Friday Slide: Sony Attacks the iPhone, Gamers Yawn

I was born in the year 1980. I started playing video games in 1984, when my parents brought home a Colecovision. The Atari 2600 followed, then the NES. It was a happy time; looking back, I now realize that I was too busy gaming to agonize over the simmering threat of nuclear annihilation that tortured most kids through the ’80s.

So of course, I get nostalgic for old games. Not unreasonably so; I have my favorite console generation (the era of 16 bits), but I also know full well that this generation of consoles and handhelds is pretty darn remarkable for its own reasons. But I maintain a keen interest in retro gaming.

There is, however, a holdover from gaming’s yesteryear that’s seeing a gradual resurrection. Something I never missed. And that’s the video game attack ad.

Sony has been taking jabs at iPhone gaming with its newest PSP ad. In the ad, teen actor Bobb’e J Thompson lightly scolds a blank-eyed bike rider who shows off “Lame Castle” for his iPhone. Phones, preaches Thompson, are for calling your girlfriend, or texting your grandma. But the PSP offers “big boy games.”

If you existed at any point during the ’90s, you probably remember Sega’s commercial onslaught against the 8-bit Nintendo and then the Super Nintendo (remember “Sega Does what Nintendon’t?” The Sega Scream? Is it coming back to you?). Nintendo eventually counter-attacked with some “EX-TREEEME!” commercials and a new slogan: “Play it Loud.”

It was kind of exhilarating at the time, but looking back, it was also a little embarrassing for everyone involved. I wasn’t especially sad to watch game ads move out of puberty and quiet down a little (full-blown maturity is still pending).

I guess Sony’s marketing department never got a chance to go through growing pains alongside Nintendo and Sega, and it has to attack something to level up. So it’s targeted the iPhone. There’s one key difference between this round of ads and the stuff we grew up with, however: Sega and Nintendo were direct competitors engaged in a fight for every kid’s pocket money at the end of a recession. Mom would buy a Genesis or a Super Nintendo; probably not both.

But the PSP and iPhone don’t have a lot in common. Contrary to the lecture Thompson (“Marcus”) doles out in the PSP commercial, lots of people who buy an iPhone for texting and phone calls might also eventually buy a PSP for some serious sit-down gaming when a round of Doodle Jump just won’t cut it. I wouldn’t begin to consider the iPhone as a replacement for the PSP– not currently, anyway. There’s a lot you can stuff on a UMD that won’t squeeze onto a phone of any build.

With that in mind, the commercial comes off as a little desperate. It’s no secret that the PSP is having some trouble in the North American market, but the iPhone isn’t to blame; the iPhone’s software library needs some serious beefing up, as does the selection of downloads on the Playstation Network (Suikoden II is available in Japan, but not North America? Do you hate money, Sony?)

Leave console attack ads to fester in the ’90s, where they belong. If the PSP is miles above the iPhone, develop the games that demonstrate why.

To Sony’s credit, the commercial features a small twist where Marcus admits that he texts his grandmother. Definitely a change from the attitude-filled ’90s, which portrayed old women as cat-hoarding crazies who were terrified of emerging technology.

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