The Nintendo Ads You’ve Never Seen
If you follow Nintendo of America on YouTube, the lineup above will look familiar to you.
On the Japanese side however, things are a bit different. At the time of writing, there are a total of 6 trailers for Super Mario Bros. Wonder (released on October 20) which you will likely not have seen. 3 of them showcase specific gameplay features, and the remaining 3 are — well, let’s call them live action trailers. And it’s the latter ones that we will have a closer look at in this article, and see what makes them unique.
Let’s get into it (I recommend watching the trailers after reading the respective section, though it’s not a must to follow the article— links beneath the images):
Super Mario Bros. Wonder | Starting Out
Warm sunlight, a light breeze — the ad opens with a young woman gazing out of an open window, a lively schoolyard resounding from afar. Leisurely turning away from the window, she says to herself 小学生以来かもしれない (shougakusei irai kamo shirenai) — “it might be the first time since I was in elementary”. The trailer then follows her playing Super Mario Bros. Wonder, getting to grips with its mechanics while narrating in a stream of consciousness style.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder | Playing Alone
The second trailer is a direct continuation of the first one. In the beginning, she even wears the same outfit. In this trailer, our protagonist has graduated from trying out the newest entry to the Mario series, to actively playing it. Whereas she showed tentative intrigue the first time around, she’s now fully invested, which we can discern by her reacting with more emotion to challenges and new gameplay elements that the game presents her with.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder | Playing Together
It’s the third trailer and this time our protagonist is inviting guests to join her at home for a multiplayer session of coordinated chaos. We see more energy, cheering, and joyful laughter as the cast shows off the game’s multiplayer mechanics and experience while trying their best to collaborate in order to reach the goal pole.
As with any advertisement or trailer, there’s a lot of thought going into the narrative structure, the visual design, background music and overall mood, as well as deciding which subconscious message needs to be conveyed to the viewers.
And while I don’t have Nintendo’s marketing strategy on my desk (sadly), here’s what I think makes these ads work so well:
- Accessibility: Nintendo games often being considered nostalgic is closely connected to people having played them in their youth, for example on the NES or Nintendo DS, but then they graduated, life got in the way, they never bought a new console, and 10 years later, they think back fondly of the time they spent playing games. In marketing, this group of people (Nintendo kids or not) is often referred to as Lapsed Gamers, and they are a highly attractive group of potential customers. Why? Because they are already familiar with gaming, thus possessing a degree of brand awareness, and the time that has passed between their time as gamers and today also means that they are likely an adult with a job and sizable amount of disposable income. Leaving the marketing talk aside, being shown that a game is easy to grasp no matter your skill level significantly lowers the barrier to giving it a try.
- Relatability: Although the ads are clearly scripted, they pick up on many situations anyone who has ever played a Mario game will know — “how the hell do I get on that platform?”, missing a jump that was *clearly* perfect, or even imitating the iconic Yoshi sound. It triggers memories of all the good moments you had with previous titles (insert Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV screen here) and, at the same time, gives you a little dopamine boost seeing others enjoy the same thing.
- How to enjoy: Playing games in Japanese, you will often come across the term 遊び方 (asobikata), essentially meaning “how to play”, as in a set of instructions. The verb 遊ぶ (asobu), however, cannot only be translated as “to play”, but also as “to enjoy (oneself)”, and for me that rings equally true when watching those trailers. Not only do they present what the game holds in store in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of fun times you can create for yourself or together with friends & family. And that’s a vital part of the experience — playing Mario Kart 8 alone is mildly entertaining, but playing it together with friends elevates the experience to another level. That’s also why this collaboration with Kansai based boy band 関ジャニ∞ (Kanjani Eight) exists.
- Storytelling: Even without a backstory, introduction or even a name, this 3 part series manages to conjure up a vague storyline for people to interpret it in whichever way is easiest for them to identify with. In a way, it’s a natural progression from a player testing out the waters, finding joy in playing the game, and then, because they had lots of fun with it, sharing it with friends or family. All the while, storytelling stays completely situational without any “in your face” exposition.
- Iyashi: Environments depicted in Nintendo’s ads are more perfect than reality — the apartment is clean and orderly, lighting is somewhat cinematic, and color grading evens out the rest. But the Japanese trailers take it a step further. They evoke a sense of 癒し (iyashi), soothing/calming, which can refer to physical and mental tiredness being alleviated. Interactions are generally toned-down and mellow, but never lacking emotion. Having watched a number of Nintendo of America’s ads for comparison, I found that none of them had a similar vibe. The US ads were by far more energetic, situations often joyfully competitive, and the overall focus on showing a bandwidth of people and their lives rather than following one person around. This particular sense of calm is so majorly appreciated in Japan that it gave rise to the concepts 癒し系男子 (iyashikei danshi) and 癒し系女子 (iyashikei joshi), referring to men and women respectively who exude a comforting aura making you feel warm and fuzzy when you’re around them.
Now that analyzed the array of elements that make Nintendo’s Japanese trailers unique, there is one more trailer I’d like to share since it illustrates the audience fit even better. Although it is titled as a seasonal ad for Nintendo Switch, content-wise it is all about Pikmin 4 & Pikmin Bloom.
Nintendo Switch | 2023 Summer Commercial 2
A woman at work, visibly tired and strained. She receives a message from a friend asking if she will take the bullet train home, but she answers that no, actually today she’s got time so she’ll take it slow. We accompany her on a train ride through the Japanese countryside that she spends playing Pikmin 4 and enjoying the summer landscape passing by. She waits between changing trains playing Pikmin Bloom on her smartphone, and then continues her travels across tunnel and coastline tracks. Arriving in the afternoon sun, cicadas buzzing in the background, she gets caught by a shower and takes refuge at a small shop where she gets some Ramune and is reminded by a wind chime to look up and enjoy the moment. As she runs up to (probably) her parents’ house, she announces ただいま (tadaima) — “I’m home!”. Then, in the last scene, we see her and her friend attending a public firework display where she shares AR pictures of the Pikmin accompanying her throughout the journey.
This commercial is the embodiment of the idyllic, romanticised summer holiday out in the Japanese countryside, a theme so popular that there’s even a game series named after it: ぼくのなつやすみ (Boku no Natsuyasumi, translating to My Summer Vacation). And although many countries have their own versions of this escapist ideal, the ad wouldn’t work if all you did was change the language — every frame makes it obvious that it was made with a Japanese audience in mind.
So, where does that leave us? In the video game industry, you will find a widespread awareness that if you plan on reaching people from all over the world and want them to enjoy your games, it is not enough to simply translate them. Out with translation, in with localization. Some go even further and speak of culturalization. For advertisements however–where possible–I think it worthwhile to go all the way and create content for specific target markets from scratch. Because while the Pikmin series is endemic to Japan and features lots of Japanese and Nintendo-specific items such as consoles or Hanafuda playing cards, that’s not at all what is highlighted in the gameplay shown. And if it was, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
Instead, what makes this and other Japanese Nintendo ads such a great fit is that they understand the culture’s sensibilities, aspirations, and shared themes, and paint the games as a part thereof. And that is exactly why they are a masterclass in advertisement design in my book.