How 90s Video Game Ads Tried to Disguise Kirby’s Cuteness
For a decade, advertisers tried to pretend that pink video game hero Kirby was tough and not cute. We look back at some odd campaigns...
If you’ve ever owned a Nintendo console, you’ll probably have heard of Kirby: the pink, baby-faced blob who first made his debut back in 1992. Created by HAL Laboratory, Kirby’s starred in a string of platformers and quirky spin-offs over the past 23 years, beginning with Kirby’s Dream Land on the Game Boy and leading up to this year’s Kirby: Planet Robobot on the 3DS.
Kirby’s games are more niche than say, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, but they’ve survived largely thanks to their charm and sheer creativity. The games’ simple platform action is enlivened by Kirby’s copy ability – which means he can steal the attack moves of his enemies – and their reliably off-kilter design. Kirby’s Epic Yarn on the Wii had stages where Kirby could turn into a tank or a space ship, briefly turning the game into a 2D shooter. Its world of string, fuzzy felt, and cotton wool also made Epic Yarn one of the best-looking titles in the console’s bulging library.
Kirby’s cute, cuddly qualities have long proved a headache for the various marketing wizards charged with selling him to the great western public, however. In the series’ native country, Japan, games that are cute – or kawaii, to use their term – are considered to be perfectly acceptable. In the US and Europe, however, the designers and advertisers in charge of selling Kirby games seem far more nervous about the character’s soft-edged qualities – presumably because of the prevailing assumption that most gamers are boisterous young men who wouldn’t be seen dead playing a game about a pink, hungry blob.
So how do you give such a squashy character a bit of edge? The answers that Kirby advertisers have come up with, in both the US and the UK, take us to some very odd places indeed…
Pretend he’s not pink, throw in Rambo
When the very first title came out for the Game Boy in ’92, the Japanese box art showed Kirby in all his cheerful, pink glory. Nintendo of America, on the other hand, seemed intent on ignoring Kirby’s natural color altogether. The American box depicted him as a spectral white character, like a bulging Casper the Friendly Ghost.
The pallid Kirby theme continues into the game’s commercial, which sees an oddly charmless version of the character flapping about next to a muscle-bound chap very obviously modelled on John Rambo. Kirby may not look macho, the advert implies, but he’s still cool – look, he wears shades and everything. Like the Terminator! Yes, definitely like the Terminator.
(A brief note on Kirby’s color: legend has it that Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto and HAL Laboratory’s Masahiro Sakurai disagreed on whether he should be pink or yellow. Miyamoto wanted yellow, but Sakurai eventually won out.)
Add body builders and weapons
The “Kirby’s tougher than he looks, honest” sales tactics continued in the advertising for Kirby’s Adventure – the baby star warrior’s full-color debut on the NES from 1993. This ad shows Kirby (now the correct shade of pink) standing next to a bunch of oiled-up body-builders, engaging in a bit of sword fighting and, in one very weird shot, devouring what appears to be the proprietor of a seedy nightclub.
“If you cross him,” the voice-over man warns, “then he’s one tough cream puff.”
If you want an example of just how different the Japanese and American marketing campaigns for Kirby were in the early 90s, here’s the far eastern one for Kirby’s Adventure:
Not a Hell’s Angel or championship weightlifter in sight.
Put him next to a bunch of hairy Hell’s Angels reading poetry
In Kirby’s Dream Land 2, the happy hero’s copy abilities are joined by a selection of animal sidekicks, which Kirby can ride into battle like a knight on horseback. This ad from the mid-90s attempts to balance the sappiness of the game’s animals by staging what looks like a pilot episode for Sons of Anarchy. The lighting’s from a noir thriller, a bearded Hell’s Angel reads poem, and a cartoon hamster throws a grown man clear over a bar.
In a funny sort of way, it’s really, really frightening – like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel shot by Gaspar Noe.
Make him a guest on a chat show hosted by the late Rik Mayall
For a brief period in the Game Boy and SNES era, the late, great Rik Mayall became an unlikely brand ambassador for Nintendo in the UK. This may have been an attempt to fight back against Sega’s highly successful campaign to establish the Mega Drive as the “cool” console, with its “To be this good takes ages” slogan and MTV-style commercials.
The race was on, it seemed, to make some of the weirdest TV ads possible – Mayall’s spot for Nigel Mansell’s World Championship, for example, is a work of surreal genius. The promo for Kirby isn’t of quite the same caliber, though it does have a quite brilliant moment where Mayall says “vast pink globule” in such a way that it sounds like the most vulgar collection of words on the planet.
Show Kirby being tortured by cool kids in 90s shirts
If you can’t make Kirby look edgy and cool, then you can at least have him being punished for looking cute by a bunch of kids in gaudy clothes, center-partings, and bandanas. Poor Kirby. It’s like watching him being punched repeatedly by members of New Kids on the Block.
Imply that Kirby’s so terrifying that to merely look on him will bring about madness
If you believe this commercial, Kirby’s the gaming equivalent of John Doe out of Seven. All paranoid close-ups and canted angles, the ad shows a guy driven to the brink of insanity by Nintendo’s match-three puzzle game, Kirby’s Avalanche.
“The only way I could survive was if I buried my buddy in boulders!” the victim wails.
By now, you’ve probably got a good idea of just how against-the-grain most Kirby ads were in the 90s. It’s akin to advertising Candy Crush with clips of the Saw franchise, or implying that playing FarmVille is as terrifying as nude shark wrestling.
For another example, check out the 1996 advert below, which ropes in Dr. Silberman out of the Terminator movies (actor Earl Boen) to warn us of the dangers of “too much Kirby.”
The thinking seemed to be that kids liked to be challenged by TV commercials. Time and again, 90s video game ads would asked whether the viewer was up to the challenge of playing Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Bros 2, or implying that a game was so tough that it would drive lesser mortals mad.
In the case of Kirby, this “What’s wrong McFly? Chicken?” approach to promotion did much to disguise the fact that the games are about as intimidating as a rabbit wearing a dressing gown. This is a series whose recurring villain is a penguin wearing a bobble hat, after all, not a Gears of War sequel.
It was only as the 90s tipped over into the 2000s that the aggression began to fade from British and American TV ads. The commercial for spin-off Tilt ‘N Tumble, for example, finally depicts Kirby as he’s meant to be: friendly, harmless, and more than a little clumsy.
The ad for Nightmare in Dreamland (2002) – a remake of the NES version for the Game Boy Advance – goes even further by showing something the earlier promos studiously avoided: that when Kirby uses his copy ability, his new power is joined by an adorable little hat.
By this point, Kirby had his own animated TV show, called Kirby: Right Back At Ya! in the west. It took almost a decade, but Kirby’s handlers in the west finally learned to stop worrying and embrace his inherent cuteness.
Mind you, none of this is to say that the pink blob’s marketing department isn’t capable of coming out with something decidedly leftfield. We’ll leave you with the following advert for Kirby Canvas Curse from 2005, which contains the jaw-droppingly nightmarish image of Kirby standing suggestively on top of a giant index finger. In what appears to be the Bronx.
Sleep well, readers.