Founded in September of 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi, Nintendo didn’t always make video games. They began, of all things, producing handmade playing cards in Japan. Over the years, they’d tried it all from providing cab services to managing love hotels.
With a name that translates to “leave luck to heaven,” Nintendo set out to make a fortune, trying just about anything until they found something that stuck: video games.
In the 1980s, Nintendo had switched gears over to games. By 1985, they’d developed the NES, and by 1988 the Game Boy. Little did they know that these two items, and then some, would mark 90s history in the States.
And we don’t mean just with Nintendo as a company, nor with the industry as a whole, but in terms of marketing. Now known as Nintendo’s 90s marketing campaign, the decade before the new millennium paved the way for the modern-day company, as well as modern-day business entirely.
Let’s take a look at the marketing campaign that not only put Nintendo on the map in every 90s American household, but that also gave arch-nemesis Sega a run for its money. Furthermore, let’s glean insight into what game developers should be trying today, based on Nintendo’s history.
Younger generations may be surprised to find that Nintendo didn’t always have a politically correct, clean image. Back in the 1990s, it was “cool not to care.” It was expected for teenagers to fire up a game and a cigarette after school rather than doing their homework. There wasn’t even such a thing as the internet until about the middle of the decade!
When Sega became competition, Nintendo needed to step it up if it was going to stay in business. Taking its accumulated 100+ years of business experience, they launched a campaign aimed at targeting their core audience: the “rough around the edges,” grunge-fueled teenagers of the end of the 20th century.
In 1991, their Super Nintendo ad featuring Paul Rudd came out and stepped up to the plate, facing Sega’s “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” campaign. In 1995, the SNES’s Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island Commercial launched, featuring an overly hungry, explosion-prone man. But perhaps their most famous commercial yet is “Play It Loud,” released in 1994. It featured “Goofy’s Concern,” by Butthole Surfers—rebellious lyrics and all. It also featured a bunch of 90s stereotypes like skateboarding, trespassing, and teenage boys with long, messy hair.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but the commercial was tame compared to most of the commercials on MTV at the time, back when MTV actually played music videos (as the legend goes). Even still, they opted for slightly more understated commercials after this. The grunge era of Nintendo’s marketing lasted all of half a year. Although, they surely compromised, since the packaging for the Super Nintendo still looked like this:
So, what can the game developers of today learn from the eyebrow-raising commercials of yesteryear? Simple: don’t be afraid to push the envelope in order to get attention. That was the entire objective of Nintendo’s 90s marketing campaign. Sure, maybe featuring a song by Butthole Surfers isn’t even relevant to modern day, but you can still experiment with other options (and other musical guests!). Be risky with your font type and size. Choose an interesting, instantly recognizable song. Study your audience and make a note of what they wear and what they like to do. Appeal to them by being at least somewhat like them.
If you’re sitting there going, “But what about my own image?” then this might be some news to you: it’s okay to be your own person, but as a business, it’s crucial to be in-tune with your customers. You can still be honest to your own image, while meeting them along the way. All it takes is some experimentation on your part to find that sweet spot.
Back in the day, marketing had a whole different face. Rather than just putting out commercials, Nintendo—and other companies like Philips CDI and PlayStation—created VHS tapes. These videos were created for retailers, promotional partners, and just about anyone else that Nintendo worked with at the time. However, there were also quite a few promo videos for players as well. These videos were sent in the mail as part of a Nintendo Power subscription, which you can read more on below.
Among the VHS tapes was “How We Do It,” which aimed to explain the way Nintendo of America worked, upheld the seal of quality, dealt with support calls from customers, and other topics relating to the inner workings of the company. Another video was a promotional piece for Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, the 1994 baseball video game. In fact, three videos were promos for World Championships 1990, Nintendo PowerFest ’91, and Campus Challenge ’92.
Donkey Kong Country got one too, titled “Donkey Kong Country Exposed,” which came in a green, jungle-printed sleeve and took place in the Nintendo Treehouse. For those who may not know, the Treehouse is a product development division at Nintendo of America, where they translate games into various other languages and help with QA and product management.
