Product placement and targeted advertisements in videogames—from billboards in racing games to energy drink adds in shooters—are bound to cause rage on the forums. In a large number of cases, it’s totally warranted, like with the brain-exploding full Verizon commerical in last year’s Alan Wake or the jarring neon green Powerade vending machines that were all over 2003’s Enter the Matrix (though a future where all vending machines everywhere sell only one drink forever somehow fits a computer-controlled dystopia).
Occasionally though, a brand or corporate sponsor will commission an entire Advergame, and while the results are usually terrible, there have been occasional gems, some of which are tied to the history of some of the biggest, most iconic gaming franchises today. Check out the 10 best advergames below.
10 – Doritos Crash Course/Harms Way
The first time Frito Lay ran their Doritos Presents: Unlock Xbox videogame creation contest in 2008, the winner was a cheesy little number called Dash of Destruction that involved either delivering Doritos chips while being chased by a T-Rex, or chasing Doritos delivery trucks as a T-Rex.
Last year, Frito-Lay held a second Unlock Xbox competition and actually managed to produce not one but two pretty good arcade games (especially considering they’re free to download): Doritos Crash Course, which doesn’t actually involve the branded product but is instead a Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course game where players play as their Xbox Live avatar and Harms Way, a surprisingly innovative mix of wasteland racing and Tower Defense that has players compete in teams of two; each racer on the track also has a stationary turret-manning gunner who can see most of the level and is trying to shoot every other car but his partner’s. It’s that rare example of a corporation managing to do good while doing well: Frito-Lay rakes in increased sales, gamers get two free games that are pretty damn good, and the two amateur game designers each won $50,000. Now that’s a corporate overlord I can get behind.
9 – Zool
It’s 1992. You’re the staff of Gremlin Graphics, and you’re developing a side-scrolling platformer to compete with Sega’s wildly popular Sonic the Hedgehog. You’ve got all sorts of things kids in the ‘90s love like a ninja main character, brightly colored stages, fast paced action, but you don’t have that much cash…so you make a deal. Everybody loves lollipops right? Especially those delicious, delicious Chupa Chups. Thus, the first three stages of your game (called The Sweet Zone) feature some of the least subtle branding in the history of videogames.
Yet, it’s hard to hate on Zool, because despite the completely unexplained, outright distracting Chupa Chups logos pasted throughout those first three candy-themed levels, it’s still a really good game—one of the best platformers of the generation, as it turns out. Besides, there are worse things to plaster all over a game than a logo designed by Salvador Dali (how’s that for a factoid).
8 – Jaguar XJ220
A lot of gamers tend to not put much thought into the corporate dealings that are behind games like Jaguar XJ220 and really all car manufacturer-sponsored games. While they might not seem as obvious of an advergame as say, McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure, the reality is that playing a sponsored racing game is no different than if Call of Duty was funded by Smith & Wesson and called S & W: Shoot People, Team Edition. It’s simply that driving real-world cars makes more sense than going on an adventure as a real world fast-food mascot.
Your new-found knowledge of just how deep that licensed stick is all up in your games shouldn’t deter you, though. Released in 1993, Jaguar XJ220 was lauded as the best arcade racing game of it’s time. It even featured innovative functions like a track editor (an awesome no-brainer that’s still has yet to become a standard feature on racing games), choice between manual and automatic transmission and the ability to change music tracks mid-race from an in-car cd-player (a predecessor of GTA’s much-lauded in-car radio system). I’m still impressed by how good the game looks considering how early 3D games really haven’t aged well.
7 – Cool Spot
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a strange time for advertising. For a while, it seemed like everyone just had to have an anthropomorphic mascot of some sort, and the more tude you could stuff in it, the better. Even 7-Up, despite having no obvious animal or character in their branding, found a way into the game by taking the red spot from the logo and literally adding tube limbs, white kicks and gloves, some bitchin shades and a permanent O-face. The results were strangely awesome.
