As a kid in the late 80's and early 90's, wandering up and down the massive video game aisles of Toys 'R Us, I would study each and every piece of laminated cover art, trying my hardest to envision the excitements and adventures that were waiting to be unleashed from within the games' cartridges. I also watched way, wayyyy too much television for my own good, and would get excited for just about every video game advertisement I saw during commercial breaks for TMNT and The Real Ghostbusters.
As an adult who has worked in the marketing world for a while, I have serious issues with advertising in general, especially since ads are metastasizing more and more into everyday life, hypnotizing people into chasing illusory happiness through empty, consumerist sleepwalking (/rant). But I can't help but have fond memories of old game ads from the 80's and 90's. Maybe it's naive of me, maybe my mind is clouded with nostalgia, or maybe they were just way more genuine and interesting than today's despicable adverts.
In my childhood mind, covers and commercials were honest and accurate portrayals of what specific game experiences were going to be like. Many covers were fantastical artists' renderings that attempted to interpret what the games would look like if they were real. Many commercials featured kids flipping out in their basements and / or animated characters popping out of the tv screen. These were viable means through which an impressionable individual such as myself could decide which games were going to rule, and which were going to suck.
Of course, there were superior methods in which an informed consumer could attempt to judge the quality of a game, such as game mag reviews, rentals, or recommendations from trustworthy friends. I was fortunate enough to have a subscription to Nintendo Power, and was usually able to persuade my mother to buy me the latest issue of EGM from our local drugstore's magazine aisle. Despite having these resources at my disposal, I still found myself choosing games based on their cover illustrations and television advertisements here and there.
Little did I realize that many of the covers and commercials for Japanese games were completely different from their original counterparts. In the case of the covers, the change in art was undoubtedly pushed for by marketing departments who deemed the popular Japanese style of illustration too exotic, and thought that something with the eye of the average westerner in mind would sell better. In the end, the cover art was the ultimate advertisement for a game, and when revised or replaced, the real spirit of the game was often overlooked entirely, resulting in mangled nonsense. I'm sure you know all of this already.
While regional changes in artwork were superficial and often misguided in my opinion, new commercials had to be made for obvious reasons like language differences. Again, though, decisions in art direction were still made with cultural differences between Eastern and Western audiences in mind.
American game advertisements in the late 80's and early 90's were all about extreme one-upmanship, depicting games as outrageous and radical as possible. So many covers, print ads, and television commercials seemed to be soaked in that early-MTV-bumper insanity. Commercials showed teenage boys decked out in mandatory Seattle-plaid, bathing in the barium-blue emissions of CRT tvs, reacting to onscreen enemies by physically diving across brown couches. Claymation figures screamed and melted. Players' heads spun 'round, inflated and exploded, hair stood on end, and steam blasted out of ear canals. Everything was saturated in neon lightning and raspily narrated as if every game was the next big summer blockbuster. Taglines became the mantras of Sega and Nintendo cults alike. Genesis does what NintenDon't. Play it loud. W E L C O M E T O T H E N E X T L E V E L. Now you're playing with power.
I, like many of my friends who are the same age, am plagued with the unfortunate gift of being able to remember dialoge and jingles from so many commercials of this era. Ask me what I did yesterday though, and I'll likely blank. I don't blame my parents for "letting me" watch too much tv. It's probably because of Saturday Morning Cartoons and TGIF.
Anyway, I mention this cursed gift because of an odd response I gave to a question my wife asked me the other night while watching me play Kirby's Return to Dreamland for Nintendo Wii.
"What is Kirby supposed to be, anyway?" she inquired. Without hesitation, I replied,
"Oh, he's a creampuff."
It immediately dawned on me that this was not only incorrect, as Kirby is just "a Kirby," but it was also an incredibly weird thing to say. After wondering what I meant and where this answer came from, I realized that it was the echo of a commercial I had seen for Kirby's Adventure as a child, which I had taken much too literally at the time.
