Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in October 2020.
The recent Japanese TV spots for Super Mario 3D All-Stars and news Nintendo has recruited Love Island’s Laura Whitmore as a ‘Ring Fit Ambassador’ got us thinking back on Nintendo’s long history of TV commercials and 30-second spots. Whether you’re nostalgic for the ‘Now You’re Playing With Power!’ days or think back wistfully about all those celebrities lounging about their airy, wood-filled abodes playing Wii and DS, Nintendo commercials have really run the gamut from mad to mellow, cute to crude, over the years.
In the early ’90s it has SEGA who was taking the fight to Nintendo in the advertising space, and we’ve previously taken a look at how SEGA’s marketing approach in the UK prompted an advertising response in kind, with more biting ads that became edgier over time, especially as Sony entered the arena with its groundbreaking PlayStation ads.
Nintendo has always been a big spender then it comes to TV advertising, and that has only increased as its audience broadened considerably in the Wii and DS era. As a result, there are a great many commercials to choose from, but we’ve collected our picks below for your viewing pleasure. They’ll take you on a tour from the early 1980s up to the present day showing you the best, and the worst, of Nintendo’s advertising output on the box. We’ve stuck to TV commercials rather than the more modern online trailers or reveal videos (sorry over-enthusiastic Ring Fit Adventure duo).
Before we begin, it’s important to remember that these commercials were produced for Nintendo rather than by Nintendo. Ad companies pitched ideas and Nintendo’s regional departments signed off on them, so the developers of the games and even the higher-ups in the company around the world probably had zero input in the content of these commercials, if they were aware of them at all.
The Best Nintendo TV Commercials of the ’80s and ’90s
Before we begin with Nintendo’s 8- and 16-bit systems, there are a couple of even earlier ads which we love…
“Mario, where are you?”
This pre-NES ad for Mario Bros. on Atari features Luigi ‘in a bind’ wondering where ‘Mario from Donkey Kong’ as got to. It’s a catchy tune, the turtles and crabs attacking Luigi are hilarious, and this ad showcases Luigi’s scaredy-cat nature years before it appeared in the games. Classic stuff.
Game & Watch
This one’s probably most notable for the titans of animation appearing alongside each other. Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Lucy show up just after Popeye, Olive Oil and Bluto, along with Mario, Luigi and Donkey Kongs Sr. and Jr. in their early guises. It showcases the large number of Game & Watch titles available at the time and should give younger readers more of an idea about why crusty older gamers are so jazzed to get their hands on the new Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch.
Moving into the NES and SNES era of ads next, we’ll start with a series which defined Nintendo in the US throughout the late ’80s into the next decade…
“Now You’re Playing With Power!”
There are plenty of ‘Playing With Power’ ads to choose from, although this one that channels Alien and Terminator and spits NES controllers and CRTs at cyberpunk kids from the spaceship corridor walls is probably our favourite.
“Mario! Mario! Mario!”
If you’re too young to remember the huge following Nintendo’s mascot amassed in a relatively short space of time, this ad makes clear just what a total cult Mario was in the early ’90s.
Animated Russian bears complaining about Tetris
With several Tetris ads to choose from (including a surreal one where a child doctor insists “You need a Tetris shot!” and another where Patrick Bateman gets ‘Tetris-ized’), we’ve got a soft sport for the animated Russian bears complaining about the game taking over their kids minds and the world at large.
If gamers in the US had missed Kirby on Game Boy, this ad served as a neat introduction that plays on the idea that Kirby can transform and ‘be’ anything, really. We very much enjoy swordfighting, moustachioed Kirby fencing on the staircase, and animated Kirby would return for the Kirby’s Block Ball ad.
Now you’re playing with… Paul Rudd?
Nintendo stuck to its ‘Playing With Power’ slogan in the 16-bit era, although it added a ‘Super Power’ addendum. We like this one because it’s got all the elements you want from an early ’90s video game commercial. Chain link fence? Check. Floppy hair? Check. Random youths congrating on wet concrete in the middle of the night as smoke machines billow and they all stare in wonder at Paul Rudd playing Pilotwings on a giant drive-in cinema screen?…
Why aren’t all ads like this?
Zelda: A Link to the Past Japanese Rap
There are plenty of great SNES commercials, although the production values on this Super Famicom ad are hard to top. Featuring a rap that’s an infinite number of cuts above the crummy NES version in the US (we’ll get to that later), Hip Hop group Scha Dara Parr spat the rhymes on Game Boyz, a track from their album Towering Nonsense used here by Nintendo.
SDP would return to the Nintendo fold two decades later with a bespoke version of the same track in a Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds TV spot, too.
Rik Mayall’s Super NES ads
We’ve taken a look at these before, but we couldn’t go and leave them out here, could we?
“Change the System”
Skipping 32-bits completely, Nintendo jumped into the 64-bit pool with gaming’s greatest launch game, Super Mario 64. This US commercial added a random rad-tubulant ’90s kid into the game, jumping, sliding, flying and wisecracking alongside Mario. It’s stupid, but we like how it highlights the silliness of Mario’s movesets transplanted to an actual human, and the voiceover is priceless. “Change angles! Go anywhere you wanna go, do anything you wanna do!” Badda-bing!
On the extremely crass end of the ‘Change the System’ campaign scale, another N64 launch commercial featured voices crying out defiance of the oppressive shackles of two dimensions, embracing the freedom of 3D. The ’90s was a different time.
Just one of the many, many TV ads featuring someone dressing up in a Mario suit, this one sets the scene with The Turtles’ Happy Together playing as all the happy sappy Nintendo characters dance through a field. After a few moments, Mario trips Yoshi and an almighty scrap ensues.
That takes us up to the millennium — on the next page we look at the best Nintendo commercials from 2000 to the present.