The evolution of Japanese game commercials

30 years of daft, brilliant and disturbingly odd TV skits

Japan has a well-earned reputation for daft, brilliant and disturbingly odd TV game commercials, but it took a long (sometimes painful) evolution along a course signposted by geeky TV celebs in bad jumpers during the 1980s and PlayStation-sophistication in the 1990s, for that rep to be won and maintained.

Back at the end of the 1970s, Japanese gamecorps started trying to convince their public that games were not something to be afraid of; that they were a perfectly reasonable, legitimate form of entertainment, like shogi or fishing. Once the Famicom Era kicked off, those same softcos dropped their polite, civilised image and began to go berserk all over Japan's telly screens with “CMs” (as the Japanese refer to “adverts” or “commercials”) that were powerful enough to rip a viewer's mind open and sew it back together within the space of 15 seconds, discreetly lodging a MUST SHOP! impulse somewhere in the frontal lobe before the skit was over.

The evolution was televised, so join us as we trace its path from 1979 to 2009.

Nintendo friendly family fun time! (Circa 1979)

This example of the early Japanese game CM is a sedate, borderline tedious family affair in which Nintendo seeks to make the viewer as comfy as possible, short of magically delivering a plump cushion and a pair of furry slippers through the TV screen. It's all so... ahhhh. The comedy highlight - apart from the narrator's questionable boasts of "fantastic ball transformations" and "a highly technical game" - is the impromptu German horn music which brings the ad to a jolly nice close and leaves the viewer with an inescapable mental image of an uncle playing TV-Game 6 Pong in lederhosen.

The irony here is that 25 years later Nintendo would return to this softly-softly MO in order to convince people that the Wii was nothing to be scared of, only by that stage NCL had decided to blend the let's-all-be-nice-and-have-some-good-old-fashioned-fun message with a new let's-all-be-Nintendo-lifestyle credo. That, however, was probably just a reaction to Sony's efforts during the 1990s (which we'll get to in a bit).

SEGA: genki from the start (1983)

Taking a slightly more sophisticated approach to the CM challenge, SEGA not only enlisted the help of TV face Yuko Saito but also was quick to introduce the now unforgettable two-note "SE-GA!" soundbite. As early as this was - the SG-1000 was launched, like a missile, at the same time as Nintendo's Famicom - some impressive sci-fi effects were woven in there to highlight the array of "space games" available on the format (including Exerion and Star Jacker) and make potential early adopters feel as though they were buying a one-way ticket to the moon.

And if the bold futurism didn't do the trick, sharing a chuckle with SEGA surely would. Here we're treated to a clever, titter-eliciting bit of wordplay using the Japanese characters to, ni, ka and ku, which together form tonikaku, or "anyway". Yuko Saito works her way through them in order, using to as "and", ni as "with", and ka as "or", but she can't think of anything appropriate that begins with ku, so she cutes it up with a charming monosyllabic hiccup of kukku (a very 1980s-style expression of laughter) before concluding that the SG-1000 is "To-ni-ka-ku, tanoshii!" - "Anyway, it's fun!" Like, subliminal, yeah?

Humour in Famicom CM World (1986)

By the time Nintendo was plugging its Famicom Disk System wares, the use of Japanese celebs and idols in game CMs had become as omnipresent as air. In this double-bill ad for Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka Lost Levels) and Link no Bouken (aka Zelda II), TV presenter Joji Tokoro's engaging persona was employed to show that even relatively tall grown-ups would find these games to be extremely challenging. (In the 1980s, tough games were far more popular than dead-easy ones, hence the likes of Taito concluding CMs with "Our games are difficult!" as a boastful slogan. Happy days.)

In this ad the animated Mario character slumps and complains, "Heta-kuso!" - "You're crap!" - when the little girl mistimes a jump, which seems a bit harsh. And that's before a high-pitched Link repeats the taunt after Tokoro-san gets done in a dungeon. Then we get a screamed call-and-response ending as Tokoro supplies "It's so irritating, but..." before the girl punches "...can't stop playing!"

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