These ads are dope
Remember the '90s? Bill Clinton was president, internet was accessed through a phone line, and video games actually launched complete and mostly bug-free (or remained broken forever). Sega and Nintendo were kings, clawing at each other for market dominance, Sony was the young upstart with something to prove, and the Phillps CD-i was and forever will be a joke.
We take a lot of our modern conveniences for granted, especially with our always-connected infrastructure pumping game demos, trailers, new content, and patches directly to our consoles and computers. It's easy to forget that, for much of gaming's infancy, we didn't have any of that stuff, so publishers had to find creative ways to shove their marketing into our faces. These are some of the stranger methods Nintendo, Sony, and Sega used to market their products. Some worked, some didn't, but all of them are a product of their era.
Awful print ads
Back in the '90s, we used to read magazines printed on actual paper. It was nice to get a monthly dose of gaming news and reviews in one go, but it also meant slogging through some truly terrible advertisements. Sure, you didn't get screen-filling pop-up ads with blaring audio like you do on the internet, but you'd still have to flip through an image of some punk kid getting covered in bird crap (opens in new tab) to get to the preview section.
We've already covered this subject in great detail (like these hilariously bad retro print ads (opens in new tab) and these NSFW ads for games that are anything but (opens in new tab)), so I won't belabor the point further. This is just your daily reminder that 90% of print ads in the '90s were total garbage, and it's a wonder anyone was ever able to actually sell anything by running them.
Demo discs with a pan pizza
It's hard to imagine a world where you can't access free high-speed wi-fi from every coffee shop, restaurant, or pet store, but back in the '90s, 56k modems were considered decadent add-ons to one's PC. Dial-up was slow and unreliable, so if you wanted to get a taste of the latest games to hit the market, your best bet was to pick up a copy of PC Gamer or the Official PlayStation Magazine. Or, you could always buy a pizza.
Back in the late 1990s, PlayStation partnered up with Pizza Hut to give away one of several demo compilations with the purchase of a Big New Yorker Pizza (opens in new tab). They weren't bad demos, either, letting hungry gamers try out instant classics like Final Fantasy 8, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, or Metal Gear Solid. Now that demos are far easier to get, promos like these don't really exist any more, but we'll never forget the time we got a chance to test drive Gran Turismo 2 with greasy pizza hands.
Ordering pizza wasn't the only way you could try out the latest games. PlayStation Underground was an edgy, secret club only the hippest gamers of the '90s could be a part of or that's what the name makes it sound like, anyway. If you mailed in the registration card that came with your PlayStation, I'm sure they'd hook you up.
Anyway, the PlayStation Underground was a CD-based 'magazine' that released to members every quarter from 1997-2001. Each issue was packed with the usual, like demos and videos for the latest games. But in addition to those staples, you got preview videos, interviews, and even import content that showed off the latest Japanese games you'd normally never get a chance to see. The Download Station would transfer secret levels and otherwise unattainable characters directly to your memory card - a precursor to DLC, only available via the PlayStation Underground. And each disc even contained hidden Easter eggs and minigames if you looked hard enough. Eventually, the program was discontinued, as Sony focused on releasing Jampack demo CDs in stores, and merged the Underground content with the Official US PlayStation Magazine. At least we'll always have our secret handshake (there was no secret handshake).
Nintendo VHS tapes
How do you tell a legion of Nintendo fans about your latest games without purchasing expensive ad space? Besides, that ad is only going to be 30 seconds at best, and you want give your best customers a Nintendo deep dive to get them really hyped up. With YouTube a mere glint in someone's eye at this point (and don't even bother talking about RealPlayer), what's the next best solution? Mail out a whole bunch of VHS tapes, of course.
Over the course of the '90s, Nintendo filmed nearly a dozen different videos for Nintendo Power subscribers and people who registered their console as supplemental marketing material for its biggest games. The great thing about the internet now is how these video tapes have been archived (opens in new tab) for 'posterity'. The acting is well, let's just say that it ranges from somewhere between 'passable' and 'oof'. And of course, each video has some wacky scenario to tie all the footage together. My favorite is the Star Fox 64 video, which follows Sony and Sega employees (conveniently labelled by their shirts) as they kidnap and rough up a Nintendo employee, trying to get him to talk about the console's new Rumble Pak technology. Eventually, the Sony and Sega cronies succumb to the power of the Nintendo 64 - because of course they do.
Sega Saturn VHS tapes
Not to be outdone, Sega released their own set of videotapes to promote the Sega Saturn, and (if you can believe it) these videos were more extreme than Nintendo's. One such video was released in conjunction with Sega Saturn Magazine, and this 30 minute masterpiece (opens in new tab) dives into the bowels of a dystopian future, where humans are forcibly strapped into cars and have their eyeballs sucked out of their sockets. Y'know, for video games.
After one hell of an intro (where a Sega Saturn is completely demolished in a series of quick cuts), the rest of the tape is surprisingly benign, simply featuring back-to-back video clips of games like Virtua Fighter and X-Men: Children of the Atom. As strange as that video starts, it doesn't match the sheer fever dream quality of another promo tape (opens in new tab) Sega released, which features a bald woman with rings around her head, a creepy old man in close-up, and what appears to be a young Paul Rudd, all cut across various clips of gameplay. Thanks to these esoteric art films, the Saturn went on to become one of Sega's most popular and profitable consoles. Wait, that's not right...
If you've been following along at home, you've probably noticed a recurring theme. If you wanted to market games to kids in the '90s, your ad was either weird, gross, extreme, or some combination of the three. Nintendo decided to take this approach when advertising EarthBound, a quirky JRPG with a wholesome sense of humor. This plan backfired miserably.
Yes, EarthBound is a weird game, but it's weird in the 'this is how Japan views America' kind of way, not the 'Ren & Stimpy pick their boogers' kind of way. But some ad exec must have seen a single picture of Master Belch and decided that EarthBound was nothing but gross-out humor, and decided to revolve the entire ad campaign around it. Now, I'm not Don Draper, but running copy with the phrase 'Because This Game Stinks' in big bold letters doesn't sound like a great way to sell an expensive niche JRPG. There are a lot of reasons EarthBound tanked in the West, but a large part of it was due to this ad (and its accompanying Scratch-n-sniff cards). It's a shame, because it means we'll never get Mother 3.
The Console Wars
If you're over the age of 25, you probably lived through the Great Console Wars of the late '80s through the '90s. While fandom is nowhere near dead, you don't see Microsoft and Sony dishing out the same kind of digs Nintendo, Sega, and Sony used to trade back in the '90s. They were pretty blatant too, like the famous 'Genesis Does What Nintendon't' (opens in new tab). But it didn't stop there.
Video games ads used to be pretty cutthroat, like this spot featuring a very young Ethan Suplee (opens in new tab) smacking himself in the face with a dead squirrel so he can see colors while he plays on his Game Boy. Or this one where a grown man in a Crash Bandicoot costume (opens in new tab) shouts at Nintendo headquarters through a megaphone. Competition between the console juggernauts seems downright civil in comparison to the insults slung during the '90s.
It was a simpler time
While the internet has made downloading demos as simple as pressing a button and waiting a few minutes, there's something I miss about having a curated selection of content dressed up on a CD and delivered to my doorstep. I won't miss those horrid videos that pandered to our 'extreme' sensibilities. Glad we've moved past that. *sips from Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel bottle* Do you have any fond memories of bizarre video game marketing in the '90s? Let me know in the comments!
Looking for more? Then you should read this article about how talking about a game can be more fun than actually playing (opens in new tab) or these everday tasks that are way harder in video games (opens in new tab).