Feature: Retro Console Launches - NES

Sharing the power

In recent weeks we’ve written about console launches such as Wii, 3DS and GameCube. This is all because we’re currently gearing up for the Wii U launch later this year, and E3 promises to build hype and excitement to astronomical levels. In the coming months most of us will learn all about Wii U online with various websites writing or reproducing daily news articles, sharing every developer comment, teaser and revelation. It’s part of what we do on this site, trawling the web and our own sources for information and news, every day, and writing our take on it for you to read.

For Wii U, a lot of its publicity and reputation will live or die by the internet, but as the launch gets closer we’ll no doubt see TV adverts and conventional marketing enter the fray. The point is that for enthusiastic gamers, the internet will reveal almost everything they need to know before they pick up their new console: there’s a huge amount of information to be found. Of course, before internet the gaming scene, and its community, was very different. Today we’re going to look at the Nintendo Entertainment System, specifically, and share with you a few examples of how keen gamers learned about an exciting new console back in the mid-late 1980s.

Playing with power

It’s easy to underestimate the challenge that Nintendo faced when launching the Nintendo Entertainment System outside of Japan back in 1986 (though there were trial regional launches in late 1985), as video games had become undesirable to a number of consumers. The infamous video game crash of the early 1980s had eroded confidence in video game companies and systems: there had been too many consoles, too many variations of standard titles, and an overall lack of quality. When deciding to publish NES itself in North America, Nintendo had to do so against this backdrop.

Internet marketing and hype wasn’t an option, so substantial magazine and TV presence was in its place, as well as a rebranding of gaming as a whole. Games became ‘Game Paks’, the console itself was called a ‘Control Deck’, and that was alongside the branding of the ‘Entertainment System’, of course. Below is a launch trailer for NES in North America, which emphasized the system as the birth of something new and revolutionary, featuring R.O.B. prominently.

Unlike modern-day TV campaigns — such as 3DS adverts — that target multiple audiences with a variety of themes, it’s clear that Nintendo was targeting a specific demographic: boys and, maybe, young men. As well as information, previews and so on being housed almost exclusively in the magazines of the day, the TV adverts had very specific consumers in mind. There are two more below for you from early in the system’s lifespan: the first has the famous ‘playing with power’ slogan with a teenage boy playing the system, while the second seems to take off the movie Aliens: classic young man cool for the time.

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Times were very different: video games weren’t part of an industry recognisable to a mainstream audience, which has much to do with the effect of DS and Wii and, most recently, smartphone and tablet games. Adverts at that time were all about cool, trendy imagery that emphasised action and power. Magazine adverts followed similar tactics, often appearing in specialist gaming magazines, speaking directly to an audience waiting to be converted to the Nintendo cause.

So that’s an insight into what gamers in the 1980s saw of NES, and some of the early marketing that made it a major success; in terms of TV commercials we're only touching the surface, with a lot of different campaigns being ever-present when NES was unleashed on the world. Despite this the console didn't take off in Europe in the early days, which may surprise some, but the launch in this region was more fragmented than in North America. That said, much of the UK advertising was similar, and we’ve included a broad range of magazine scans for the period below this article. A couple are from a bit later than the launch, but are fun to see in any case: just click on each one to see a larger image.

As we prepare for the bombardment of E3 coverage here on Nintendo Life, it’s interesting to look back at how Nintendo spread its message in the old days. On that theme keep an eye out for our SNES and N64 retro console launch features in the coming days — interspersed with a lot of E3 coverage — looking at how the battles with Sega and competitors got more confrontational, along with more awesome retro adverts and magazine scans, of course.

Special thanks to Damien McFerran and Jamie O’Neill for the magazine scans and assistance.

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