tell you what the system can do when it is connected to the internet. Anyway, the Master System commercials on display here are similar to the Nintendo ones bar one interesting quirk that Sega used to use back in the late 80's and early 90's. They would single out sports games on their console to appeal to a very broad audience, including adults.
The early games, emphasizing family -
The Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis for you Yanky Doodle-Dandies) was Sega's most successful console. It hosted a bevy of outstanding games and launched most of Sega's most enduring franchises. The "Genesis does what Nintendon't" commercial is one of the most famous video game commercials of all time.
Genesis does -
This marked the beginning of Sega's attack style commercials however in this early form it isn't directly attacking the NES. It's simply being honest; you couldn't run these games on a NES. That's the early angle they marketed with. It worked. In addition to this they also marketed with upbeat, catchy tunes to try to appeal to a young, hip crowd of up and coming gamers. This was something new.
Hip, upbeat tune -
The Super Nintendo was a very successful console. If you're reading this, you know what it is and most likely you have a soft spot for it. It was the second half of the most enduring fanboy war to ever feature in Youtube comment threads and launched the careers of falcon punching and anthropomorphic pilots alike. Nintendo used absurdity and pageantry to market the SNES.
This was fairly consistent throughout the lifespan of the console. The commercials for it were often populated by hip teens, styled after the Sega commercials and featured language the kids of the time could relate to. They tended to incorporate comedy into their commercials.
(Broken YouTube Link Removed) Absurd, exaggerated comic performances. Look out for Neil Patrick Harris -
The Sega Saturn is my personal favourite console. Sega created another style to market their new console. This was the beginning of high quality, big budget commercials.
Cinematic Daytona USA commercial. Quite an impressive commercial. Not sure how much use it is selling a game, but it looks great -
Sega pioneered this sort of obscure, cinematic commercial style possibly in an effort to make people think and talk about their product. Released on VHS was a long infomercial (which isn't featured here as I can't see many people wanting to sit through the whole thing) which was incredibly strange, using jarring footage interspersed with tiny tidbits of information about the Saturn. One of the components of the commercial was the Theater of the Eye, which is featured here.
Theatre of the Eye -
The rest of Sega's commercials were attack style ads, trying to pick out why the Saturn was technically superior to its peers and highlighting inadequacies in rival machines.
Attack ad, the first to use the "three processors" angle -
Attack ad: Plaything -
In Japan Sega launched the Saturn with a parody of a character from an Akira Kurosawa film who travels Japan punishing those who do not play Sega Saturn. It was incredibly popular, even inspiring a music video.
Segata Sanshiro -
The Playstation, well you know what it is. Do I really have to profile it here for you?. The early Playstation commercials were similar to the Sega Saturn commercials in the respect that they tried to be edgy.
Sony, however, went for a more direct approach and focused on the games instead of trying to incorporate theatre into their advertisements. As time went on their style changed into a more comical one. This style of comical, sketch like commercial became popular and is still used to this day.
More comical approach -
The Nintendo 64 was released to skepticism, then hosted some outstanding games. Nintendo's commercial to accompany the launch of the system was used as a vehicle to demonstrate the then advanced 3D graphics it provided the player with.
Launch commercial, showcases a launch game -
It was upbeat, with "attitude" and used lingo that was, at the time, hip with youngsters. This upbeat style with a propensity towards what is now cringeworthy humor basically persisted until the end of the lifecycle of the console.
Later commercial aimed at the holiday season -
Later advertising for consoles lacked any sort of distinctive formula or characteristics that the earlier consoles had. The distributor or publisher tended to just engage in a mix of styles for their respective console or game. The Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox and Gamecube were all marketed using a combination of comedy inclined, skit style commercials only very rarely covering divergent stylistic territory. An example is this commercial for the PS2 directed by David Lynch:
The "Bambi" commercial of the PS2 -
Other commercials that defy categorization exist, however they are the exception to the rule. In general companies have resigned to play it safe with their more contemporary efforts. No one knows this better than Sony, who were lambasted for this baffling and somewhat unsettling commercial for the Playstation 3.
The "Baby" commercial -
My thoughts on the topic of video game commercials is a pretty simple one; I'm a fan of old commercials in general. I like looking back, reminiscing with a smile on my face about better days. Whether they actually were better is a matter for debate, but to me they were. That is what it comes down to. When you look back on these commercials you can see a visual record of the video game industry summed in a microcosm of cheesy acting and over the top theatrics. It's a very interesting way of chronicling the life and times of Mr. Pixel and Mrs. Palette. The thing is, when you think about what they are in their purest form; an advertisement, it kind of takes some of the fun away from them. It is up to you whether or not you let cynicism get in the way. Let's forget about nostalgia for a minute. This is a company trying to get into your wallet, that is all they are. Don't romanticize them and that is all there is. Where is the fun in not romanticizing though? Where is the fun in taking everything seriously?. That is why I like them so much, because they're fun. They are another way for me to explore the history of my favourite topic of conversation and whether you personally believe they have any historical significance at all is up to you.
There is only so much you can read in books or on forums. Why not get the skinny from the horse's mouth? While all of the talk of blast processing and real 3D graphics might be a little overblown and perhaps even a little bit deceptive, the techniques companies used to market their products is a very important lesson in who did things the right way and who made mistakes.
The Saturn didn't sell very well outside of Japan, it's a fact. The Playstation did sell well all over the world. Could advertising have played a part in this? Surely it did. Looking back, the Saturn commercials were entertainment gold, whether they were effective advertising tools though is debatable. It's to your benefit, if you have even the slightest inkling to sling your opinion in a Youtube comment thread, to watch some commercials and get a little perspective on what you're talking about. It's for these reasons that video game commercials are as much a source of fun for me as one of research and contemplation.
The history of video game commercials is as rich and interesting as the consoles themselves, often providing an unforeseen source of entertainment for collectors and curious nostalgia buffs who want to relive a memory or learn something they didn't already know about their favourite console. They are as important now as they were back when they were relevant, just for different reasons. Take some time to appreciate this obscure slice of the video game universe and you'll always come away with a smile on your face.