Two weeks ago, in the dead of night, the two largest retailers in the world sold out of their allotment of the Super NES Classic. In a year that The World’s Most Powerful Console will release, everyone is talking about how to lock down a console that can be emulated on a calculator. Why are Classic consoles the hottest thing in gaming right now? A killer mix of demographics, targeting, and nostalgia.
The Video Game Generation
In the spring of 1996, I was five years old and sitting in my Nonna’s house and staring in awe at the television. My uncle had walked in with a box in his hands, looked down at me with a smile and said, “Get a load of what I got.” When the box lowered to my level I saw two Blockbuster cases sitting on top of a PlayStation and a box full of wires.
I watched my uncle plug the red and white and yellow plugs into the back of the television and hit the power button. I sat two and a half feet from the TV and waited. The screen flicked on and the booming bass and high pitched chimes washed over me. I still shiver every time I hear that boot sound.
I didn’t know what the PlayStation was at the time. Video games were a thing found in arcades and bars in neighbourhoods my parents didn’t want to go to. They were things I found in the basements of family friends, hooked up to TVs rarely used and covered in dust. Sometimes it was a SNES and sometimes Genesis but the constant was that my time with them was always unpredictable and short. The PlayStation was a game changer.
First Console Means The World
The PlayStation was my first console. Games became available whenever I wanted to play them, even if it was the same two games, over and over. I spent entire summers dedicated to playing through Tekken and Twisted Metal from start to finish with each character. I played so much, I had nightmares about Yoshimitsu cutting through the forest behind my house and Sweet Tooth stalking me. Even nightmares didn’t stop me from playing. The only thing that slowed me down was that it was permanently setup at my Nonna’s. But that was an easy hurdle to jump – What parent would deny their child a visit with their grandparents?
When I talk with gamers about their first console, they have similar stories about an older sibling handing them a controller or opening a special Christmas morning present. Being the first born, my uncle was effectively my big brother. He was only 16 when I was born and barely out of his teenage years when he dropped the PlayStation in front of me. I looked up to him and his excitement about video games made me even more excited about them.
Despite introducing me to games, my uncle’s enthusiasm didn’t last in the same way mine did. By the time he was in his late 20s we rarely talked about games. But it wasn’t just him. I know fewer and fewer people born before 1980 that I could have conversations about games with. Why did games stick with me and my friends in a way they didn’t for my uncle and his? Like almost all things, I think it comes down to marketing.
Who Are Video Games For?
I decided to chart out all eight console generations, from the day they went on sale to the day they stopped, and the answer became clear.
- Magnavox Odyssey
- Atari 2600
- NES, Sega Master System
- SNES, Sega Genesis
- PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn
- PlayStation 2, Nintendo Gamecube, Xbox, Sega Dreamcast
- PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360
- PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U
From the first generation to the third, the target audience was clearly children under the age of 12. Ads showed children under the age of 10 sitting around a TV, excited and mind blown, with a controller in their hands.
It cemented video games as a form of children’s entertainment. And while each successive generation was progressively targeted at audiences older and older, it wasn’t until the sixth generation that games were starting to target teenagers and young adults. Ads started to show teenagers and young adults in the role of the consumer.
By the launch of the seventh and eighth generations, the target audience was firmly teenagers and young adults.
In each generation, the ads hit me because I was represented in or aspiring to be the person in them. The PlayStation ads made it seem forbidden, dangerous, and something my uncle would use, while the Nintendo 64 ads made it seem like they were kids like me. The pattern held into the Gen 6 launches with the PlayStation 2 and GameCube.
By the time the Gen 7 launches I was firmly a teenager in high school, wanting to finally be an adult at any cost. For the low price of $300, Microsoft was selling that in the Xbox 360. It was the box for Mature-rated shooters that let you dismember enemies with chainsaw rifles and endlessly fight Nazis. If that wasn’t enough to feel like an adult, I could go a step further buy dropping $500 on a PlayStation 3, whose price alone signalled ‘NOT FOR CHILDREN’.
And when I was actually an adult and wondering if video games were an activity that was fitting for someone my age, Sony and Microsoft assured me that it was. They knew that games were just one of the items on my entertainment plate. I was reminded that games were a healthy social activity and their ads reflected it.
