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Friday, 6 September 2013

The Semiotics of Nintendo's Advertising, Part 2: Nintendo's Global Impact and Mario

Video games has had a long standing relationship with advertising through print and television, in addition to other forms of product placement. It enhances and connects video games to the wider world and brings non-video game players and enthusiasts deeper into the cultural and social sphere of video games (C. Murphy, 17).

In the West, sports, going to the theatre, movies, music, watching TV has always been the most dominant tools of communication. Yet in Japan things are very different, as games and playing video games occupy as the main tool of communication over sports due to the lack of space (169). It was seen as something that was embraced positively in Japan and by the 1980s, the Japanese gaming culture underwent a major shift.....

About Nintendo

Nintendo's origins stem during 1889 when the company produced and marketed Hanafuda cards. Hanafuda cards are playing cards in Japan and when they became more and more popular, the founder of Nintendo Fasajiro Yaumachi then hired more workers to mass-produce more cards, in order to meet consumer demands.

The Hanafuda deck consisted of 48 playing cards divided into 12 suits. Each suit represented each of the 12 months of the year.

In 1949, Sekiyo Kenada, who was then Nintendo's second president, suffered a stroke and as a result, called on Hiroshi to replace him, which he did. He became the new Nintendo president and no sooner did he began firing workers and managers, so that they would not be able to question his authority. Hiroshi changed the name Marufuka Playing cards to Nintendo Playing Cards.

In 1959, Nintendo collaborates with American giant, Disney to produce playing cards featuring Disney characters. The idea was so successful, it sold over 600,000 packs during that same year. 4 years on, Nintendo sold instant rice (yes rice) but unfortunately, it didn't work. After that, they went into the love hotel business. They were also a taxi company. But after several attempts, Hiroshi realised Nintendo's asset was not in hotels or the food industry, but the Hafuda playing cards. After the success of the playing cards, their next journey would take advantage of that and to go into the toys and games business.

And with that, Nintendo shifted their focus towards video games.

In 1983, the year of the video game crash, the Kyoto – based company which made playing cards, toys and released arcade games, introduced the Famicom. The Famicom was an abbreviation of Family Computer, and it became Nintendo's first real entry into the console market (Kinder, 89).

Easily beating rival systems of Sony (years before the launch of the Playstation) and Matsushita in Japan, the Famicom sold 2.1 million units in its first 18 months since its release.

Costing between $80 and $150 to produce and manufacture, the Famicom was an 8-bit games console that had the same microprocessor used in Apple's IIC and Commodore 64 PCs (Kinder, 92).

Nintendo arrived in the United States in 1985, in an attempt to revive the video game craze and spent around $30million on advertising to persuade consumers to purchase the Nintendo Entertainment System, I.e, NES for short. The NES was the West's version of the Japanese Famicom. In 5 years, Nintendo controlled 80% of the market share. With total sales heading towards $5 billion, it gave them 20% share of the entire US toy market. To make matters more interesting, by the end of 1989, it was revealed that 1 out of every 5 households in America owned a NES (Kinder, 89, 90).

A year later, Nintendo claimed that close to 50% of its players were over 18 years of age and 36% of them were female. Video games were no longer toys, it was a hobby, a lifestyle. The cutesy graphics and designs of the characters were appealing enough for young girls to take an interest in games and to play as Mario and Link.

Mario and The Worldwide Impact of Nintendo

Mario's influence and impact goes beyond video games making him a (unlikely) cultural icon.

Rovio's Peter Vesterbacka, whose company develops Angry Birds even said Mario was influential;

'Mario is a great character. But it's not just about him – it's the whole world that Nintendo has built, with the other great characters and the stories told through its games' (Soteriou, 2012).

Created by Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario is to Nintendo, the same way Mickey Mouse is to Disney; he is the main driving force behind the company's success. When you think of video games and of Nintendo, the first immediate thing that springs to mind is, Mario. He is everywhere and his cultural impact, since the days of Mario Bros on the NES, has put him ahead of other gaming mascots such as Pacman and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic became Mario's arch rival during the Genesis vs Super Nintendo days of 1991, up until Sega quit the hardware business and thus, rebranded itself as a third-party software developer and publisher in 2001. 

