Saturday, October 17, 2009

The 9 Best Video Game Commercials

It took me a while to admit that video games were marketable to a broad audience. I liked thinking of gaming as a niche hobby for me, my friends, and people like us. But that's stupid. Games have been a big money business since the original pandemic known as Pac-Man Fever. But it wasn't until the last 10-15 years or so that that money was reflected in advertising. A typical video game commercial of my youth went something like this:

Why is it in the middle of a thunderstorm, is this supposed to imply that the NES conjures black magic?

Back then, games were just toys. They were advertised the same way that you'd advertise GI Joe or He-Man action figures. In fact, in case you missed it, originally Nintendo had a little friend packaged with it to drive home the 'toy' distinction.

I hate you, Rob.

It could be worse, of course. I'm looking at you, Japan.

Worse...or better?

Even today most commercials on the American market are meant to be humorous, trying their best to enforce the "games are just for kids" stereotype. Things are thankfully starting to change, and now some commercials have budgets you'd expect for Hollywood Blockbusters. And I love them. I love them so much. Its almost as if we're allowed to take them seriously. Now of course most of these trailers and commercials tell you exactly nothing about the game in question, deciding instead to rely entirely on hype and pre-rendered cinematics or live action sequences. And game developers almost always hire outside companies to do these things for them. I don't care. These commercials are eye candy at its best, and I can appreciate them as such.

So here's my list of the 9 most epic, over the top, ridiculously elaborate, or just downright cool video game trailers or commercials. Now this list will be biased to games released in the past 3 years or so, because prior to that point video game commercials were (as stated above) entirely based around humor. Therefore I'll make a supplementary list of the 9 funniest video game commercials at a later point. But for now, here it is. Bonus points to any commercial ballsy enough to be filmed in live action. Standard list rule of one entry per franchise applies.

9. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
This is a simple yet effective little number that puts you right behind Wolverine's eyeballs. You really get the feeling of what it would be like to be treated like a caged animal, and just how jarring and pressing your escape from that situation would be.

It's low on the list because it could have been so much more. I mean, you don't even ever see Wolverine's claws, and half the soldiers seem to fall down because he looks at them in a grimacing way. However, it's live action and it's the growling, slobbering, murdering Wolverine that we all know and love.

8. The Secret World
God. Dammit. I hate you, Funcom. I hate you so much. After Age of Conan I swore I'd never trust you again. And as I said above, there's no reason this trailer should make me feel any different. You didn't make it. But it managed to pique my interest just the same.

There are a few reasons I'm interested in this game, all beautifully displayed in this preview. The premise of a horror-themed MMO is something I've been wanting to try out since I picked up Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption on my old VooDoo based system. If the enemies in this game are half as cool as the enemies shown in these previews, I'm on board. There's a whole set of videos out, but this is my favorite. I just love the art and character design.

7. Fallout 3

Okay ignore for a moment that this is one of my favorite games of all time. When this came out, we knew nothing about it. Like many people, this was the first thing I officially saw relating to Fallout 3. And it is beautiful. It mirrored the opening to the original Fallout, while simultaneously updating it.

To me this perfectly represents what made Fallout 3 so great. It had a huge respect for the original franchise, but wasn't chained to it. Ink Spots song? Check. Pan out to destroyed city? Check. Threatening figure in power armor? Check.

6. Beatles: Rock Band
Now I know this one isn't as much pure spectacle as the others on this list, but if you think about it - it really is. There's the massive spectacle of seeing all the Beatles as if they were alive again, cut together with a crowd of clearly current generation young people that can easily appreciate their music even to this day.

It may not be truly 'epic', but this commercial really speaks to me. It speaks to the timelessness of the Beatles, how they'll always be great. It also gives me a little bit of hope that each subsequent generation will still be willing to pay several hundred dollars just to pick up plastic toy guitars and pretend to be John Lennon.

5. Fable 2
This one was really out there. I mean, it was just a tiny teaser that pointed out the possibilities and variety that they were going to put into Fable 2. You want to be Raiden from Mortal Kombat? Do it. You want to be a man-sized Balrog? You can do that too.