Imagine the meetings and group discussions in which this very commercial was conceptualized. Imagine the storyboards. Imagine the ideas that were thrown out and didn't make it into this tv spot.
"What is this fucking pink thing anyway? He's too cute and pudgy. We need to have him flex. We need him to scowl. No, we can't include the game's actual music, it's too cheery. We need soaring guitars. Hmm... what's a word that rhymes with 'tough' that will touch on his soft appearance, but not turn the customer away?"
"Level after nightmarish level." Did the people who wrote this ad even play the game? Kirby's Adventure is full of cheer and charm. There's nothing nightmarish about it!
Now let's take a look at the original, Japanese commercial.
Look at that premonition right there. How cool is that!? Hopefully no one over at HAL Laboratory or Good-Feel tried to pull a George Lucas when Epic Yarn was released, claiming that they had planned it all along. Not only does this ad capture the spirit of the game in an interesting and creative way - it's also obvious that it inspired the creative direction of a fantastic game, almost two decades later.
Kirby's Adventure was and is still one of my favorite NES games. It's a little short, and not particularly difficult, but it just gushes charm and happiness, from the awesomely illustrated sprites, to the vividly colored worlds, to the catchy tunes and the humorous vignettes that precede each world. This game is packed with content - tons of awesome weapons and abilities, lots of secret areas, and incredibly fun mini-games throughout each world. Unprecedented variety for the NES. I played this game obsessively.
I only recently picked up Kirby's debut, Kirby's Dreamland for Game Boy, and it is delightful. Also short and also easy, it becomes quite the challenge once you access the hard difficulty setting after beating the game. While it's weird to play a Kirby game in which you cannot gain enemies' abilities after eating them, it's really cool to see how well the NES sequel built upon the first game's strengths.
After discovering the disparities between the Kirby's Adventure commercials, I just had to see what odd differences existed between how he was introduced to tv audiences in the East and the West.
Okay, so not quite as ridiculously off-base as the Adventure commercial, but still pretty weird, right? Kirby, depicted in white due to a misunderstanding that stemmed from Game Boy's monochromatic graphics, looks like a creature from The Real Ghostbusters in this style. He looks like a friendlier creature in this commercial, but they still had to give him Zack Morris hair and crazy shades (and teeth for some reason), to prove he was cool.
What about the Japanese spot?
When I looked this up and found it, I got so excited, because it explains the odd, yet adorable intro to Kirby's Adventure!
It's so interesting that two different Japanese Kirby commercials seem to have influenced elements of future games in the series.
The Japanese Dreamland commercial, while short and sweet, still shows more of the game and is truer to its nature than the American spot, especially since Kirby is shown in his proper color. It even features some of the excellent music from the game, in all its synthy, Game Boy glory.
One final comparison:
These are much closer to each other than the previous examples, although it's interesting to see how American claymation Kirby gets the Mr. Bill treatment through plenty of pinball punishment, and the Japanese 3D Kirby is as cheerful as ever (up until the last frame). The Japanese one also takes a noticeably longer look at the gameplay, which makes me wonder if the Japanese marketers were more comfortable letting the game speak for itself, rather than just showing kids flipping out with a few, quick flashes of the screen.
Despite the different styles and tactics used to promote Kirby games to different audiences, Kirby has remained a Nintendo icon and continues to appear in quality games today. I'm a little late to the Return to Dreamland party, and while nothing can hold a candle to the joyous package that is Kirby's Adventure in my opinion, it's still a satisfying and incredibly fun experience. The incremental difficulty smoothly transforms from beginner to expert, as the later levels throw some oldschool platforming tricks and traps your way. I haven't played it with 4 players yet, but I'm sure that's a blast, and adds a whole new dimension to the game.
Current games are such graphical powerhouses these days, it's rare that anyone uses animation or claymation to represent what the visuals "should" look like. I'm sad to see that shred of art slip completely away from today's advertisements, but the times, they are a' changin'. I can't imagine my son, 30 years from now, reminiscing about video game banner ads that stuck with him from his childhood.
(Thank the universe for AdBlock.)