Back before the eternal flame of the console wars cast its first flickers upon the troll caves of the internet, debates over the greatest videogame systems were largely delegated to the bus rides, lunch tables and lazy Sundays of the world. There were few up-to-the-minute blogs or easily-accessed game trailers. The bulk of a system warrior’s arguing points would be issued from the TV or in monthly gaming magazines.
It was a grand age of advertising through which the game companies themselves fueled the passions and arguments of their followers. The companies directed their fans like kings leading their people into battle, bound to the same field-honored codes of name-calling, intimidation, and selective blindness toward any part of one’s system that could be considered inferior.
An effective videogame ad would stock supporters with powerful talking points while turning anyone who dared to argue into an envy-addled ball of chump rage. One of the greatest examples – and one that still haunts me to this day – is SquareSoft’s print ad for Final Fantasy VII.
It was 1997. The Nintendo 64 finally came out late the previous year and, for the fanboy I was back then, there was much reason to rejoice. Then one day I thumbed through a friend’s magazine on the way to school and the monster reared its head. Dominating a two page spread, beautifully rendered before a cloudy purple sky, was the Mako Cannon. That would be the “Sister Ray” to any of you fans who prefer it, but back then the only thing I knew to call it was a massively big-ass gun; an obvious image of power and a Freudian field day in the making. And above the cannon, discretely written, was:
“Someone please get the guys who make cartridge games a cigarette and blindfold.”
I seethed in my bus seat. Square had only recently jumped ship with the Big N for Sony and here they were rubbing salt in the wound, flaunting how awesome it was to use compact discs like some … computer. They even threw a snotty little factoid into the corner: “If it were available on cartridge, it’d retail for $1,200.” I had no idea how they figured that out, but dreaded the fact I was going to hear it parroted from every new PlayStation fanboy in the halls.
All I wanted was 5 minutes with that game and I’d be able to point out every reason Final Fantasy VII couldn’t hold a candle to its predecessors and expose that ad for the overcompensating piece of propaganda it was. I eventually got those 5 minutes, then tacked on about 60 hours “just to make sure.” The ad won. Sony and Square knew they had something special and chose – wisely, in retrospect – to not only trumpet the greatness of their product but hammer what its rival lacked.
Nintendo was a frequent target of the competition; not necessarily because it was easy to pick on, but because it was the established success in the industry. As a household name, it served as a longtime standard on which up-and-coming companies could express their differences and mold themselves as a superior alternative.
Since the Genesis (known elsewhere as the Mega Drive) came onto the North American scene at a time when Nintendo was still pushing the original NES, Sega saw the strategic advantage of its position and slammed Nintendo with all the subtlety of a spiky blue cudgel. It didn’t intend for the Genesis to simply be a better Nintendo, but an entirely different choice that would separate the “cool” from the “uncool.”
Sega confronted its rival directly with its “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” campaign. The fact that the mantra was grammatically dead on arrival meant little in light of an awesomely rad synth rock jingle, accompanied by a voice sounding like Barry White on steroids, and a chorus of games endorsed by sports legends from the day including Joe Montana and Buster Douglas.
Led by its slogan, Sega’s full court public relations press forged what may just be the most successful schism ever among a game-playing audience. It didn’t just make a name for itself; it formed a real-life clique. Were you going to move up to the slick newcomer – the choice of global superstars like Michael Jackson (at the time) – or were you going to remain wallowing in the primordial ooze with an old, washed-up plumber? Sega wouldn’t play nice with those who refused to defect, either. Television spots for the Game Gear portrayed Game Boy users as little more than half-minded, backwoods mancreatures. A Game Boy-playing family also likes to sit around their bug zapper in transfixed joy as they dine on “pickled pork lips.” A fat, slack-jawed kid on a park bench smacks himself in the head with a dead squirrel so he can simulate the colors of a Game Gear on his monochromatic screen. As bizarre as it may sound now, these were ideas that came out of a paid person’s mind in the ’90s to define a culture.
The division between Nintendo and Sega and how each represented “cool” was so stressed that it had actual societal implications; if you were new in certain circles and asked which you liked better, you might just hesitate in your response for fear of the implications. Those were pretty powerful stigma for what boils down to simple entertainment. In comparison, the most self-conscious display that exists in today’s console environment may be someone admitting they have a Wii, then qualifying it by adding, “but it’s collecting dust.”
There was a certain finesse to issuing a rallying cry and being “extreme” wouldn’t always cut it. When Sony leapt into the fray with the debut of the PlayStation, some of its methods were as unorthodox as Sega’s but arguably fell flat over time. Sony’s ad gurus wanted to prove their edginess by having interim mascot Crash Bandicoot drive right up to Nintendo’s headquarters for a verbal smackdown; the only problem being Crash Bandicoot is a fictional character, and CGI wasn’t good enough at the time to produce a convincing replica. Instead, they stuffed some poor schlub in a Crash suit and made him deliver the lines.
“Hey, plumber boy … mustache man …” he crooned into a megaphone, weakly channeling Jack Nicholson. “Your worst nightmare has arrived.”
I would look up the man’s name were I not relatively assured he doesn’t want to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the mists of obscurity. And although the commercial wished to instill the notion that Mario’s days were numbered, Crash Bandicoot’s popularity would end up not having the legs of other mascots. Luckily for Sony, it had elsewhere to turn.
The right approach was just as, if not more, essential than facts or game footage at the pinnacle of the ad wars. Fans had to relate effectively not only to the games, but the image of themselves as players of them. Unfortunately, a mildly disturbed man in a bandicoot suit had … let’s say “limited group appeal.” The Atari Lynx also seemed to suffer from a problem connecting with a large group of followers. It owned color games before the Game Gear ever came out, and a print ad with the message “Lynx Kicks Their Buts” read more like a mini manifesto, offering six reasons Atari’s handheld was better than both the Game Boy and Game Gear. The “cool factor,” however, just wasn’t there, and a proselyte Atarian could probably never get through two of his talking points before having to recite the rest from inside a locker.
The identities of players as embellished in retro ads are no longer as prominent today and especially not as confrontational across systems. Blame a new age. Sega and Square (now with life partner Enix) are friends with Nintendo after all their squabbles. Today’s target audiences are broader, more mature, and – most importantly – often able to afford multiple systems.
There were more unique and integral features to tout then – the Super FX chip, “blast processing,” the switch to CDs – but today’s consoles are quite similar, sculpting themselves almost simultaneously to pick up similar audiences. There is still “attitude,” but the argumentative portion of the system wars seems delegated more to spokespeople; comments made by the Reggies and Kutaragis of the industry are dissected in the online forums where stubborn system warriors now reside. The sass in ads now belongs to the “Kevin Butlers,” who don’t need to talk smack about anyone, but just relish in everything their own system has to offer and let people across the board enjoy it.
Is there nothing out there innovative or provocative enough to rile the main companies into attack mode like the good old days; nothing with its own threatening style and desire for market domination?
PSP spokeskid Marcus berates an awkward iPhone user with a cry of “$9.99, sucka!” and something within an old system warrior stirs. Maybe the big guns haven’t been put away just yet.
Tim Latshaw wishes to apologize to the Crash Bandicoot guy, who is more than likely living a perfectly stable life with a wife and children and can now sleep for multiple nights without bolting upright in a fit of uncontrollable screaming.