Cool Spot, the videogame, was made by Virgin Games (yes, even Virgin had a game development wing) and released in 1993 for the SNES and Sega Genesis to wide acclaim. The game had excellent, award-winning sound and music composed by Tommy Tallarico, cousin of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and winner of over 25 industry awards for best video game audio. It also featured tight gameplay—the controls were responsive and the titular protagonist could double jump and fire carbonation in all directions, even while airborne, as well as cling and climb up surfaces. Health was handled with a spot face that would wilt and go limp as your character took damage. Though there’s no official connection, it honestly plays like a branded, happier version of 1995’s critically lauded Vectorman, one of the coolest games of its time.
6 – Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed
Released in 2000, Porsche Unleashed was the first and so far only Need for Speed game (a series that goes back to 1994) to be made in partnership with a single manufacturer and only features cars from that manufacturer. Rather than turn people off by limiting even what your opponents are driving to Porsche cars, the game was a hit (the superior PC version, that is) with both fans and critics for the immense attention to detail and inclusion of a large amount of historical and technical information in the form of videos, pictures and text about Porsche vehicles from 1950 models onward.
One of the new modes introduced, Evolution, proved to be particularly popular. Set as a series of tournaments, players begin by racing older Porsche models, and as they win and gain money, they unlock newer models for purchase, which open up newer races to be won and continuously newer cars to unlock and upgrade. Speaking of upgrading, even the large list of parts that can be swapped out were all Porsche products. This game is fondly remembered as a car fanatic’s paradise, and though the original online servers have long since been discontinued, the community continues to thrive through private servers and an entire fan-created scoring/ladder board system.
5 – America’s Army
Anti-video game violence advocates and angry PTA moms love to argue that games from the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and HALO franchises (and really any FPS they’re made aware of) are nothing but disgusting recruitment and advertising tools to convince kids that war is fun and there’s no party like an enlistment party. The problem is, the Army is way ahead of them and does, in fact, have its own game series that is very open about being a recruitment tool. Welcome to America’s Army.
It should surprise no one that America’s Army is good because as much as it’s come in to fashion to make fun of the military, the PR department is pretty savvy. If you’ve played military-themed shooters with any degree of seriousness or enthusiasm, you very quickly realize that a lot of thought went in to AA upon playing. Playing AA is nothing like any of the mainstream shooters. To get a quick idea, here’s Wikipedia’s quick blurb on playing medic:
”America’s Army includes optional medical training designed to provide real-world information. In order to assume the role of combat life-saver in the game, players must pass a virtual medical training course based on actual training that soldiers receive with regard to evaluating and prioritizing casualties, controlling bleeding, recognizing and treating shock, and administering aid when victims are not breathing. Two America’s Army players have reported using the training they received in-game to save lives in emergency situations.”
Snap. To top it off, all incarnations of the game are free to download and play, even to people outside the U.S., because as the developers state on their FAQ page, “We want the whole world to know how great the U.S. Army is.”
4 – Turbo Esprit
“You’re a special agent equipped with a Lotus Turbo Esprit. An international ring of drug smugglers are about to make the huge delivery of heroin, and must be stopped at all costs.” Developed in concert with Lotus Cars Ltd., Durell Software’s 1986 Turbo Esprit is cited as the ancestor of none other than the widely lauded Grand Theft Auto series of video games. Turbo Esprit has the impressive distinction of being the very first free-roaming driving game, featuring four progressively more difficult cities to explore(Wellington, Gamesborough, Minster and Romford) full of computer-controlled cars (and pedestrians!) going about their business while obeying traffic laws such as stopping at lights, driving below the speed limit and swerving to avoid obstacles and/or the player’s speeding death trap. Your job is to destroy target dope-carrying cars by either ramming them to death or lighting them up with your on-board machine-gun, all while doing as little damage to civilians as possible.
“My God!” you say, “All that in a game from 1986?!” Yes, but of course the trade off is that the game is less than pretty by modern standards. A lot of late-’80s and early-’90s sprite-based games have aged well, but unfortunately Turbo Esprit is ugly as sin. Still, it was nothing short of groundbreaking, it heavily influenced one of the currently most influential video game franchises, and back in 1986 it had more features and a larger gameworld than many modern releases.