With 3 animated series, an awful Hollywood movie starring Bob Hoskins, countless merchandise and toys and numerous appearances in spin-off games and such, the fact that more children during the 1990s identified with Mario and preferred Mario over Mickey Mouse, tells you something about Nintendo's effect outside of video games and within society and culture (Super Mario Bros HQ).

The original Super Mario Bros is arguably still the best selling video game of all-time with over 40 million copies, sold worldwide. Mario and his brother, Luigi have become a cultural phenomenon and one would argue they are also the most recognizable video game siblings as well.

Nintendo found their secret weapon to their success; they knew that in Mario he had that cross-over appeal that would interest people of all ages, both male and female, all around the world, as well as it would enable the company to generate more income.

In 2009, a research company going by the name of Smarty Pants, who focus on child-related brands- questioned 4, 700 kids aged between 6-12  for a study titled ''Young Love'. They were asked out of all the major brands, which one was their favourite. Nintendo was the number 1 choice, with the Wii, followed by the DS in second (7, Firestone). These 2 products, Wii and DS games consoles beat out Mcdonalds, Nickelodeon, and DisneyThis statistic alone demonstrated the massive impact video games has had on people of all ages, but that also the image of the traditional video games player, had changed. No longer was this past-time for young boys and teenagers and geeks- video gaming was a hobby that everybody, male and female, young and old all embraced and could participate in. 

Samus Aran & The Birth of A New Female Gaming Hero

As well as Mario and Link from The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo also thanks to Gunpei Yokoi, -creator of the Gameboy, which went on to become one of the biggest selling hand- held systems, ever-, during 1986 unveiled their first main female gaming protagonist, named Samus Aran. The game was titled: Metroid.

In Metroid, the objective of the game is to aid female bounty hunter Samus Aran in finding and destroying Mother Brain & saving the universe. A plot that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Aliens movies starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (Kinder, 107). One of the interesting things about Metroid is given the main protagonist is female, one would be forgiven in thinking that as Samus is a woman and the hero and not some damsel in distress, her heroism and bravery in the face of evil, would encourage more female video game players to play Metroid games and see Samus Aran as a some kind of role model for women.

When in fact, the interest in Metroid and its cult status as a sci-fi action-adventure series has prompted more male players to take an active interest in the franchise. Probably because a) it is a sci-fi, action game and b) Samus shoots people with her arm cannon, not just because she is female.

Additionally, Samus Aran's impact and cultural status amongst gamers and Nintendo fans, has led to the creation and arrival of other female video game characters by other creators and developers. Most notably that of Jill Valentine of Resident Evil, Chun Li of Streetfighter, Sega's Bayonetta and Tomb Raider's Lara Croft.

The success of Nintendo led to the revolution of the entertainment industry and by the 1990s, it made more profit than many of the U.S film and TV studios such as Paramount, Fox, NBC. Nintendo became a home entertainment giant and were finally taken seriously (12, Firestone).

As of today, Nintendo have released a total of 7 home consoles, including the recent Wii U and 6 hand-held consoles including 7 iterations of the Gameboy and 4 iterations of the DS (Dual Screen). With total hardware sales surpassing 600 million and software sales over 4 billion to date, in addition to the DS being the biggest- selling 7th generation handheld console and the Wii as the biggest selling 7th generation home console, Nintendo, in the face of ongoing constant (& mostly undeserved) criticism, media and press attacks and the urge by their detractors to leave the hardware business and focus on making games for mobile devices & rival consoles, are still here, still fighting. And still proving that there are still people that prefer to play games on consoles, as well as still love Mario, Kirby, Link and Samus.

In other words, Nintendo aren't going anywhere.

(Continued in part 3) 


  • Playing with Power in movies, television and video games: from Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marsha Kinder, 1993
  • Nintendo's Mascot: From Donkey Kong to Super Mario Lovers, Helen Soteriou, BBC News, 4 June 2012
  • Super Mario Bros HQ, 1997-2013
  • Nintendo: The Company and its Founders, Mary Firestone, 2011 

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