Nintendo's American commercial for Super Mario Bros. 3 remains nothing less than sheer marketing genius.
It starts with a fairly odd scene: groups of people, paired in matching garb, looking to the skies and chanting "Mario! Mario! Mario!" As the camera gradually pulls back to the point where planet earth nearly fills the frame, we see the colored outfits of this cultish group were no accident: Together, they form a massive Mario head that occupies most of the Midwest—remember that, in 1990, Hands Across America was undoubtedly fresh in most people's minds. Suddenly, a wry announcer chimes in: "He's back. All you had to do was ask." In this brief 30 seconds, Nintendo communicated one essential fact: Super Mario Bros. 3 is incredibly important, and we don't even need to tell you why.
This ad can (and probably should) be considered an act of abject arrogance on Nintendo's part, but it's important to note just how conservatively the company handled what would undoubtedly be their biggest NES game yet. While Super Mario Bros. 3 launched in October 1988 in Japan, it wouldn't hit America until February of 1990—that's nearly an 18-month gap. These days, publishers only leave games in localization limbo for this long if they're riddled with text and at risk of only reaching a niche audience—see Bravely Default and Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright for some good examples of this phenomenon—but, given America's late-'80s NintendoMania, Mario 3 couldn't be anything but an overwhelming success. Of course, Nintendo of America's cynical marketing decision to distance themselves from the "Japanese-ness" of their products definitely assisted in selling a 1988 game as a brand-new experience in 1990.
If anything, the above commercial existed only to put the seed of want in children's heads. Since video games were treated no better than any other toy, the idea of a release date amounted to "whenever the truck shows up." A few years later, events like Mortal Monday (which had an ad with the same sense of mystery as Mario 3's) and "Sonic 2s Day" would go a long way towards cementing the idea of a video game release date, but this wouldn't be standard practice in America until sometime around the PlayStation era. Japan, though, with its much smaller land mass, apparently had a more efficient distribution system in place: Super Mario Bros. 3's Japanese commercial lists a specific release date, which would have been unheard of in 1988 America.
Of course, Nintendo understood they had no control over when Mario 3 would hit different parts of America, and they definitely used this to their advantage; simply by stoking desire, they motivated consumers to seek out Mario 3, regardless of how difficult the simple task of "buying a thing" could prove. And while the game's official release date might be listed as the nebulous "February 1990" in America, I'm pretty sure I didn't see it start popping up in stores until March or April—and I've met some people who weren't able to get their hands on Mario 3 until the early summer months. In order to keep desire active in spite of shaky, countrywide distribution, Nintendo had another bit of marketing magic up their sleeve: an honest-to-god Hollywood movie that would push demand for Mario 3 into the stratosphere.
In retrospect, The Wizard isn't nearly the outright 90-minute Nintendo commercial it could have been. While most kids would have willfully enjoyed nothing but Nintendo footage on the silver screen—keep in mind our '80s entertainment mostly consisted of glorified toy ads—The Wizard instead spins a tepid coming-of-age tale, complete with the cutesy treatment of autism seen in the previous year's Rain Man. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert actually complains about the lack of Nintendo and authenticity—pretty impressive for a 47-year-old respected critic: "But here the problem is that [The Wizard] doesn't have much Nintendo in it, and some of that is wrong (when it's announced, for example, that the third level of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been reached, the movie screen clearly shows the first level)." Worse still: The scene that depicts the Power Glove as a peripheral that functions as intended.
To most kids, though, suffering through a B-plot about Beau Bridges and Christian Slater doing some father-son bonding was worth it for the sake of seeing Super Mario Bros. 3 in action. What previously took the form of speculative playground rumors had finally materialized as A Real Thing, and even though Mario 3 reveals itself in bits and pieces as part of a minutes-long end-of-movie montage, that was more than enough for an entire generation of kids to commence their whining. The Wizard not only presented a world where Mario 3 existed as a known quantity; it also gave us child characters who had an unprecedented mastery of this yet-to-be-released game—or maybe Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis arrived early to the import scene? Whatever the case, in light of The Wizard's successful promotion of Mario 3, it feels outright cruel for Universal to have released this movie shortly before Christmas of 1989, when the game wouldn't be available until months later.
In the terms of our industry's short life, 1990 was practically the Bronze Age. Over the past few generations, the hype machine has started earlier and earlier—how many years of BioShock Infinite previews did you read before getting your hands on the actual game? And it's important to note video games no longer have the luxury of being shrouded in mystery, like Super Mario Bros. 3 in its pre-release period; outside of a few rare exceptions (mostly FromSoftware's Souls series), it seems we know mostly everything about a game before the actual release. Still, it's hard to blame publishers too much: With so much money on the line, keeping consumers informed stands as an essential goal. But In those simpler times of 1990, all it took to sell a game was the promise of more Mario.