1980s Video Game Culture Caught in Comic Book Ads

My wife is awesome. As one of my birthday presents in June, she brought home a huge stack of comic books dating from 1988-1989 that someone had left in the giveaway pile near her office. Surprisingly, almost all of these were in mint condition, and whoever left them apparently once had a devoted crush on the Uncanny X-Man, Web of Spiderman, and the Inferno crossover storyline, which featured more character transformations than an episode of Transformers. Best of all, several issues from the pile are worth about $40 today, so it turned out to be a much better birthday present than either of us had realized.

Choosing a controller used to be serious business.

It’s possible I already have many of these comic books along with hundreds of others in a big box in a closet in my parents’ house almost 1,200 miles away, but I haven’t opened it in years. Alone they sit, collecting dust and value, until the day when I’ll undertake an epic quest to hunt them down and transmute them into the magical force that will annihilate the tyranny of my graduate student loans. Hopefully, anyway. Back in 1988, however, comic books made up one of the twin suns of my world. I was nine years old, a wheeler and dealer of comics books like these, and, perhaps above all, a rabid gamer. For me and thousands of other similarly geeky 80s kids with Coke-bottle glasses, comic books and video games went hand in hand.

(Left) Pre-Internet game ordering! Note the mislabeled games.

Looking through these comic books today, I’m reminded that the 80s were such a great time to be a kid. Comic art was suddenly filled with groundbreaking art and stories, cartoons took on a life of their own, toy companies were in an arms race to outdo one another, kids were still extremely interested in paper-and-pen D&D-like games (and board games, to boot), and video games were visibly evolving as every month went by. Everything was new, fresh, and full of wonder, and there were world-shaking product releases several times a year as technology advanced astronomically in several fields.

Today, it’s shocking that these ads for the video games in these comic books are “only” twenty-two years old. Flipping through, it’s easy to smile at the claims of “jaw-dropping graphics” and LCD games being cutting edge, but at the time, we read these ads with wide-eyed wonder before exploding into movement and begging our parents to get The Next Big Thing. Looking through them is a rare opportunity to drop into the early days of the video game industry, when gamers and game companies explored and perfected the interactivity between games and players and when 8-bit and Nintendo were undisputed kings.

In 1988, “arcade-like graphics” was one of the big hooks. As anyone who grew up during the period knows, however, this was sometimes quite a stretch and it seemed like the developers were all too aware of this. Sadly, In an age before the Internet, ads in comic books (and magazines like Nintendo Power, if you were lucky) provided some of the only means to find out what a game looked like aside from playing it at your buddy’s house, and knowing this, it seemed like developers took every step possible to avoid putting screenshots of NES arcade ports in an ad. Take the above. In the ads for Operation: Wolf, Gun.Smoke., and 1943: The Battle For Midway, the advertisers play up the success of the games in the arcades (“The World’s #1 Arcade Game!” “Players pumped in millions of quarters!”) while neglecting to show you how poorly the graphics of the NES version compared to what we played at the mall. Only Gun.Smoke has the guts to do so—”With all the dazzling graphics”—but they’ve made the screenshots extremely small to avoid the awkward comparisons and taken your attention away from the game itself with the tough-guy photo. Turtle freak that I was, I remember feeling mixed emotions upon receiving TMNT: The Arcade Game. While the game replicated much of the feel of the arcade version, it failed to take my breath away like the arcade game, which looked like Michelangelo was about to hop out of the screen and stuff a slice of pizza in my mouth. Until console games were able to capture the arcade magic, the arcades would still hold an advantage over games at home. Largely kept in the dark when it came to how an arcade port looked in the days before the Internet, we were, in many ways, a hostage audience.

Obviously, this wasn’t such a bad thing, and many console-native games, such as The Adventures of Bayou Billy, played up just how awesome they seemed by plastering the page with screenshots and highlighting all the different gameplay methods that could be found in one game. These console-native games were among the favorites, partially because we had nothing to compare them to and because they were built around the system. Arcade games ported to the NES, however, seemed like wimpy, pimply cosplay versions of godly animated superheroes. Other games, such as Metal Gear, played up how just much there was to pick up and use, which had a lot of impact in an age when many of us still had the minimalist Ataris hooked up to the TV.

The year 1988 was the twilight before the dawn of GameBoy, which would redefine portable games forever. Portable games existed during this period (including in watch form), but they were such simple affairs that they almost seem embarrassing today, even knowing how much I wanted them when I was a kid. Among the most notable of these were the Nintendo Game and Watch and the Tiger LCD video games, both of which featured an LCD screen (similar to a digital watch) with a permanent background that could be used to give you the “feeling” of the real game. While these could be fun, most of the time they were annoying affairs that required a second for each fractured movement, resulting in much clenched teeth and yelling of “I TOTALLY got that, stupid game!” Worse, since I was a little Texas boy, on a couple of occasions I realized that they didn’t like heat very well after pulling them out of my roasting bag and seeing the ink smeared over the screen. I remember switching it on anyway and simply watching Mario, the only thing still visible on the screen, jump up and down, while I pressed the buttons determined to play even if I couldn’t see past the smear. Nintendo’s ad made it seem like the advances of the Game Boy were already here; the Tiger games appealed to you through the art on the device.

I may upload and write about a few more of these at a later date, but for now I leave you with this awesome artifact: In the days before Everquest and World of Warcraft, some people did their fantasy gaming on the phone. Now that’s hardcore.

Any other thoughts on all this? I’d like to hear them!

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