Television commercials may not seem that fundamental to game sales or pushing a product these days, but it’s easy to forget that before this Internet dominant, marketplace-heavy time, conventional TV advertisements were largely responsible telling the public about a new title. It’s true that some commercials are beautiful examples of art mixed with a game’s sensibility to get you excited for a release (the David Fincher directed ad for Gears of War certainly comes to mind), but for all the ads that work, there are just as many—if not more—that are curious, bizarre experiments that leave the audience scratching their heads. Here are some of the most puzzling, weird video game commercials that we’ve come across so far.
15. Ice Hockey
Certainly one of the tamer commercials on the list, albeit still on the weirder spectrum of things when considering the simpler time of 1981 and the humble system of the Atari 2600 that it was released for. There’s not a whole lot to this commercial other than a man getting unreasonably amped up to purchase Ice Hockey. The most memorable thing about the ad is that it features a burgeoning Phil Hartman as the customer, and seeing him let loose (and he goes for it) is infinitely more entertaining than if this were just some random actor. The biggest appeal of the ad is seeing such an unhinged, chaotic approach for the restrained system. It was operating differently than the rest of the game ads at the time, and the public surely noticed. It’s even an unlockable on the PS2 game, Activision Anthology!
14. Mortal Kombat 3
Does anyone else think that this thing started off as a commercial for an Alien video game? Seriously. This thing is a mess from top to bottom in what appears to be some attempt at deeper meaning and symbolism, perhaps clutching onto the topic of “video game violence” as some sort of totem. There are a bunch of general shots of disaster and emergency to kick off the ad, followed by a boy being rushed into the emergency room, presumably after playing Mortal Kombat 3. It’s a little hard to tell because the ad almost features no footage from the game, deciding that time would be better spent confusing the audience.
13. The Legend of Zelda
If gaming stereotypes were different races, then this commercial would be one of the worst offenders of hate crimes. Here we see video games broken down into their gleeful extremes, a geek and a tough kid, who can manage to get past their differences while enjoying a game of The Legend of Zelda together. If the art design and look of these kids wasn’t enough of a nostalgia overload, the random rapping that they break into over Link and Princess Zelda will seal the deal. It’s like aliens from another planet had only seen stereotypes of us and decided to make an ad in our image accordingly.
12. Donkey Kong 64
Points to this ad for actually trying to tell a story and having some scope to it all. The result is a very production-heavy attempt at bringing Donkey Kong and his friends into the real world. We’re treated to a number of bizarre set pieces showing us destruction throughout the city with things like dozens of banana peels acting as the only evidence. The whole thing feels wonderfully ‘90s, while vibrant colors, rampant sound effects, and even a sketch artist’s rendition of Donkey Kong are tossed (literally) at you.
11. Super Smash Bros.
In what’s actually one of the more focused commercials on the list here, we’re given a pretty reasonable distillation of what the Smash Bros. series has come to represent: cute mascots and all-out carnage. So it makes sense to see people in a Mario, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, and Pikachu costume peacefully traipsing about to the music of “The Turtles” before they all start wailing on one another. It might make sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the weirder, more memorable video game commercials to come along.
10. Crash Bandicoot
The PlayStation’s Crash Bandicoot series had quite the robust marketing team. They created a number of memorable ads for their series, trying to turn the mascot in the commercials into as much of a mascot for the series as the protagonist himself. Most of the Crash ads are unusual sights to behold and the beginning of Sony’s more unconventional marketing strategies. This ad stands out though for its ambitious attitude; it actually goes to the Nintendo headquarters for the location of the shoot. We see a belligerent Crash Bandicoot shouting and heckling Mario through a megaphone until security unceremoniously drags him away. Truly a moment of “did that just happen?”
9. PlayStation 3
Sony went to some pretty big heights for the commercials surrounding the releases of not only the PlayStation 3, but the PlayStation 2 as well. Console releases are momentous events, so it makes sense that Sony would pair up some of the most mind-bending, unusual ads with their releases. In a display that would make David Lynch proud, we see a bizarrely creepy encounter between a PS3 and a baby doll. This alone would be weird enough, but then the PS3 begins to gain sentience and a very Monolith from 2001 approach as the baby doll not only comes to life, but cries and reverse-cries. Hype effectively built yet? With the drop of a console you want the product to stay in the public’s mind, and there’s no risk of this ad leaving their brains any time soon.
8. Killer Instinct
“Same BLEEPING graphics…Same BLEEPING moves. Just like the arcade.”
“BLEEP the arcade, man!”
In a commercial that’s just drenched in the ‘90s, this almost feels like something the parents of gamers’ would make as a means of showing you that they’re cool too. Don’t you wanna play video games with mom and dad? The whole idea here is that Killer Instinct is such a violent adult game, so obviously adult language and swearing should go hand-in-hand with it. The ad is essentially a bunch of kids marveling at the title while a lot of bleeped out cursing goes down. It’s a pretty cringe-worthy ad that feels deeply silly, even if at one point we did all get excited for “Sixteen bits. Sixteen BLEEPING bits!”
