The limits of technology in the early days of gaming meant that many were downright abstract in their visuals and story.
The player’s imagination was left filling in the gaps, whether it was seeing a blocky duck as a fearsome dragon or believing that you were tasked with saving an entire mushroom kingdom from a fire-breathing ... turtle? There was a little bit of information out there to help, leading obsessive kids to comb through instruction manuals and strategy guides to piece everything together.
But your brain can only add that information once you already have the game. Getting your audience to meet you halfway before that happened is where advertising came in during the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s. And that advertising only made sense in a few places before gaming became a more mainstream hobby.
The comic age
Buying space in comic books allowed game publishers to tap into a large market of nerdy kids who were ready to let their imaginations do the heavy lifting.
But the graphical and maybe even the narrative limitations made this a challenge. In the days before character design was immediately impressive — or even coherent — enough to sell the game, how exactly should you advertise these things?
To find out for myself, I went through a few hundred issues of mainstream comics — specifically Amazing Spider-Man, if you’re curious about giving it a shot yourself — going through every issue from the late ‘70s to the mid-2000s.
The earliest video game ads I’ve been able to find in those start in 1983, from Parker Brothers, of all people. The company that’s best known for Monopoly and Clue helped set the tone for pretty much every other game ad that comics readers would be seeing for the next three decades. No, I’m not joking.
The format is simple: a big, suitably evocative central image that visually overpowers the smallest possible screenshot of what the game actually looks like.
That approach makes a lot of sense when you’re dealing with a licensed property like Star Wars — selling kids on Luke Skywalker has never really been difficult — but getting legendary Mad artist Jack Davis to illustrate a couple of kids having their minds blown by the fun of Reactor with only the vaguest possible suggestion of the game’s visuals was a whole other challenge. You can see the result right up there. It’s beautiful.
This format was the go-to move for most game marketing of the era, and it resulted in some pretty amazing attempts at hiding the actual visuals of the game from the target audience. I’m pretty partial to the ads where the screenshot is actually just hand-drawn:
This is my personal favorite, the ad for the Super Cobra flight jacket promotion that tucks an actual television into the shadows of the background of a photograph that looks like the opening scene of a particularly hilarious episode of Law & Order.
To which I can only respond:
It’s worth noting that while all of these examples come from Parker Brothers, this was something that happened across the entire industry, to the point where I was left wondering if Atari, Konami and Capcom were all going through the same advertising agency.
There’s a little bit of individual flavor for each company, of course, with Konami favoring photos that look like posters for Schwarzenegger-era action movies, which matched the aesthetic of the Contra cover art itself.
… and Capcom having a weird string of indecisiveness the same year that saw them unable to choose between photos and art based on those photos. So the company decided to just do two ads that ran in the comics on alternating months.
Overall, though, that was the ad format for video games, and it stuck around forever. Or at least it felt that way.
While it’s easy to look at ads from the 80s and explain them away as a product of their time, you can see the exact same approach showing up decades later, long after Parker Brothers had gotten out of the console market and gone back to Ouijia Boards. The aesthetic for these ads was in place, and no one seemed willing to step away from it, even after the visuals themselves became more of a selling point themselves.
Check out an ad for Super Mario Sunshine from 2003. That’s 20 years after Parker Brothers tucked their screenshot between Luke Skywalker’s knees:
That’s a game with some great water effects and attractive visuals, but that ad is part of a tradition that insisted the game itself is never the selling point. Nintendo thought that a slimy Mario would sell more copies of the game than the game itself.
This monolithic aesthetic is fascinating by itself, but it only gets stranger when you start looking at the ways games tried to break away from the format.
Witness, for instance, a weird little comic strip for the original Mario Bros.:
Again, it pulls the familiar trick of swapping out actual screens from the game for a passable artistic representation of the visuals, but it’s also just weird. This is a Mario Bros. ad that only features Luigi, and it’s meant to be a parody of the theme song from Car 54 Where Are You?, a television show that went off the air in 1964, a full 20 years before this ad appeared in comics.
Of course, it turns out this ad is actually a print adaptation of a TV commercial with the same structure, but that doesn’t really answer any of these questions. In fact, I now have more questions about who thought this was a good idea.
Most of these early ads seem geared towards assuring you that you’ll get your money’s worth from buying a game by highlighting the punishing difficulty. Those Super Cobra ads, for instance, were all about telling you that you could never possibly get a high score.
Every now and then, though, they’d actually get around to featuring something that was actually appealing about the game, and one of the most memorable examples came from Ultra, a shell company created by Konami to get around Nintendo’s five-games-per-year limit on publishers, put out for Metal Gear.
