The best video game commercials and TV ad campaigns of all-time
Part of the marketing push for video games, especially the ones from bigger publishers, includes the occasional television commercial. Commercials for games still air fairly often, especially from the big three console makers, but marketing has shifted focus more to the internet, social media, and YouTube. In the old days, commercials were one of the primary ways in which players would get their first look at a game. That means those commercials had to be good. They needed to make a lasting impression. They needed to make people say, “Shut up and take my money!”
As is the case with many conversations among the Shacknews staff, somebody randomly raised the topic of all-time great video game commercials. That’s led to this list of some of the most memorable gaming commercials ever made. These ads range from the genius to the bizarre. There’s even a little bit of cringe in there, but cringe in a fun way! Let’s travel back in time and remember these classic commercials.
This feature is going up two weeks after the release of the new Mortal Kombat movie in theaters and HBO Max. That’s why we’re going back to the days when the fighting game series first started. When the first Mortal Kombat game released, kids were enraptured. It was a fighting game unlike anything seen at the time. Fresh off its run in the arcades, it was time for Mortal Kombat’s home release and nothing commemorated the occasion quite like this commercial.
As our own David Craddock will tell you, a lot of kids would yell “Mortal Kombat!” during recess. This game was serious business, whether it was solo players trying to take down Goro or two friends challenging each other to the death. The Fatalities in the first MK are positively primitive compared to what’s in the series today, but they were cutting edge at the time and were a big part of what led to the Mortal Kombat craze.
Mortal Kombat may have moved on to a more exciting era, but this commercial is still good for an adrenaline rush.
So happy together! (Super Smash Bros.)
Super Smash Bros. has grown into something larger-than-life. We will never see anything like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate again. The mascot fighter has become so massive that it’s easy to forget about its humble beginnings.
What better way to sell the concept of a Nintendo mascot fighting game than to have people in giant suits get in an all-out melee? (Wait, no, Melee came after this.) Get in an all-out brawl? (No, Brawl was later.) Get in an all-out brouhaha? That’s what this classic commercial did, putting forward the idea of a mascot fight by having literal mascots fight.
It was an unorthodox approach, to say the least. They could have gone in the direction of the aforementioned Mortal Kombat commercial and put prospective players into a frenzy. Instead, this commercial went for laughs and it worked. Even with the humorous central premise, it still generated a lot of excitement.
This was the first of a series of commercials done with help from KCL Productions, who would go on to do ads for several future Mario games, all the way up to the end of the GameCube era. We even spoke with them about the old Super Mario Sunshine commercial.
Sega does what Nintendon’t (Sega Genesis)
Sega has had a rich history of commercials and we’re actually going to go through a handful of them. The first one was for the Sega Genesis, which faced an uphill battle against the giants at Nintendo. The Big N had launched the Super Nintendo, which featured instant classic games like Super Mario World, F-Zero, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Castlevania IV, and many more. Sega saw that and still swung at the king with this series of ads, which got across what remains Sega’s most memorable marketing catchphrase. In many ways, Sega did indeed do what Nintendidn’t.
The ads were such a hit that Sega even brought it back for the 2019 release of the Sega Genesis Mini and the Genesis’ 30th anniversary.
If you want a good idea of what Sega brought to the dance, check out the fourth episode of High Score on Netflix. If you want a catchy jingle, check out that Genesis commercial.
You must play Sega Saturn! (Sega Saturn)
A few years later, over in Japan, Sega had a much wilder approach to its TV commercials. These commercials didn’t ask viewers to play Sega Saturn, it demanded they play Sega Saturn. Specifically, a fictional martial artist named Segata Sanshiro would demand that anyone within shouting distance play Sega Saturn. Portrayed by actor Hiroshi Fujioka, Segata Sanshiro would kick people’s butts and leave them in a heap.
Heck, he would sometimes beat people up unprovoked! Look at that commercial of him beating up some kids who just want to go play some baseball! Or look at him in a dance club, just randomly assaulting patrons for no reason! His primary purpose was to make people play Sega Saturn. He didn’t care if he threw a guy and made him explode, like something out of an episode of Power Rangers. He didn’t care if he disguised himself as Santa Claus and terrorized children into playing Saturn! (What did he do to the real Santa Claus, anyway?) Segata Sanshiro was no joke. He took his job as Sega Saturn spokesman very seriously.
Sadly, Segata Sanshiro wouldn’t last beyond the Saturn days. In fact, he even died in the final commercial. He went out in a total (and literal) blaze of glory, but he died, nonetheless. However, Segata Sanshiro would live on in everyone’s hearts. Sega would eventually bring him back for one final ride to celebrate the Saturn’s 25th anniversary. He’s also made cameos in games like Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and Project X Zone 2.
— Its ya boy Patrick Miller aka Hat Trick Killer aka (@pattheflip) March 20, 2020
Today, his son, Sega Shiro has taken up his father’s mantle, in more ways than one. Shiro is not only the son of Segata Sanshiro, he’s also played by Fujioka’s actual son, Maito Fujioka.
The future of Sega is in good hands.
What do you suppose it’s thinking about? (Sega Dreamcast)
Sega’s console run would end with 1999’s Sega Dreamcast. It’s an unforgettable piece of hard, one we’ve celebrated more than once here at Shacknews. A powerful console like the Dreamcast needed some strong commercials to compete with the Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation. Fortunately, Sega came up with a new campaign, in which viewers would be told, “It’s thinking.”
