Hyrulin’ the Box
Game marketing has sure changed in the post-internet world. And while we can be grateful for the abandonment of those weird “lad’s mag” years, there’s definitely something of a yearning for the well (and not-so-well)-conceived commercials of the 1980s and 1990s. This was a time when context was absolutely necessary, where no answers or information could be found via a quick wander through the information superhighway.
The commercial had to do all the selling. No live streams, no banner ads, no YouTube previews, and no E3 visits for Johnny Public. You have 30 seconds to tell people to spend $50. Make them count.
Fortunately for Nintendo’s premier fantasy franchise, The Legend of Zelda, its universe and characters exemplified magic, mystery, excitement, and adventure. Marketers had a literal universe of brave heroes, beautiful princesses, vicious monsters, grim castles, and haunted woods at their disposal, advertising Link’s newest adventure to eager youth — pockets bursting with dollar bills, due to the fact that the only subscription anybody had back then was a subscription to Nintendo Power.
Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom launches on Nintendo Switch later this week, riding on the crest of a commercial that, according to social media, left some fans literally crying with emotion. For sure, there is an art to making a modern game trailer, especially with a release as epic as TOTK. But still, one cannot help but wistfully recollect those carefree Saturday mornings, when a show that you remember being better than it actually was would eventually cut to commercial — And it was in this arena that The Big N would do its very best to compel you and your friends to the Land of Hyrule…
…Armed, more often than not, with the power of Rap.
The Legend of Zelda (US, 1986)
With the flash dominance of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo quickly established a series of ads that were mostly based around the players themselves, huddled together in the lounge to enjoy a bout of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! or to break R.O.B. with an accidental trip. With the launch of The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo once again chose not to focus on the game, but on two “Video Game Fans”, including one that has stepped straight out of garbage 1984 flick Revenge of the Nerds.
In order to remind you how cool game fans are, the duo start an abominable rap, not only giving school bullies validation in the hatred of gaming culture but also consigning The Legend of Zelda to a bizarre pattern of hip-hop-related advertising. Beatboxing like The Fat Boys included. Still, fair play for reaching out and crossing that Nerd-Jock divide.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (JPN, 1987)
This delightful commercial sees a young girl excitedly run into her Grandma’s (?) video game store and declare her love for Link’s second adventure. The back of the store then parts, revealing Hyrule itself awaiting adventure. Adorably, the child becomes Link, while Grandma becomes Impa. The gender themes here are interesting, as this represents one of the first instances of Link’s androgynous nature, which often sees him portrayed by women and girls in marketing, fanart, and cosplay.
The commercial ends with Zelda and Impa imploring us never to give up, while the Famicom disk system asks us to “Go as Far as We Can”. More consoles should offer life-affirming lessons.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (US, 1993)
Were you down wi’ Zelda from the very start? Because this lad was, and he’s telling us all about it in this commercial for one of the finest releases (as well as the most played) in the entire series, LoZ: Link’s Awakening. It’s 1993, and everyone has a Game Boy. Everyone. Mine had pink and black fur glued to it. I had a lot of growing up to do.
Anyway, even folks who had never touched a Zelda title in their life dove into Link’s amnesia-fueled handheld adventure, while this commercial continues Nintendo’s desire to push Zelda away from its unfair “nerdy role-playing game” reputation and into something altogether cooler. The irony is, video game fans didn’t care, we were already d-d-down with the inhabitants of Hyrule.
“Creeping through with an overhead view” is going to be the title of my autobiography.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (US/UK, 2013)
This ad for Nintendo 3DS release A Link Between Worlds might have screened in 2013, but it most certainly features the “Put the kid in the action” mentality of the ’80s/’90s advertising. In the short TV spot, we see a kid who kind of looks like dollar store Frankie Muniz navigate a Zelda-style dungeon, utilizing A Link Between Worlds‘ ingenious wall-merging abilities in order to conquer an array of obstacles, before ultimately escaping the dungeon and capturing the fated Master Sword.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (UK, 1993)
British comedian Rik Mayall grew out of the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s — an entire comedic movement mostly established as a full-throated assault against the Tory government and its “Iron Lady” leader. Mayall became one of the most successful stars of the scene, appearing in shows such as The Young Ones, Yes, Prime Minister, and Bottom, while Americans might know him best in the titular role of the 1991 film Drop Dead Fred.