7. Earthworm Jim
Earthworm Jim is a crazy enough title that you would expect it’s commercial to be reasonably weird. I doubt anyone had this approach in mind though. Here we’re treated to a delightfully colorful and saturated palette (oh, the ‘90s…) while an elderly woman regales us of the story of Earthworm Jim. Oh, and she’s also eating a bowl of earthworms while she does it, which is maybe also turning her into the devil? Hard to say, but one thing’s for sure, grannies being rude is consistently hilarious, right? Right?
6. Sega CD
“You still don’t have a Sega CD? What are you waiting for, Nintendo to make one?”
Honestly, the ad could have probably just been that and it’d still have made the cut. There’s something to be said for a commercial that’s just so in-your-face boastful to the competitor. What’s even better is the lackluster gaming the ad throws at you afterwards as its means of support. It’s just an embarrassing, dated product all around (did you catch the single earring and leather gloves on the angry guy inside of the TV?) that still manages to turn up the crazy at the end. It looks like the kid’s spent a little too much time with the Joker, not the Sega CD.
5. Jam Sessions
You may not be as familiar with this commercial, what with it having aired overseas in Australia, but it’s innocuous nature makes it stand out all the more. Basically the as is just an excuse to see a cute child be a complete asshole to his parents, while slapping away a birthday cake and destroying them verbally. It’s a clever premise–in spite of it being one of the simpler ones—playing Jam Sessions will turn you into an instant rock star, personality and all. It’s direct nature doesn’t take away from the surprise of it all though, and until it reveals itself, it manages to be a very engrossing commercial.
4. Resident Evil 4
If there’s one thing to be said here, it’s that the French know how to make a hell of a video game commercial. Even with Resident Evil being a beyond astronomical franchise Stateside, we’ve ended up getting fairly to the point with normal ads for the series. So leave it to the French to deliver this whopper of a gut punch. The commercial first enthralls and titillates you by presenting you with a well-figured naked woman in the middle of breastfeeding. The viewer is shown copious close-ups of the baby feeding (and the mother’s breast by proxy) and just when you begin to comfortable—BAM—it gets you! Bet you’ll never be eager for a breastfeeding mother to make eye contact with you ever again…
3. Pole Position
This is just pure craziness, isn’t it? I mean, that Ice Hockey ad is bizarre, but looking at this one as a counterpoint from the same era, Phil Hartman or not, this is kind of the apex of what was possible then. In what acts as a nice synthesis of elements from other commercials here, we see geek stereotypes, cheesy music, and terrible effects, as the family is virtually placed into the Pole Position game. The ad is so energized and surreal that it’s surprising such a thing was made back then, and that such a silly ad could have connected with the older Atari players.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Majora’s Mask is one of the more atypical titles in the Zelda series, so it’s appropriate that the game would have some jarring commercials to match. I’m deeply impressed with what Nintendo churned out for the US Majora’s Mask ads. They feel like short films directed by some on-the-cusp indie director. The ads are placed inside of the ticking-clock world of Majora’s Mask, where only 72 hours remain until the end of the world. The handheld, cinema verite style just watches people during the end of the world, with a very somber, elegiac tone to it all. You almost wouldn’t know it was for a Zelda game if not for the game footage. This is the sort of thing that could bum out a young gamer instead of getting them excited to rush out and buy the game, so kudos for that.
It’s worth mentioning that Majora’s Mask is such a weirdness lightning rod that even the Japanese commercials committed to an odd, totally different aesthetic. When the plot of your game involves an angry moon careening into the world though, sometimes a bizarre ad can be as simple as showing that.
1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Granted, there’s a good helping of Zelda on this list, but each of these commercials have been weird in totally different ways. And really, can you deny that this isn’t the crowning achievement of weirdo video game commercials? Look at this thing, even if it doesn’t matter that you can’t understand what’s going on. Essentially we’re treated to a live-action mini-movie of Zelda with a surprisingly decent budget. Ensemble dance moves and rapping are constant alongside other precious Zelda iconography, such as witches and Ganon. This thing is a triumph on every level, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Seriously, if I saw this commercial blind, I’d go out and buy the game it was advertising immediately, even if I knew nothing at all about it. Sometimes something can be so ridiculous it begs you to know more, and this is exactly the case here.
So while we might have slowed down lately when it comes to the tacky eyesores of video game ads, it doesn’t hurt to keep hope alive that another bewildering mess will make it our way. So many companies like Nintendo have taken to a unified marketing approach (was anyone re-blogging those “Wii would like to play” ads? Didn’t think so) for their titles or consoles that the opportunity for random weirdness isn’t as large as it once was. That being said, more than ever we’ve been embracing nostalgia and returning to old ideas. Not to mention that our capacity for the bizarre has only grown, and games themselves are slowly getting ever more ambitious and twisted. It might take some time, but when the right game and the right mind come together, we’ll get back to the nonsense of dancing elves. I promise you.