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Nintendo's First Strike - Guns, Robots, and the Psychic Puppy
Matt - 1/11/01

When Nintendo first came out, the public was absolutely floored. Retrospectively, the system doesn't seem like much, but back in an era when the only viable alternatives were Atari's often-hideous graphics and gameplay or going to one of the few arcades still around, it seemed like some higher power finally listened to the cries of the many gamers and created what would then be called the 'ultimate' video game experience.

Regardless of today's technology, I'd still call it that. I've touched on this before, but Nintendo really gave kids some awesome common ground. It didn't matter what kind of kid you were, what you were otherwise interested in...everyone could talk about Nintendo. Being young was great. It was so much more fun to bullshit about Mario and Game Genie codes than when you get older and have to feign interest in politics and the latest news to hold that icebreaking conversation. Back then, it was so much simpler. You could spark a debate over whether or not there was any real jumping ability difference between Mario and Luigi, and you'd be set for hours.

Course, Nintendo cornered the market in new ways. They offered real peripherals. Now, personally, I've found almost every 'extra' peripheral offered for every game system I've had to be a big waste of money and time. First there was the Power Pad, which essentially made you defeat the purpose of being a lazy, couch layin' video gamin' slug. Then there was the Super Scope 6 for the Super Nintendo, one of the worst video game 'guns' ever made. The fact that getting it to work properly was impossible is almost insignificant to the fact that you had to straddle this thing on your shoulder and treat the television set as a foreign enemy. I just wanted to shoot at stuff, not practice guerrila warfare. But when Nintendo first came out, it also launched two extra peripherals. And seeing as how kids had the eternal personal battle to have more and better toys than their peers, they were pretty successful.

Obviously, your main wares included the system deck and the controller. The system deck would ultimately be as common in households as a television set, something that holds true virtually to this very day...almost everyone still has their old Nintendos. Since it was the market for so long, people had several years to amass a pretty impressive game collection. This is one of the reasons today's market is so different and competitive. With new systems coming out at rapid rates and gamers holding virtually all new entries with a 'must have' regard, you really only have a year or so to build a game collection before moving on to the next hot system. In other cases, people have 2-3 systems in their house at all times...another way to keep the amount of games per system down. But everyone seemed to have dozens of Nintendo games.

The first (and pretty ridiculous) extra was the R.O.B. Robot - your Nintendo companion from hell. I've never understood why people idealize this thing and remember it as being 'cool'. I could never figure out how to work the damn thing. I think it was supposed to move some plastic pieces in sequence with the Gyromite game, but we could never get it to work properly. But my opinion's worthless...all that matter is how Nintendo's awesome actor feels...

And as you can see, ROB's an unbridled success. Back then, nobody realized that the best way to sell the games was to, you know, promote the games. So instead of finding out exactly what we'd be in for when purchasing a new cart, we'd have to judge how good they were based on the level of fake smiles the actors put forth. If the kids played while standing up and bouncing, you knew you had a winner. Occassionally, the ad would feature the kid getting so involved with the game that he gets sucked, literally, into the television. Now those were the games to keep an eye out for. Here, we just get your standard crazy smile, so I guess the robot was nothing to freak out over.

Then again, that might've had something to do with the game itself. The ROB flagship title was indeed Gyromite, one of Nintendo's first titles and also one of the strangest. The fact that you didn't need the robot to play it didn't help, because I can't imagine many people choosing to play Gyromite unless they were assured some quality robot action. If you played without the robot, you got the distinct feeling that you were completely wasting your time. Your job was to diffuse dynamite bombs...endless dynamite bombs. Not exactly the kind of storyline that'd lend itself to cartoon spinoffs. The only redeeming quality was the fact that you got to crush Smick, some kind of alien lizardbird thing that liked eating turnips. If you used the blue pipes to your advantage, they'd even let you hear him squish.