It has a lot of the same elements you can see in other ads — lots of white space and tiny screenshots down at the bottom — but laying out the game’s inventory with descriptions of what each item actually did was pretty effective for the time.
From a modern perspective, it’s busy to the point of being overwhelming, but as a kid, I obsessed over this ad, trying to figure out what each of these weapons could do in the same way that I obsessed over diagrams of Batman’s utility belt or cutaways of the Fortress of Solitude. It was an ad that sold the possibilities of the game, and that was a smart strategy.
The ad makes it look like Solid Snake is a more violent version of James Bond, loaded down with a seemingly endless array of gadgets. He’s a character so spoiled for choice on how to dispose of his enemies that he uses a metal glove just for finding doors. Why bother punching out your enemies when you have a Mac-11 and a rocket launcher just sitting there next to your special antenna?
Incidentally, this same kind of ad would be used ten years later by Square, with an added trick: it was a double-page spread that contrasted the goofy weaponry of Brave Fencer Musashi with the more realistic swords of Bushido Blade.
Ads started to get a little more aggressive as the industry moved into the 90s. Video game ads have always been more than a little confrontational, but things started to get a little more intense as time went on.
Blaming your potential customers for a nuclear terrorist attack is certainly one way to sell a game.
What’s really interesting about that era, though, is how a few companies tried new ideas and then quickly went back to the standard format. Capcom released ads for Bionic Commando, Mega Man and Strider in 1989 that swapped the white background for black and threw in some of the scratchy text that we all associate with the more x-treme, skateboard-grindin’, Dew-slammin’ ‘90s ... but by the following year, they were right back where they started with black-on-white Times New Roman:
As most of the industry moved toward the in-your-face Poochiness that would mark the 90s — there’s a TurboGrafix ad from 1990 that’s literally just jagged shards of screenshots flying into the eyes of a screaming teenager that feels like shorthand for the entire following decade — this feels like a weird step backwards.
Then again, it might just be a product of someone realizing that tiny white text on a black background wasn’t exactly legible on the cheap newsprint paper found in comics.
By the mid-’90s, you can see a shift in the ads and how they’re presented in comics that ends up with them becoming increasingly rare after 1994.
That likely has a lot to do with the rise of a more mainstream gaming press that allowed publishers to laser in on an existing audience that was already there in the pages of EGM and GamePro rather than going through the middleman of superhero comics, which you can see for yourself thanks to Archive.org’s collection of gaming magazines. And you should, too; they’re an incredibly interesting snapshot of their era.
But this is where an entirely new aesthetic begins to emerge. It’s also when things got weird.
The age of game magazines
The ads skew, at least theoretically, towards an older audience than what was assumed for comics at the time. Ads also tended to focus on subjects that are somehow even further removed from the actual content of the game in favor of creating an ad that is itself … memorable?
The companies were trying to evoke a feeling or concept more than just show a more realistic version of what the game might look like in the future, and that gave them a lot of freedom. Freedom that was abused almost instantly.
There are plenty of contenders for the most egregious, including the ad for 1999’s T'ai Fu: Wrath of the Tiger where a render of an anthropomorphic tiger was accompanied by the legend “Who you callin’ a pussy?”
The ads for Deathtrap Dungeon, based on Ian Livingstone’s Choose Your Own Adventure-style fantasy novels has got to be up there with the worst of them:
See, because it’s a dungeon.
Quick side note: You could probably do an entire article just on Tomb Raider ads from 1996 to 2010. Heck, you could probably do an entire book on them, and teach it in a psychology class. They had a female hero in a time that was a rare thing, but it was still “safe” to assume a male audience. And the ads went pretty far with those two things, for a very long time.
Even into the 2000s, the imagery in video game ads was as abstract as it was in the early ‘80s, drawing on a weird visual language that descends almost entirely from the dawn of the medium and advertisers’ attempts to attract players with something, anything that wasn’t just a picture of a bunch of colored pixels.
And because of that simple desire, we ended up seeing years of some dude in a Crash Bandicoot costume being put into increasingly awkward situations.
Of course, modern media has rendered ads like these all but obsolete. Today’s audiences have an almost overwhelming amount of ways to learn about games: reviews, YouTube videos, Twitch streams, massive presentations at E3 and demos that let you actually play the game.
These are better options than just reducing it to a single square inch in the corner of an ad about a contest where you could win a jacket. These ads may seem quaint, or even embarrassing now, but it’s important to remember how these companies used to market our hobby.
Things have gotten better ... right?