Where the hell is my exploding TV?! - Evolution of Video Game Commercials
Advertising and commercials for video games have changed over the last few decades. It's a pretty safe claim to make, and most gamers operating in the mid-80s to early 90s remember the sometimes surreal and, oftentimes, nightmare-inducing ads that would come on TV.
We remember how booting up a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) cart of Joust would summon a pair of jousters to completely destroy our TV rooms from atop their enormous ostrich mounts. Many of us recall being told that NES was so powerful it would launch our homes into deep space – forever destined to play Gyromite with R.O.B., the Robot in high orbit. How Game Genie "the radical video game enhancer" would literally blow up our television sets.
These were all actual commercials that promised/threatened to radically alter our lives if we bought into Nintendo's growing empire. And, for a lot of gamers, it worked.
Then, around the mid-90s into the present, marketing for the industry shifted. Commercials were less about the explosive imagery and more focused on the actual games themselves. Instead of seeing some dude's head explode after playing Star Wars The Arcade Game for a couple seconds, we got what basically felt like movie trailers.
So why the change?
As stated before, the gaming culture changed but so did the mainstream appeal of gaming as a whole. Back when the NES first made waves in the US, Nintendo did everything it could to market the appeal not just to children but adults, as well. Video game commercials were all over the place – on every channel, every service and in every home.
It wasn't just limited to television commercials, either. There were game shows built around competitions that basically equated to "speedrunning" levels of Megaman and Super Mario Bros. Weekday afternoon cartoons starring the Mario Bros. and Link from The Legend of Zelda were extremely popular. Nintendo even put out breakfast cereals with little pieces of puffed corn in the shape of various game sprites from Mario and Zelda.
Unfortunately, all this mainstream attention wouldn't last forever. Eventually, interest in video games went the way of most fads and the market had to change.
Contributing to this shift were the games themselves.
See, there really isn't much of a story to Gyromite or Joust. Gyromite was pretty much Mr. Magoo the Video Game. Players had to alter the environment around a sleepwalking and, essentially, inept scientist in order to save him from walking into disaster. Joust, well, that was about knights riding giant birds and trying to kill one another in a fiery arena...uh...sometimes a pterodactyl shows up to kill you? The point is that these games didn't have much to them beyond the gameplay itself so advertisers had to bank on intense and surreal imagery to grab the viewer.
From the late 90s to the present, it somehow became an unspoken mandate to include a B-movie script with every game. Development budgets grew and the notion of Triple A titles became a more common practice. Advertisers focused less on the gameplay or exciting the viewer and, instead, resorted to what boiled down to major motion picture trailers. In the case of one particular ad from The Last of Us, there was barely any actual gameplay footage – it was mostly clips from the cinematics because that's exactly what these games were becoming.
All of these changes – the dwindling novelty of the NES, the dropping mainstream appeal, the games themselves evolving, gamers evolving – these are all pretty much why you don't see these absurd and nonsensical ads. Because, to the developers who have 30 seconds to get you to bum rush Wal-Mart for their latest release, it's NOT a game – it's a multimillion dollar business. They aren't going to throw it away on some exploding TV.
I'd say it was a combination of things.
1). The average gamer was younger, so commercials had to appeal to the ADD all kids have.
2). Games weren't very graphically sophisticated, so showing gameplay wouldn't be very effective. Commercials had to be jazzed up to draw attention.
3). Game design has evolved to focus more on story. As a result, story became a larger focus of the commercials.
4). The 80s were weird.
Video Game commercials used to be so epic, I agree. They were over-the-top, zany, and wild. I contribute most of this to the fact that the late 80s to late 90s was a period where people didn't take entertainment so seriously. It was a wacky, fun time full of RoboCops, Gremlins, talking cars, and where it was only logical for video games to have their own cereal brand.
Sadly, since the time when Video Games overtook Movies in revenue (which is basically where I draw the line to when games went from silly to very serious in terms of presentation and development), companies don't want to be seen as wacky anymore but legit businesses :(
However, I will say this: At least Mortal Kombat continues to advertise in awesome ways:
I dig this, but I would have loved to have you touch on the N64 era, when commercials tried to be less "extreme" and more comical.