The second, and far more popular peripheral, was the Nintendo Light Gun, which gave people with hard consciences the chance to shoot ducks without feeling bad in the legendary Duck Hunt. Its really amazing to think about how far games have come. If a producer tried to push a game that simply consisted of having the player kill ducks today, he'd be out of a job. Back then, this was a goldmine. You really didn't have much incentive to do well, since the only punishment for failure was having a dog giggle, point at, and mock you. I grew pretty tired with this game when I realized the dog couldn't be shot. Also not helping was the challenge factor, since you could just stand two inches from the tv and win every game the gun used with absolutely no effort. But remember, my opinion doesn't matter....only Nintendo Boy's...

Wow! Now that's what I'm talking about. No minor smiles this time...Nintendo Boy gives the Light Gun a full-fledged leap from the couch complete with the Clenched Fist of Joy. These Nintendo kids were the most easily amused bunch on the planet. The kid is literally falling out of his seat because his friend managed to kill a duck. Maybe Father Time is souring my memory, but while shooting those ducks wasn't without its own unique appeal, I don't remember having an epileptic fit over it. But hey, the scheme worked. Duck Hunt has got to be in the top 10 most owned games of all time - the cartridge is so universal that retro retailers often price the game at a quarter or less.

More classics - Super Mario Bros. and the shooter Hogan's Alley. If you were like me, playing Super Mario Bros. was an almost religious experience. Seeing this game at my friend's house for the first time is what originally made me up the ante on my eternal quest to get an Nintendo. Previously, I had just sporadically mentioned that my Atari sucked and that my friends had a better system, and thus were better people. This ploy wasn't really working on my parents, since I had just used the same method to get myself a Speak N' Spell. Once I saw that you could break bricks and that turtle shells would ricochet off of green pipes, I went back to the drawing board on my strategy. My feeling was that desperate times called for desperate measures, so I made my final attack: a deadly combination of incessant crying and unfounded claims that I had a fever. Thankfully, my parents felt that any amount of money was worth it to get me to shut up, and I still have my Nintendo to this very day.

Unfortunately, since its hard to spend more than three seconds summing up Hogan's Alley, this Nintendo ad chooses to use the rest of the 30-second spot by going absolutely out of its mind. Its a three step process, first starting with the family dog running off in fear. These dogs played a recurring role in video game commercials. Its a real mysterious phenomenon. I'd say 3 out of every 5 Nintendo commercials found a way to have a dog run out of the room. I don't know, maybe there was some fad in the mid-80s where the public believed in canine opinion over their own. Maybe the dog was an integral part of advertising. Point is, since all dogs have ESP, its probably not a good sign when one gets up and runs out of the room to find safety.

See, the kids know this is cause for worry. Dogs don't run out of perfectly friendly rounds of Duck Hunt for no reason - something must be up. The kids hear the house start to shake, and it becomes all too clear: they've royally pissed off the gods by getting excited over a game like Hogan's Alley. To avenge their displeasure, a fate worse than death awaits our heroic players.

Yes, the gods send the kid's house into outer space. I'm guessing Nintendo execs had no idea what they were supposed to promote. Think about it - someone actually had to write this all out. Someone, somewhere, thought that having the house uproot and fly into space was the perfect way to symbolize how great Nintendo was.

Regardless, it got the job done. And its not like having your house fly into space after a psychic premonition from the family dog is even the strangest way Nintendo chose to promote itself...

In other commercials, kids would invade alien spaceships and play with their video games. I guess video game advertising has come as far as the technology itself. Actually, this was pretty brilliant. People are geared to accept things they don't understand as truth, explaining most religions and the idea that the Wayans brothers make good awards show hosts. Those watching this would much rather believe that they had to buy an Nintendo then try to understand what the commercial actually meant.

...And besides, is there anyone on the planet who wouldn't want to emulate a kid as cool as that? He's almost as righteous as that James Dean who could flip the Yoo Hoo bottle caps right into the trash.

- Matt