But while these ads were fitting me throughout my life with my desires and anxieties, they didn’t with my uncle. If ads showed someone I could relate with, they showed him someone that could be his little nephew. If they showed me the freedoms of adulthood, they reminded him of the responsibilities he already had and were only getting larger. I could continue to escape teenage anxieties and buy adulthood with games – but he couldn’t buy youth through them.
The marketing makes sense. As a child of Baby Boomers, I fall directly into their echo generation, the Millennials. To top it off, falling between 25 and 30 years old makes me part of the Peak Millennials. I was part of a large mass of children and teens that warranted designing and marketing a product for. But my uncle, a late child of Silent generation parents, fell into a smaller demographic on the far edge of video game marketer’s reticle. Video game ads fit me throughout my life – and today – because they were targeted directly at me. He stopped playing because they weren’t.
The Classic Console Revival
My uncle’s sons, 5 and 8, were hooked on games in the same way he got me. Their first console was a Wii and they developed a fanatical love of Pokémon, Mario, and Sonic games. They call retro games “classics” or “old school” and, despite never beating one, treat them as the pinnacle of gaming. Why would kids these days love games from the 80s and 90s? What does it have to do with Nintendo’s classic console sales?
Think back to your most cherished gaming-related memory. Mine is opening my GameBoy Color on Christmas morning with a brand new copy of Pokémon Red. I had dreamed about it for months. I had pined for it and begged for it. It was my everything. I can still hear the chiptune gym and battle music as if it was yesterday. Why that memory? The Gameboy Color is the first console launch I can remember being aware of, and while its special, all of my most vivid gaming memories revolve around purchasing or opening a new console.
Console launches were, and continue to be, the most exciting time in video games. Everything is new and new is exciting. New boxes under the TV, controllers in your hand, features to use, and IPs on your TV screen. If all of those reasons weren’t enough, the majority of marketing dollars are front-loaded during console launches to build awareness, hype, and momentum with a large initial install base. The more consoles you sell out of the gate, the more likely developers are to want to make games for your system. The more games there are for your system (and if their friends own it too), the more likely people will chose your system over the competition. Momentum builds and console generations are won.
My uncle was less than 10 for the launch of the NES, and less than 18 for the launch of the SNES. If there was ever a console launch that he would be the target for, it was those. So when his children develop the manual dexterity to hold a controller, what gaming memories did he look back on and decide to share? Obviously, it was the ones from his childhood when he was the target of the ads.
My little cousins love Mario, Sonic, and “old school” games – even though they can’t get past the second world in either – because that’s what their dad wanted to share with them. And he’s part of a generation of parents that grew up with games and want to share it with their children and look to relive their carefree youth.
So if you want to share your childhood memories with your children, and introduce them to gaming the right way (obviously, the way you started – at the beginning) how are you going to do it? Chances are you don’t still own your childhood SNES and catalogue of games. They were lost in the move to a new house, sold off in a garage sale when games were too childish for you in your 20s, or traded in for a newer model. You could go to eBay or your local game shop and hope to find a working console and piece together the perfect game catalogue – the one you had growing up, of course – but who still has CRT TVs that display them right, or have the RCA ports?
In Comes Nintendo
What if you could buy a small, relatively cheap console that has all the games you loved built right in? You wouldn’t have to deal with setting it all up or dealing with 30+ year old technology that doesn’t always work. Chances are you would do it, and Nintendo was rewarded for their calculated bet.
Nintendo’s Classic console series fits this perfectly. If you look at the SNES Classic website, it’s clear the product is targeted at an audience nostalgic for their childhood. The visual language is ripped right from the same 90s ads for the SNES. The box art for the games is exactly as they were on the shelves at stores and sitting next to the TV when they made it home. Even the product design fits this to a T. The console hardware design is kept the same and shrunk with power and reset buttons in the same spot. The controllers are wired, even though Bluetooth is standard in all modern Nintendo consoles, because it forces you to sit closer to the TV like you did as a kid. Nintendo is selling you your childhood memories and the ability to pass them on to your kids.
Nintendo found the right timing for a generation of parents yearning to relive their childhood and targeted them perfectly with nostalgia. So remember, in a few months when the stories are written about the huge sums SNES Classics are going for on eBay – It’s not madness, it’s just good marketing.