3 – Yume K?j?: Doki Doki Panic
Does that box art look familiar? Any characters or actions registering in your nostalgia sensors? They should be, because just about every gamer born in the ‘80s or earlier has played what became of this game, either the 1988 original release on the NES or the 1993 re-release as part of Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES. “Wait, Mario?” Believe it.
In one of the strangest cultural back-and-forths of the last few decades, What was released in the US back in 1988 as Super Mario Bros. 2 was actually a Nintendo of America redesign of Yume K?j?: Doki Doki Panic, a Mario-esque platformer Nintendo developed in cooperation with Fuji Television, featuring the mascots of the network’s Yume K?j? festival: a family of four on an Arabian adventure. When the actual Super Mario Bros. 2 came out in Japan (what’s known in the U.S. as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels), NoA were worried that the greatly increased difficulty and only minor visual changes would turn off American players, so they decided to change a relatively unknown game into a Mario sequel they felt better about presenting to fans. Papa, Mama, and brother and sister Imajin and Lina became Toad, Luigi, Mario and Peach, respectively.
Despite not starting as a Mario game, Yume K?j? was originally created and directed by the Super Mario Bros. 2 director Kensuke Tanabe, while the original Super Mario Bros. composer Koji Kondo provided the score. New gameplay elements, like the picking up and throwing of enemies, went on to become Mario signatures, as well as the first time height discrepancy between Mario and Luigi. Finally, to both make everything weirder and bring things full circle, the successful American rebranding led to our Super Mario Bros. 2 eventually being released in Japan as Super Mario USA.
2 – Crazy Taxi
Originally an arcade box before seeing release as one of the most popular, critically acclaimed and best-selling Dreamcast games ever, Crazy Taxi also featured some of the most wide-spread branding and product placement of all of video game history, made even more remarkable by the fact that almost no players noticed and no one raised a stink.
This is the apex of appropriate in-game advertising: Crazy Taxi features accurately modeled Pizza Huts, Tower Records stores, FILA sportswear stores, Levi’s stores and KFCs, along with WOW! emblazoned vans. These stores aren’t just in the background either, your prospective customers will verbally demand that you take them to these locations as well as to the generic police stations, railway, and lookout point, and you never stop to question it because it absolutely fits in to the frantic, balls-to-the-walls crazy paced taxi simulator that’s got you hooked by the scrotum. All while Bad Religion and The Offspring are shouting tracks at you. Oh, to go back to 1999.
1 – Chex Quest
Ah, Chex Quest—the cereal box prize radical enough to make my picky eight-year-old self absolutely crave some bland-ass Chex cereal. Chex Quest was a Doom total conversion released back in 1996 as part of a promotional tie in with Chex. It was successful. Damn successful. Word of mouth of how ball-droppingly awesome the game was circulated the playground fast: Chex Cereal sales increased by 248%.
It was a risky move for two major reasons. First, no one had every released videogame software in a cereal box. Second, it was a rework of Doom, a gory shooter endlessly demonized by parents and activists around the country, aimed at children. Fascinatingly, that second point proved that Doom was in fact popular because of its gameplay at least as much as for the violence—Chex Quest saw players zapping gooey enemies with the Chex Warrior’s Zorcher, a gun that teleports rather than kills. Fan response was so overwhelmingly positive and long-lasting that not only did developer Digital Café produce a sequel in 1997, Chex Quest 2, but former members of the now defunct Digital Café, Charles Jacobi and Scott Holman, released an enhanced, completed version of the 1998 Chex Quest 3 beta in 2008, a whopping nine years since the original development studio ceased to exist and 12 years since the original Chex Quest promotion.
Holy nipple-twisting terrorists, Batman—all this for a cereal tie-in that can be completed in under six minutes
You bet your sweet, sweet, cereal munching ass, Robin. You didn’t even have to mail in box tops.