I think we can all agree that the internet spoils a lot of things—do not get me started on what it did to professional wrestling—but I was recently reminded of one nostalgia bit it stole from me specifically. I love video games, but I also really like just watching things about them, seeing demo reels, long adverts, and behind the scenes videos. Way back in the VHS era, before the internet grew, many video game companies provided these types of promotional tapes through various sources. No one did it like Nintendo though. For those lucky subscribers of Nintendo Power—or if someone had the proper connections, like I did—there were several entertaining and informative tapes about some childhood favorite games available. These are not just highly collectible items, back then they were marketing gold.
So many different promo tapes from various companies were ready to invade VCRs around the world. I have watched videos focusing on Genesis, Turbografx 16, Philips CDI, and Playstation, comparing the hardware, games, and how these companies built up excitement for their products. As I said earlier though, Nintendo did it best in my opinion, so I will be focusing on those, and how my gaming experience was affected. I know, it sounds like I may be building this up too much, but let me break down my favorite one.
“Thanks to Retro Reality for making these things easy to find.”
Donkey Kong Country Exposed: The Making of Donkey Kong Country is an in-depth behind the scenes look at one of my favorite SNES games. It granted me a sneak peak months before the game’s stellar release in November of 1994. This is a thirteen minute spectacular hosted by comedian Josh Wolf that is weird, colorful, and a little too ‘90s. Ignore the shaky camera and odd clothing choices as the crew gets a brief tour of the Nintendo of America facilities in Redmond, Washington. They take viewers on interviews, talk to the play testers, show off game footage, and even give away a few secrets, with all of the technical specs and boasted superiority sprinkled in. The big finale though that sealed this tapes place in history, the coup d’etat, is that Killer Instinct tease at the end.
This thing was pure hype, and it was not on Sega (according to the video at least).
Take a moment and get past the cheesiness and banana humor. This was a product of its time, certainly, aimed at a younger audience. Not only is this the most extensive look fans have had ever seen into the physical offices of their video game gods, it showed off one of the biggest new games that had only been seen in screenshots before then. It gave a glimpse into what game testers do, a position I held up as the ideal job as a kid—and still do a little. These guys who get paid to play video games showed me secrets that I memorized for that game—even though one of them was changed in the completed version—because I watched the tape a lot. I could almost quote it, and that Killer Instinct tease! I could barely stand it. The marketing tool accomplished exactly what it set out to do.
I learned a lot from all those times I watched though. Not just all of the technical babble about pre-rendering; like how the snow stages have twelve different layers of snow or how many megs are on each chip, but about the story and different characters. DK had a new little buddy, a love interest in Candy, and I learned that Cranky was actually the now aged titular Kong from the original game. The video answered the question of why our allies are trapped in these barrels—the bad guys did it— and that the villains stole the banana stash, and how cool the morphing rocks are. There was the sneak peek of the various mini games and bonus levels. I was exposed to my first taste of one of the most awesome video game soundtracks and learned the name of RARE, a studio that has produced some of my favorite games of all time. I was not exaggerating about it having a positive effect on me.
This video seemed like a real eye-opener. It may have only been thirteen minutes, but I was left hanging on every sight and sound. Here we had one of the most in-depth looks behind the curtain, with the Hot Newz 64 VHS coming in a close second because of its interviews. Actually, the N64 seemed to get most of these promotional videos, but they were full of more comedic skits with some gameplay mixed in, and showed nothing about the developers, facilities, or provided much information from the source. The “Change the System” video was not only the reveal for the N64, but also signaled the transition for how the future tapes would change. I remember it most though for the two old guys arguing over who was the best Killer Instinct character. The Star Fox 64 video may be one of my favorites, but it is hard to forgive the campy bathroom faux interview they tried to pull.
Though it is a bit hard to find the cast and crew lists for these projects, the unmistakable voice of Jon Lovitz serenades fans as the narrator for the Banjo Kazooie preview, and Bush’s “Machine Head” can be heard in “The Invasion of Nintendo” VHS from 1995. Signs that the company wanted to go bigger with these things and incorporate more pop culture, recognizable voices, and music of the time. They were taking advantage of the internet as well, promoting starfox64.com at the end of an odd kidnapping skit (found in the StarFox 64 promotional VHS). The site is still up today; it just showcases the 3DS version of the game now, which is actually still worth checking out. It may seem a bit overdone at this point, but this was part of the natural progression. Also, it beats how Nintendo used to send tips and tricks out on cassette tapes—no, really.
Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island had a video as well, another one I liked a lot. It was similar to its DK counterpart in presentation, focusing on the design of the game, art style and the morphing technology. I remember being glad it showed me how to use the eggs and what the boss battles were like. It was important because this new Mario game was nothing like the last one, but this let me see the similarities and convinced me to buy it. I was given my first glance at a lot of games through these, like Ocarina of Time, Mortal Kombat 4, and a ton of others I ended up buying. This type of marketing really worked. The numbers do not lie either, as Donkey Kong Country was the second best selling game on the Super Nintendo console.
Just in case anyone questions my love of this type of game memorabilia, I logged in more hours of research for this article than any other. Most of it was fun, but I did stumble across an instructional video meant for employees of stores that sold Nintendo products. It went into how to talk to customers about the consoles and games, as well as how to setup the Mario standees. It is the most boring thing I have ever seen on the subject of video games, fifty-eight minutes of people with no charisma and 90s hair, but the worst part was realizing I missed out on winning an awesome SNES ruler I could have used for school!
I honestly do not know why Nintendo quit doing these videos. I know it no longer makes sense to send out VHS tapes or DVDs for the production costs, but I mean the format. Something focusing on a single game that shows the development, where fans can witness how the title changes and hear what the creators were going for or thinking. Is it because they were worried about leaks or wanted the mystique preserved? I am sure there are other factors I am unaware of, and Nintendo has always had their own style of doing things. The company still does these in a way, on YouTube as Nintendo Directs. References to the Treehouse (the code name for Donkey Kong Country and the future development division of Nintendo of America) are still used in the live events, like at last year’s E3 event. They are nowhere near the same, but sometimes have glimpses of the flare that made their other videos awesome. I would love to see Nintendo do something new in the vein of these old tapes and create some excellent memories so a new generation of gamers can be awe-struck and glued to their monitors, like I used to be with my VCR and TV.