With one remarkably symbolic product, the video-game company famous for Pokemon and Donkey Kong may be risking decades of parental good will in order to expand its appeal to an adult audience that has outgrown sanitized humor.
Nintendo, one of the industry’s dominant forces, broke precarious new ground this month with the release of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a comically vulgar video game for adults.
The company pledged its best efforts to shield its traditional audience of children from all suggestive advertising. But as word spreads about the game, which features a hung-over squirrel and gross-out humor, the volume is going up again on the debate about kids’ exposure to coarse and violent entertainment.
Regardless of Nintendo’s self-imposed promotional restrictions, Conker’s Bad Fur Day epitomizes the conflict over where the line is drawn between adult and children’s entertainment — and how it’s marketed. The M rating — for mature — placed on Conker’s Bad Fur Day means it’s not supposed to be sold to anyone under 17, and it carries additional warnings on the packaging for language, sexual themes and animated violence.
“Then why did they have to make the squirrel so cute?” said Grace Sylvan, a San Jose resident whose 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son are Nintendo fans.
Sylvan, executive producer of a Web site devoted to children’s activities and interests, first saw Conker while surfing a video-game site. Although she accepts the idea of Nintendo creating games specifically for adults, she dismisses the idea that it’s OK to use cartoon characters in doing so.
“That’s like saying Joe Camel wasn’t selling cigarettes to young people,” she said.
The game includes scenes of its star squirrel urinating on enemies, cursing, and a showing a fondness for graphic jokes about “poo.”
Nintendo, which said early sales of the game have been strong, generally has embraced the discussion instead of shying from it. Company officials have talked openly about the game’s controversial nature since announcing it last spring.
“The game is what it is. You can’t run and hide from that,” said George Harrison, vice president of marketing and corporate communications for Nintendo of America.
The issue of the game’s potential allure to children under 17 is “as old as time itself,” said Harrison. “There is always the risk of forbidden fruit.”
To reduce the game’s notoriety with children, Harrison said TV commercials have been limited largely to late-night cable programming, while print advertising will be found in magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, and Rolling Stone.
But the most significant aspect of Conker’s Bad Fur Day may be simply that it comes from Nintendo, a company famous for the relatively mild content of its games. It suggests a turning point for the Japanese-owned company, which says that 40 percent of its consumers are now 18 or older.
The Conker character’s only previous stardom was in a 1999 game with an E rating, which means it was for everyone 6 and older. In Conker’s BFD, the game basically opens with a vomit joke.
In game circles, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is receiving critical acclaim for its cleverness, expressive animation and boldness. One magazine, Electronic Gaming Monthly, summed up the quality and temptation of the game by advising its younger readers:
“Get your fake IDs ready.”