This was an ad campaign that showed the Dreamcast as a console housing an entire gaming universe. It was a universe that included the cast of Sonic, the brawlers of Virtua Fighter, and even digitized versions of NBA players. They’d come together for nearly every single individual game ad during the Dreamcast’s first year. For example, check out digital Seattle Supersonics legend Gary Payton helping push Sonic Adventure while, in a later ad, Virtua Fighter 3’s Taka-Arashi gives Philadelphia 76ers legend Allen Iverson some tips on how to box out in an effort to sell NBA 2K.
The campaign was a cool idea, one that made the Dreamcast feel like an interconnected universe, nearly a full decade before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was ever a thing. The “It’s Thinking” commercials helped the Dreamcast get off to a good start… even if Sega’s final console ultimately didn’t have a great finish.
Plumber Boy, your time has come (Crash Bandicoot)
Sega is remembered as Nintendo’s first major competitor. Its second one would be Sony, who debuted the PlayStation in 1995. Shortly after the console’s release, Sony would create a mascot that it hoped would rival Mario. To show this new character off, Sony put together a series of commercials that would go straight for Nintendo.
A man in a giant Crash Bandicoot suit would drive a pickup truck to Nintendo headquarters to reveal a new 3D platformer, one of the first of its kind. In the long run, Crash Bandicoot didn’t end up being quite as good as Super Mario 64, but the commercial was an unforgettable one, which established Sony’s new central character and showed that PlayStation wasn’t going anywhere.
Sony would eventually stop using Crash, leaving the franchise dormant until its rights were picked up by Activision. Crash is in the midst of a comeback in 2021, but this commercial brings players back to a simpler time when Crash aimed for the moon by going straight for Mario.
Kevin Butler, VP of PlayStation Commercials (PlayStation 3)
More than a decade after the PlayStation’s debut, Sony was moving on to the PlayStation 3. Following up on the PlayStation 2’s success was a big challenge. They needed an affable face for their new console. That face was Kevin Butler, a fictional corporate executive played by actor Jerry Lambert.
Butler would have a different job title for each ad, but the idea was always the same. His job would be to sell players on the PS3 and its various games. It’s hard to single out a single Kevin Butler commercial, but to this day, “Son of a… MAG!” is always good for a laugh.
Because we couldn’t single out the best Kevin Butler ad, here’s a collection of all of them. Watching them all, it’s hard not to consider this the single best commercial campaign of all-time.
Sadly, the Kevin Butler story did not have a happy ending. Sony and Lambert not only parted ways, but Sony wound up suing Lambert after a very similar character showed up in a Bridgestone Tires commercial… with a Wii… and a copy of Mario Kart Wii. Sony and Lambert would ultimately settle their suit and while Lambert has not played the Kevin Butler character since, he’s still active in Hollywood, showing up in sitcoms like ABC’s American Housewife.
Wii Would Like to Play (Nintendo Wii)
Following its first four consoles, Nintendo had a bold vision for what came next. The Wii would introduce motion controls, an unconventional way to play games back in the mid-2000s. The company had a tough road ahead to convince their customer base to forget everything they had learned in the previous 20 years. How would they even begin to do this?
The answer was by having well-dressed Japanese gentlemen drive around in a Beetle and go door-to-door, bowing before the residents, and saying “Wii would like to play.”
The ensuing ad was such a wholesome display of families taking this wacky idea for how to play video games and having fun with it. Showing off games like Wii Sports, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and WarioWare: Smooth Moves being controlled with the Wii Remote. Whatever people’s feelings on the Wii were after 15 years of hindsight, this commercial was a winner and some of Nintendo’s best work. It was so simple, yet it communicated the idea brilliantly and made the viewer at least want to give it a try.
The Commercials of Zelda (The Legend of Zelda series)
Today, the Legend of Zelda sells itself. Back in the day, Nintendo tried to sell it in… interesting ways. After the first two games on the NES cemented The Legend of Zelda as a cornerstone franchise, it was time to bring Link to some new platforms. First, let’s take a look at the Game Boy’s Link’s Awakening, which took Link onto a strange island shrouded in mystery. Nintendo tried to sell this game with a rap! It wasn’t just a rap, though. It was 90s rap!
For the Super Nintendo, the United States got a standard commercial taking players through A Link to the Past’s various biomes. There was no rap, though. Over in Japan, however, Nintendo put out a commercial featuring a full-fledged dance number. If the Link’s Awakening commercial felt like pure 90s, this felt like total 80s. Look at this!
Let’s end this feature on something aimed straight at the heart. Many of the commercials featured today came in an era before YouTube and social media truly took off. However, we’re wrapping up on this ad from 2011, which looked to sell (well, re-sell) players on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was getting a re-release on the Nintendo 3DS. The premise was that the late, great Robin Williams was reflecting on his memories with The Legend of Zelda and what it meant to save Hyrule and save the princess. The commercial then cuts to his daughter, who stops to make sure her dad is talking about her and not the game. It gets confusing because his daughter is named Zelda, after the princess of legend.
The simplistic premise, the cuts to the game, and the eventual reveal of Robin and Zelda is masterful. It hits much harder ten years after it first aired, knowing the tragic circumstances behind Robin Williams’ passing. Even with that in mind, Nintendo drove its point home. Nintendo isn’t just for families, it builds families. For many who grew up in the 8-bit days, they can see themselves in Robin Williams and can still pick up a game like The Legend of Zelda and either enjoy it alone or with the family they’ve come to build since.
Those are our picks for the best video game commercials of all-time, but we sense that you’re going to differ on some of these picks. You are encouraged to join the conversation and give us your picks for the greatest video game commercials ever made.