Looking through the videos, it’s no secret a lot has changed in the last 27 years. There are no such things as “promo videos” anymore—it’s mainly commercials and advertisements. Any videos taken on how to do things are now considered a part of work orientations and played in dingy, fluorescent-lighted office rooms. The idea of a magazine subscription sending tapes to your home these days is baffling. It just wouldn’t happen.
But these Nintendo VHS tapes, well, they’re relics. Getting one makes for an interesting addition to any gaming collection. About four years ago, Price Charting, a retro gaming website dedicated to helping collectors gauge the worth of their game collection, bought six of the rare promo videos. Take a look below:
Clearly, VHS tapes aren’t a thing anymore, and again, neither are mailed promotional videos. However, game developers would be wise to take note. YouTube is the modern-day counterpart. How many times have you seen company videos online? Posted tutorials featuring a company product are perfect examples of this. In the gaming industry, it’s common to see YouTube trailers for games, Let’s Play videos done by streamers, and even behind the scenes footage of what goes on during game development.
In essence, although times have changed the content and format, promotional videos aren’t dead. They’ve been renamed and given a facelift. Different mediums and different outlets have led us all to believe that marketing has changed significantly. While it certainly has, it’s not all based on original ideas. Without their 90s counterparts, How-To and Easter Egg videos wouldn’t be what they are today.
In the still-early days of the gaming industry, Nintendo didn’t face all the competition that it does now. These days, PlayStation and Xbox are dominating the market, with Nintendo’s console market share newly rising thanks to Nintendo Switch sales. Back then, Sega was their primary challenger. Their aggressive marketing led Sega to taking a giant portion of Nintendo’s business. At the very least, teens had both consoles, which meant Nintendo was beginning to feel what it would be like no longer being the biggest kid on the playground.
Unsurprisingly, their advertising war got rather ugly. While both companies focused on their target audience, appealing to the trends of the time, they both tried to outdo each other repeatedly as well. It led to some very strange advertisements that, also unsurprisingly, worked very well with the jaded, slightly crazy player base.
But perhaps what made this more interesting was the fact that Sega was promoting the Genesis as “the grown-up alternative to Nintendo’s.” It forced Nintendo to go from wholesome, sweet, “dad is my hero,” to the image seen above. Clearly, the company was in a marketing war with Sega, but it was also skillfully growing up alongside its customer base. Like most of us, it went from innocent child to angsty teenager over the course of a few years.
Of course, the advertisements only got more intricate as time went on. They tried grunge-friendly advertising, which only lasted half a year but successfully marketed games like Street Fighter II and Super Metroid.
However, Sega still pushed the envelope, so Nintendo opted for even more shock factor in their advertising. Games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Yoshi’s Story for N64 ended up getting some strange, if not sexual advertising, but it worked. It was the 90s, and having a jaded, uncaring attitude was the norm. Companies that catered to the younger masses were smart to reflect the ideals of the day. By taking their target audience into consideration—and aiming to outdo Sega—Nintendo cultivated a rough, yet effective image.
If anything, modern-day game developers can learn from this. The indie game scene is an overly-saturated market, filled with games that lack innovation, because most ideas have all be done before. To stand out from the competition, understanding your target audience is key. What is the attitude of today? What ideals should be reflected, and why? By targeting your specific player base, and aiming to outdo other game developers looking to appeal to the same market, you can cultivate an effective image as well.
In case you’ve missed the memo, a good marketing strategy features several components. This makes it possible to appeal to more people and reach out to many different outlets.These days, it’s very much YouTube, Twitch, Steam, and social media, among others. Back in the 90s, it was a little different.
Nintendo made commercials for TV, VHS tapes for industry people, and advertisements to post out in the real world. You know, because people very much went outside more and spent less time looking down at their phones. In fact, they didn’t even have phones. The few that existed weren’t the best anyway.