When the SNES hit it big in the UK, Mayall starred in a series of commercials for many Nintendo releases, including Star Fox, Street Fighter II, Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This short spot sees him sending up his more successful modern image and features little of the actual game itself. It was a very successful ad, intrinsically linked with the game by British Zelda fans. Notably, the ads reflect a time when Nintendo was chiller about its image. The idea of them giving up their biggest franchises to ads this dopey, and celebrities this subversive, is wild.
Mayall would pass away suddenly in 2014, leaving behind a legacy of riotous work.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (US, 2009)
The beautifully composed ad sees a young man taking his regular subway commute, with a journey that becomes not only a commercial for the hit Nintendo DS release LoZ: Spirit Tracks, but is also a wonderful metaphor for the magic and mystery of The Legend of Zelda itself, which has the ability to pull its fans out of the humdrum cycle of everyday life and deposit them into an amazing and engaging world. An escape from the woes of the nine-to-five, the frustrations of modern living, and the often-drab commitment to routine. An enjoyable transposing of reality as old as gaming itself.
The visual marrying of themes here works splendidly, from the use of a train for, obviously, Spirit Tracks, to the mobile nature of playing the Nintendo DS itself, with a metropolitan horror aesthetic giving way to the colorful splendor of The World of Hyrule. Commercials such as these represent something of a last hurrah for the medium, soon to be replaced by the far more commonplace “Gameplay Trailer”.
As such, it’s good that so many of the ad makers saw that their respective franchises went out on a high.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (JPN, 1998)
Actor and singer Kyoko Fukada plays LoZ: Ocarina of Time and makes reactive noises.
There’s your ad. I’m okay with it.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (JPN, 1993)
We welcome back the art of Rad Rappin’, only now with added puppetry, as Nintendo Japan chose to market Link’s Awakening with this very cute, very fun piece that features marionette versions of Link, Marin, Tarin, The Owl, and The Skeleton Knight, regaling you with the backstory of just how our boy washed up on Koholint Island. A bouncy chorus leads us into our obligatory rhyme-spittin’ breakdown, ending on a shot of the island and its mysterious Wind Fish Egg.
This would not be the last appearance of puppetry in The Legend of Zelda marketing. Be sure to check out this insanely cute short for The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords. Proof, if proof be need be, that puppets make every gaming franchise better, no matter how horrific the source material.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (US, 2011)
I’m sure that everyone reading this piece remembers Robin Williams, and I’m sure that you’re also aware that the comedian and actor named his daughter Zelda, after no less than the princess herself. In 2011, Nintendo would work with the father and daughter on several commercials, which included ads for LoZ: Skyward Sword, LoZ: Four Swords, and LoZ: Ocarina of Time 3D, and see the duo enjoying the new titles, while occasionally offering insights on their relationship with gaming in general and The Legend of Zelda
Of course, this series of commercials have gathered a whole new emotional weight following Robin’s sad passing in 2014, a reminder of the quieter real-life nature of a personality who built a career on manic performances and wild, character-based comedic roles. Zelda Williams works in the entertainment industry as a writer, voice actor, and philanthropist, occasionally having fun with her namesake via public appearances at The Legend of Zelda concerts, and cosplaying Link for Halloween in 2019.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (JPN, 1991)
We have to go out on the highest of highs, and whether you’ve seen it a thousand times before, or you’re seeing it for the very first time, there’s no denying the unbridled joy and unabashed wholesomeness of the Japanese commercial for LoZ: A Link to the Past. Backed by the ultra-catchy beat of Japanese rap group Scha Dara Parr, the one-minute spot sees a full cast of costumed characters bust out a funkadelic dance routine, set against the backdrop of a cutely theatrical dungeon set.
Our hero Link, once again played by a woman, fends off several memorable enemies from the game, before rescuing the beautiful (and black-haired) Princess Zelda. This is just the beginning of the duo’s troubles, as they are then besieged by a giant puppet of the evil Ganon. Don’t sweat it, a handy two-step will see pig boy outta town. GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!
It’s just so much fun, everyone looks great, the translated lyrics are amusing, the track is a real earworm, and the dancing is awesome. It’s a real celebration of Link, Zelda, Ganon, and Hyrule itself. I don’t know why Nintendo hasn’t dug the master out for the HD treatment… Maybe it no longer exists. As I said at the top of the piece, the physical creativity that went into commercials such as this is sorely missed in a post-internet world, but at least that very same technology has allowed us to archive it — in all of its glory — for generations of Zelda fans.
I wonder if Nintendo still has that Ganon puppet?