Author: John Legendoffzelda
I’m 20 years old, and I’m too young to have been around for when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a hot item with kids. Of course, this generational gap doesn’t keep me from adoring the SNES as an esteemed game console. But there are a lot of scraps of nostalgia associated with it, video game commercials above probably all else, that require first-hand experience to be held in the same regard, and that’s where I diverge. I personally can’t relate to video game commercials from before my time, or with fans who discuss that those forms of advertising were better than what would be practiced afterwards. Most Super Nintendo commercials, as I see them, look like extensions of the TV programs and similar kid-oriented media they were likely paired with. And the kids who watched these sugar-rush blitzes might say they were good marketing because they were “fun and zany” as opposed to, say, “pretentious and overly serious”.
I can relate with the sentiment behind those opinions, because I know how strong emotional bonds are. These particular scraps are part of what shaped peoples’ childhoods, after all. But my own sentiment is based on commercials from after the SNES’s time (which is partly my own), which tell me that games can be advertised with consistency and themes that are fun and can inform viewers on just what the game is. I think Super Nintendo game ads are disappointingly different: they aren’t fun, they’re busy and in-your-face and dishonest, and they don’t convey what’s supposed to be so good about the game. They don’t inform viewers on theme, context or expectation – they get them to invest in the games sold by way of empty hyping.
This TV spot for Super Mario World is pretty much the most famous of the SNES crop, earning mentions from JonTron and ScrewAttack alike, and I feel it’s the one that shaped the mold. The commercial is thirty solid seconds of compiled game footage, with an anonymous announcer blazing through a list of statements with an excited tone that distracts from its own absence of meaning. “The next generation from Nintendo”? What is he even talking about? His rapid-fire delivery doesn’t suggest any attachment to these lines, which was at least something kids got from that one commercial with Tony Jay. Instead it’s slick and casual; listen to the harsh voice he uses for “a bit more enemies” and how he switches to a softer voice for “a bit more friends”, assigning a basic emotional idea to both key words. He sounds like the script was one of hundreds he reads every week for his day job, and his producers allow quantity to take precedence over quality. Then there’s the kicker to this ad, that these flashy phrases are meant to get the announcer to say “bit” sixteen times because this a “16-bit” game. Nice, but what is “16-bit” supposed to mean? Is it anything more than these detailed colors or that there are “a bit more levels” to play? There were parents back then who would never be sold on this new video-game technology, partly because “bits” meant nothing to them; and in the midst of that time here comes an advertisement foregoing a relevant explanation in favor of saying Nintendo’s newest offering has this and that. If this context-free message was meant to get parents to buy a Super Nintendo anyway, I can imagine a lot of disappointed kids anticipating sleepovers at their friends’ houses.
I have to say, I resent how deeply this commercial misrepresents Final Fantasy III. That slogan at the end says that Squaresoft is the “Maker of the World’s Greatest Video Games”, something that’s very in line with this game, and all this ad does to support that statement is show off a Moogle “auditioning” monsters for the game and zapping them into dust. It’s like a Robot Chicken sketch without a punchline, and it doesn’t even go any further in suggesting the monsters than generic ghouls and creatures (there are no monsters in the game that have wheels! Why would they do that?!). Furthermore, it’s from this musty setup of a joke that viewers should interpret FFIII is a great game, or at least one they should have. What were kids supposed to do, call the ad’s bluff? Was it counting on them to play the game directly or read the latest issue of Nintendo Power to learn the game was vastly different than what it led them to believe? Maybe that sounds cunning on its part, but there’s no reason that the commercial couldn’t have been upfront with that information; there’s a wealth of humor and appeal in the game’s real content they could have presented instead.
Super Metroid had this TV spot that advertised the game’s size and difficulty. These are reasonable pieces of information to consider, yet it delivered those messages in a format that excessively oversimplified the subject. The immensity of this game is enough to turn a Rottweiler into a Chihuahua. What a reductive message that is; a harrowing installment of a cross-generational sci-fi series and it’s summarized with a cutesy visual image that does nothing but underestimates its target audience. For comparison’s sake, can you imagine if Terminator 2, a work with both kid and adult fans in mind, had this kind of marketing? It’s bad enough that the actor here looks so bored by what he’s doing – there’s more malarkey about technological specs for the announcer to read aloud here – but why mention this game is “the most intense Metroid battle ever” when the only suggested ties to that series are from a string of random footage? Neither kids of the time nor teenagers who grew up with the original game could make out Kraid or Ridley amid all that mishmash. The only thing left to discern is if they want to play the game, they will feel as intimidated by it as that dog.
I actually think this commercial is alright. It doesn’t brag or do meaningless things, and it comes closer to capturing the feel of the advertised video game than most other SNES spots, even if Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is more serene in its epic foreboding than this ad depicts. Playing up the Master Sword as an Excalibur-type goal works because that’s what the Master Sword is. But more than that, this ad does what real commercials do: With Link ascending the mountain and finally hoisting the sword, the game’s logo is shown etched into the mountainside. It creates a complete emotional arc. The game also doesn’t wear its sense of triumph so prominently, of course, but the ad does this because it’s the emotional response people should take when those thirty seconds end.
My go-to choice when picking a popular “bad” era of Nintendo’s history has to be their “Play It Loud” advertising campaign. I don’t know what came over those ad executives in mid-1994, but starting at that time they decided to sell first party Super Nintendo games by using crude and irrelevant metaphors, paired with visual tricks that were designed to blare those names at kids so loudly that they rang in their subconscious. The campaign was something of a Pyrrhic victory: it helped the company eclipse Sega in popularity, but it made for intolerable kid-media advertising. The commercial for Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island somehow thought it could convey the game’s content by showing a fat man stuffing himself with food in a greasy close-up, until his gut explodes in a green projectile mess. How does this revolting display relate to Yoshi at all, and how are parents supposed to get that this game is at all ideal? If your folks didn’t let you watch Nicktoons when you were young, there’s no way they would have seen this ad and thought this game was suitable; the message is lost in egregious fashion. That’s the driving force behind “Play It Loud”, and it affects the advertising of Kirby Super Star and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars in similar ways. The Kirby ad purports a smirking cartoon reality where kids who play the game turn into balls of air, while the RPG ad explains its premise with the incoherent ramblings of an old person, and both ideas put up these thick barriers between them and the audience. Why does the experience of Kirby have to look so frenetic and cartoonish? And whose side is the audience on with RPG, the old man’s or that of the kids listening to him? The ad wants people to like the game, but the wavering tone of “which audience surrogate is more relatable here?” makes the whole thing look too crazy to be worth anything.
Almost all of these ads ruin the games they sell; they assault viewers with pretenses and hyped-up jargon rather than even hinting at the genuine quality all these games have. That’s what makes me so disappointed in them. I shouldn’t think that the fans of these ads disapprove of the relative sophistication in video game advertisements since then, and I don’t. SNES fans come from all periods of time, and a main strength of the system is that it can now live with or without the media environment it once had. Really, it’s all just a matter of values.
Thank you for indulging this cultural point of view.