Day 295: The Pixelated Madness Of Advergaming, Part 1

originally published October 21, 2012

Most of us spend our time tolerating commercials and advertisements, or avoiding them if possible. We scan through commercials on our PVRs, our thumb twitching over the button in hopes of hitting it just in time for the end of the break and feeling like a television-Jedi. We ignore flashy banner ads online, and try to pretend it’s not weird when Facebook tells our friends that we like Target, even when we’re positive we’ve never indicated any such thing.

Companies know this. They know we’re sick of being told what to buy, eat, smoke or gargle. That’s why they developed the notion of Advergaming. Advergaming is all about coaxing the masses into playing an advertisement cloaked in a video game. Sometimes these games are laughably awful. These are some of those times.

Back before Atari’s E.T. game started the ball rolling on the great video game collapse of 1983, the 2600 was still the go-to system for most anyone who wanted to develop a simple game. Coca-Cola decided it would be a big treat, a gracious gift from the corporate heavens if they created a video game just for their employees to play. It would be the highlight of their 1983 sales convention. Rather than develop something new (all their Research & Development money was being channeled into developing a delicious new flavor for the beverage that couldn’t possibly be a complete disaster), they came up with Pepsi Invaders.

It’s Space Invaders with five out of the six aliens in each row having been replaced by the word ‘PEPSI.’ It was a cute novelty, though based off a five-year-old game and really not marketable beyond Coke workers who wanted to feel they were shooting the competition. Well, shooting the competition’s name. Find a copy of this at someone’s garage sale though, and you’re looking at a two-thousand-dollar score.

For this next entry, have a look at the box:

That’s right, it looks like we’ll be cracking open this obvious piece of product placement, then smashing through walls and screaming at a bunch of fiery, snake-tongued tribbles. Now have a look at the game:

Playing this game was like taking a long drink of Kool-Aid, but someone had accidentally added salt instead of sugar. A friend of mine mailed away a bushel of proofs-of-purchase to snag this game for his Intellivision. I remember the look on his face. He looked like he’d been saving up for a brand new bike, then opened the box to find a Schwinn-shaped turd.

The object of the game is to stop those little blob things from drinking the contents of the pool at the bottom, by hitting them as they drink, which somehow switches them to Kool-Aid and saves the contents of the pool. I’m not sure about the message here. Apparently backwash-filled pool-water is much more valuable than crappy Kool-Aid, and these savvy creatures know it.

It took about fifteen minutes of playing this game for my friend to wish he’d simply eaten those proofs of purchase instead, or burned them for heat.

Most kids – at least in my generation – associate “fun” with “dog food.” The Purina corporation, ever aware of their mighty media presence, cashed in on this in 1983 with Chase The Chuck Wagon, an Atari 2600 game based on their popular TV commercials.

In the commercials, a dog would hallucinate a chuck wagon storming through its house, and would give chase. The owner, not at all concerned that her puppy had switched from licking balls to tripping them, would smile knowingly, then happily dish out some Purina Dog Chow as a reward. Somehow this sounded like a great game to somebody.

I hated this game. The folks at Purina (well, Spectravision made the game, let’s give credit where blame is due) were so concerned about cramming their corporate identity into a video game, they forgot that games are supposed to be fun. In this clunky mess, you are a dog in a maze. You have to avoid the dog catcher, as well as a floating bone that for whatever reason freezes you and impedes your progress, and get to the chuck wagon before time runs out and you presumably die of starvation.

After four mazes, you see your score for the game. Because Ataris didn’t keep track of high scores, you either remember whether or not you beat your best, or more likely you simply turn the console off and shake your head in a fit of self-loathing shame.

Do you remember this one? Do you remember all those hours you spent playing Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru? No? Alright, no one in North America has fond memories of this game. It was released in Japan for Japanese audiences, telling the story of a ninja who searches a children’s theme park for a bunch of other ninjas who had been kidnapping kids. Exciting stuff.

In North America, they released the exact same game, but it was this:

In Yo! Noid you control the Noid as he rids New York City of slime creatures in hopes he’ll get a pizza prize. For anyone under thirty, or anyone who may have had better things to do in 1990 than watch TV, the Noid was a Domino’s Pizza mascot. In his commercials, he showed up to ruin people’s pizzas, which was somehow supposed to make people want to buy other pizza. I don’t really remember the logic in those ads.

Yo! Noid was overlaid atop Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru with very little effort. They replaced the ninja’s hawk weapon with a yo-yo, because yo-yos were still hip in 1990. The characters were updated, and the music was tweaked a little. If all this sounds like a crass act of laziness, keep in mind that both games were simply plastered overtop the engine for a Japanese game called Wagan Land anyway. Just like with Pepsi Invaders, it’s easier to bastardize a game that already exists than to develop something completely new.

At least the Domino’s game came with a one-dollar coupon for pizza on the box.

Fortunately, this is one topic that keeps on giving. So many companies tried desperately to shoe-horn their image into hipness by having their own video game, yet none of them really made anything especially good. I’ll continue this saga of weirdness next week. For now I have to satiate my  inexplicable sudden craving for pizza. And dog food.

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