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Before Nintendo Switch: Let’s remember how weird Nintendo’s ads used to be

Only one of them had Paul Rudd, though.


Nintendo’s first advertisement for the Nintendo Switch, its next console, is doing pretty well online, racking up more than 16.5 million views on YouTube since Thursday.

It has also clearly been designed for an international audience and showcases how the Switch — which can be connected to a TV or played on the go — works in a bunch of different settings. Everyone, from home-alone Zelda fans to Mario Kart-loving bros to professional eSports gamers, gets a nod.

If you have a few minutes, though, Nintendo’s old ads are arguably more interesting. In just a few short decades, the company’s marketing has undergone some dramatic changes.

(Before we get started: All of these are the earliest English-language ads for each console I could find. If you know of an earlier one, tweet at me.)

First up is the toy era. The company’s first consumer hardware, the barely remembered Game & Watch, got a partially-animated spot in 1983 showing kids that seemed really into knowing both the score and the time! Also, check that pronunciation: Neentendo.

Nintendo’s first TV-connected device, the Nintendo Entertainment System, is often associated with the first Super Mario Bros. game, but Mario gets nary a mention in this 1985 ad for the NES, which emphasizes the Robot Operating Buddy accessory:

And the first ad for the Game Boy, released in 1989, belongs right at home on Saturday morning TV, featuring the a delightfully dorky Predator-Robocop ripoff. Also, Tetris!

The tone of the ads underwent their first big swing starting with 1991’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I couldn’t nail down exactly which SNES ad was first, so check out both of these TV spots, one of which features a young Paul Rudd. Brace for some serious whiplash, though, because this is the start of the dark era.

Maybe those ads say more about the jaded attitudes of the ’90s, or about the mounting competition Nintendo was starting to face from arch-rival Sega, which aggressively advertised its consoles as the grown-up alternative to Nintendo’s. In any case, the next entry — and the dark era — is this 1995 spot for the Virtual Boy, and it is ... something.

Hoo. Amazing that the Virtual Boy was a colossal failure, huh? If you need a break after that one, I get it. Come on back whenever you’re ready.

Okay, welcome back! Clearly, the badness of that Virtual Boy ad reached the right folks in the marketing department, because for a few years, Nintendo steered into a school-kid era, emphasizing a gee-whiz escapism in these ads for the Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color from 1996 and 1998, respectively.

Golly, those were some amazing 3-D graphics, huh? Unfortunately, the N64 didn’t sell as well as Nintendo liked, so the debut ads of its next slew of devices went in yet another completely different direction. Starting with this Game Boy Advance ad, this was the weird era:

Hang in there. The debut ad for the Nintendo Gamecube, from 2001, was even weirder. Edgy!

And when it came time to announce the successor to the Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo DS, the company went full-on cryptic, though as this compilation video shows, it also pushed out some more conventional ads later in the product’s life cycle:

After the DS, however, Nintendo’s fortunes changed rapidly. The Wii famously became a runaway success and a comeback story for the ages. Likely helping it get there was a shift of focus to a new type of gamer — not just children and not just boys and men. This was the start of the family era:

Simultaneously, the company stopped trying to compete with its rivals on having the best graphics and began to push innovative hardware and software gimmicks instead, as seen in this ad for 2011’s Nintendo 3DS ...

... and this montage of features for the ill-fated Nintendo Wii U:

Viewed in this context, that viral Nintendo Switch video takes on a lot more meaning: The players shown in it are more diverse than ever, and the focus is on the human effect of the console’s gimmicks — more than the neatness of the gimmicks themselves.

The Switch ad still loses points for a very important reason, though: No Paul Rudd.

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