Why Were Old Video Game Adverts So Weird?

Why Were Old Video Game Adverts So Weird?
Nintendo | Unsplash - Zach Vessels

Written by 

Joseph Kime


25th Jul 2022 15:24

We live in an era of pretty safe marketing, to such a degree that a single tweet can rock the world of advertising so viciously that it changes the whole landscape.

All Burger King has to do is make an ill-advised tweet about women belonging in the kitchen to completely smear their brand in a flash, and the same goes for brands everywhere. For better or worse, there's not an awful lot of edge in advertising anymore - and things were different once upon a time. Especially in the world of video games.

We all remember the gaming ads of yesteryear, mostly because they're pretty impossible to forget. Weird tongues to promote the Game Boy, ads of video game characters yanking children through their televisions that if not for the cartoon aesthetic would come off like a deleted scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and jarring close-ups of teenagers playing The Legend of Zelda.

There was an unbridled intensity about this kind of advertising, and it's a fervour that we haven't seen in a very, very long time. So, what's up with that?

Video Games Had To Fight For Their Lives In Advertising

Back in the day, primarily, video games didn't have much choice when it came to advertising. Although technically speaking, neither did anyone else.

Advertising was changed forever by the advent of the internet, but before it took up and began to shape the primitive version of what we know it as today, there were only a few options - magazines, television, billboards. Maybe a public bench. That's it.

So, with these limitations, ads were forced to stick out much more than they need to now with algorithmic pathfinding that brings ads that marketers know you'll be interested in. Regular cable television and bog-standard magazines were the only options, and though there was a Nintendo Power here and a Nickelodeon there, it was still limited, and as the niche audience began to narrow, the battle for attention became more intense.

The target audience for video games has shifted as time has gone on - children in the '90s, snotty teenagers in the '00s, before finally growing up and pointing towards adults around the transition from Xbox 360 to Xbox One. So, as such, the early days saw marketers attempting to go for the most literal visualisations of being sucked into a game and enjoying a bright, bombastic adventure.

Video Game Advertising Was The Wild West

Another big reason that ads were so off-the-wall and self-centred is that the original console wars didn't have much reason to think about the lasting effects of two consoles at each other's throats, so they just went for it.

The most notorious example of this is the "Genesis Does What Nintendon't" campaign which saw the company slate Mario for not being fast enough in order to bolster Sonic the Hedgehog in a marketing move that truly brought hostility to the inner workings of the industry. And, while gaming companies were fighting each other, they couldn't foresee a battle with the public to come.

After the notorious legal confrontations that came with both Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto in 1995 and 1997 respectively, the public turned against video games in an incredibly dramatic way, and it's perfectly reasonable to presume that the idea of video games appearing on children's networks and the television in general became much less appealing to television executives.

Advertising was so balls-to-the-wall bizarre in a ferocious attempt to outdo the next company, and it worked for a time - and oh, what a time it was.

Video Game Ads Leave A Feverous Legacy

Video game advertising may have levelled out, with marketers taking a much loftier and more thoughtful approach to creating hype for their games, but there's something so alluring about the bizarre, hectic, hyper snapshots of the past. Video game companies at each other's throats, though terrible for industry at large, was at the very least entertaining to watch, and to see it all unfold in a vibrant burst of colour that seemed to be amped up on E numbers was fascinating.


Of course, we've had some pretty amazing ads over the years since, with the diorama ad for Halo 3 and the first reveal of Dead Island leaping straight to mind, but it does pose the question - what was the last gaming ad you remembered? When was it? And how incredibly bizarre was it? It feels like we need a comeback somewhere - we just need one of the industry frontrunners to bite the bullet. Bring back the weird coloured tongues, and we'll bring equilibrium back to the industry.

Joseph Kime is the Senior Trending News Journalist for GGRecon from Devon, UK. Before graduating from MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he started writing music reviews for his own website before writing for the likes of FANDOM, Zavvi and The Digital Fix. He is host of the Big Screen Book Club podcast, and author of Building A Universe, a book that chronicles the history of superhero movies. His favourite games include DOOM (2016), Celeste and Pokemon Emerald.

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