Except you can't do any of that. Peter Molyneaux is a dirty, dirty liar. If he's hyping something up (like the recent Project Natal), ignore it. Every single game he makes is supposed to end up being some kind of god-simulation where you have complete control over all the choices in your game. If that's true, why does he keep releasing mediocre carbon-copies of other games? Also, I never thought the folded bit of paper the girls used to tease me with in 2nd grade were so powerful. Still, it's an undeniably epic little teaser, and it was exactly what we wanted to see.

4. Gears of War 2
There's a special place in my heart for this one because it includes poetry, and the literary twat that I am loves that a video game company can draw from WWI poetry to make its product seem intense and important.

Pretentious? Possibly. Insensitive to the horrors of war the poem was meant to illustrate? Absolutely. I don't care, this commercial is awesome. The 'Gears' games have a ton of great commercials, and I could include every one on this list. But this is by far my favorite. What is it with Gears of War using obscure, indie-ish folk songs in their other commercials, anyway?
I would have liked to see them make it longer and include the whole poem, but then it may have worn out its welcome.

3. Mortal Kombat 2
This was the first commercial I saw where I nearly lost my 9-year-old shit at how awesome it was. It was the first commercial I know of to use live-action actors in a way that was meant to be taken seriously and not as part of some elaborate joke.

It was my first taste of the idea that video games could be made into successful live action movies. Sigh, if only Hollywood didn't replace good costumes and characters with their own ludicrous bullshit. This commercial alone was better than both Mortal Kombat movies (did you know they may make a third one? Ugh). And it wasn't just the TV spot either, the live action actors were used in all the magazine ads as well.

2. Final Fantasy VIII
This was something that seriously had me hyped up. This was before high-speed internet, and it wasn't really shown on TV. I saw this gem on a demo disc that came with Parasite Eve. It's not as if I needed anything additional to hype me up about Final Fantasy 8. I followed every magazine article, every fan preview web page on the budding 'world wide web', and I bought Parasite Eve specifically to get my hands on the demo, which ended with this video.

Whoa. You have to understand, this was before cutscenes were a normal part of gaming. The last time we'd really seen pre-rendered animation was in Final Fantasy VII, and they looked like clay marianettes. These characters looked so...real! This was also before gaming was marketable, before the commercials were shown on TV in America, before gaming was an every day part of American life. To see this kind of preview of an upcoming game was unprecedented. And yet, it showed nothing. When I saw this I spent weeks analyzing it and trying to pick apart plot points. I wanted to know everything about this game. I wanted to know the context for all the scenes, and I determine what brought about these events. Unfortunately, even IN context they make no goddamn sense. FF8 is one of the most nonsensical and boring games I've ever played. I could rant about it for hours and days on end. I should have just enjoyed the demo and never played the game.

1. Halo ODST

Love it or hate it, this commercial defines epic. I consider myself a reasonable man, and as such advertising rarely works on me. The Halo series leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I have many reasons to hate it. But God help me I love this trailer. For the duration of it, all I can think is "HOLY SHIT I MUST BUY THIS GAME RIGHT NOW". I come back to my senses soon afterward, but for that brief moment I am a Halo fanboy.

Holy. Shit. Who the hell needs a Halo movie? This IS a Halo movie. The actor who portrays the focus character in this commercial is amazing. He doesn't say a single line (the whole commercial uses the Gaelic language anyway), but we follow his journey from the funeral of what I assume is his father, through his training, to his ultimate status as hardened veteran. This commercial was the inspiration for this list, and I like it more every time I watch it. Sure, the game is an overpriced map pack of the same meh Halo gameplay - but this commercial almost makes up for it. Almost.

Honorable Mention:

Yes, this is a trailer for a live action Legend of Zelda film. No, it isn't real. It was an April Fool's day joke created by IGN. The terrible looking Ganondorf should have given it away. But still, it's incredibly epic and if it was only a real advert it would have made the list.

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Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.