But apart from all of this, Nintendo’s 90s marketing campaign also included a news and strategy magazine, which was first published in-house on a monthly basis. The name of this magazine was Nintendo Power. Even though it is discontinued now, it was one of the longest running gaming magazines in the U.S. and Canada. The final issue was volume 285, back in December of 2012.
Page after page, the magazine featured strategies for games, announcements like upcoming summer 1990 releases, and Battletoads comics. It featured news, trivia, and interviews with prominent developers in the industry, as well as with Nintendo fans. It even featured a section called “Pulse,” consisting of fan letters and art. For a Nintendo collector these days, having a few copies of Nintendo Power is an absolute must.
Those looking to read the old material for the sake of general knowledge or nostalgia are out of luck. Every issue published between 1988 and 2001 had been added to archive.org, but have now been taken down by Nintendo themselves. In a statement to Polygon, they explained it was done in an effort to “protect our own characters, trademarks and other content.” Understandable, but still a bummer, isn’t it?
The modern game developer can learn a lot from print publications. Although it is a dying medium now, with the internet slowly taking over everything, including newspapers, there are still some gaming magazines in operation. Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Informer, Official PlayStation Magazine and even 1998’s Nintendo World are all still going strong.
This is pertinent information, since it is still possible to contact these publications and ask to be featured. More so, having content that they can guest post is still a possibility. From blogs to photographs and interviews, it is a bright idea to get featured in a gaming magazine. After all, if they print it, they’ll likely be posting the content online as a feature.
If none of that sounds interesting, it is also smart to take a page out of Nintendo’s handbook: create your own digital publication in which your game studio projects take center stage. Invite other indie developers to guest post, and watch your readership grow. With every new reader, there is another likely customer. This is the digital age, and nothing says community engagement quite like partnering up with other industry leaders to connect with players.
Depending on their age, the game developers of today may still remember the 1990s. They may still remember asking their parents for a Super Nintendo, a copy of Star Fox 64 (Rumble Pak included), or a Power Glove. Truth be told, Nintendo was more than a video game company: it was a staple of the time. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Mario, Yoshi, Luigi, or Princess Peach. When watching TV, Nintendo commercials were inevitable. Children would scream on Christmas morning when they got an N64.
And although a lot has changed in the last 27 years, Nintendo is still here. Nintendo Switch is out, and everyone is talking about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo may not hold the most console market share in the U.S., but they’ve recently announced that their Switch sales have surpassed 1.5M units. Things are going back up for the nostalgic company!
But just how can a company grow up with a targeted audience? How did Nintendo’s 90s marketing campaign shift from wholesome, to edgy, and back to wholesomely entertaining in the 2000s?
By reflecting society, of course! The late 1980s were filled with young gamers in their single digits—children who looked up to their parents and played with View-Masters. They turned into teenagers and went on to skate, smoke, listen to grunge, and let their hair grow out. And now, they’re full-grown, working adults that likely look nothing like what they used to. Polished individuals with careers and mortgages. Nintendo, much like their customer base, went through growing pains. And it was very public about it.
It’s this honesty, this simple ability to reflect the customers in a relatable way, that kept the company on the map. They did it all, from commercials and VHS tapes to advertisements and print publications. And during all of that, they never lost sight of who their customers were.
For modern game developers, this is great news. It shows that anything is possible in marketing, as long as innovative thinking and audience targeting are made the focus. It illustrates how experimentation isn’t just something done in a high school or college science lab. The truth is marketing is all about experimentation, and seeing what sticks. What do the customers want and why? How can a business reflect that, while staying true to its own identity?
Nintendo’s 90s marketing campaign worked, because it made sure to appeal to the people who were most likely to purchase Nintendo games and consoles. It was rivaled by Sega, a company that attempted to debunk Nintendo, but failed. Somewhere between the teenagers and the pressure to beat Sega, Nintendo found a voice that suits them. And can’t we all just agree that their current voice is the one that truly marks them as an industry leader?
This article first appeared on the Black Shell Media blog.