Back when video games were still considered kids' toys and the phrase "triple-A" hadn't entered the gaming lexicon, it was common for developers to make games based on contracted product licenses. No industry embraced this practice harder than junk food manufacturers, all of which were eager to convince 12-year-olds that soda, chips, and 4,000-calorie burgers should be a part of their everyday diet.
Making games that featured snack food mascots was a cheap method of advertising. The funny thing is, some of these games were actually good, despite the fact that they were little more than promotional tools. Though this isn't an exhaustive list by any means, join us as we take a look at the brands that attempted to make playing with virtual food fun.
Kool-Aid Man (1983 - Atari 2600, Intellivision)
Mattel--one of the world's biggest toy companies--developed one of the world's first ever games made specifically to promote a food product. Kool-Aid Man (a game which could be obtained for free by sending in 125 proof of purchase points) released in 1983 for the Atari 2600 and, later, the Intellivision. It featured Kool-Aid's already popular mascot: An anthropomorphic pitcher of punch, with an obsession for destroying property and pulling off sweet tricks on his (its?) skateboard. The goal of the game? To quench the thirst of rotund creatures cleverly called "Thirsties."
Basically, you hopped around as a giant bowl of fruit juice and slammed Kool-Aid Man's body into Thirsties that were attempting to drink water instead of Kool-Aid. The gameplay was pretty telling of Kraft Foods' ultimate goal, as it warned kids of the dangers of drinking water instead of sugary, cavity-causing drinks. Those "dangers" mostly just included getting crushed to death under the weight of a talking pitcher that would scream "Ohhhh yeaaaaah!" while it extinguished the life from a Thirsties' young, innocent eyes. What a terrifying thought.
Pepsi Invaders (1983 - Atari 2600)
Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been competitors ever since the two soda giants were founded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, respectively. But their rivalry has never been more fierce than during the Cola Wars of the 1980s. It was during this time that Coca-Cola commissioned the development of a game called Pepsi Invaders--also known as "Coke Wins"--which was essentially a hacked version of Space Invaders for the Atari 2600. Only 125 copies of the game were ever made, and they were handed out to the sales executives that attended Coca-Cola's 1983 sales convention.
The game tasked players with destroying incoming aliens in the form of hostile, world-ending letters that just happened to spell "Pepsi" across each row. Though players had unlimited lives with which to do so, they were given a three-minute time limit to blast those horrible, horrible letters from the heavens. That'll teach those red-white-and-blue bastards who they're messing with.
Donald Land (1988 - Famicom)
McDonald's first foray into the world of video game marketing occurred in the form of Donald Land, a straightforward platformer that never released outside of Japan. Controlling Ronald McDonald (known as Donald McDonald in the game), players had to bring peace to his magical kingdom by saving the burger-addicted clown's kidnapped companions and trouncing feral animals. Which was accomplished by throwing soap bubbles and explosive apple bombs. Which literally makes zero sense.
Avoid the Noid (1989 - Commodore 64, DOS)
Okay, this one requires a tiny bit of backstory. In the late '80s, Domino's Pizza frequently boasted about its guarantee to always deliver a pizza in 30 minutes or less. To further demonstrate its promise, commercials aired featuring a claymation marketing character called the Noid, a bunny-human-hybrid creature that was a manifestation of all the challenges (or annoyances, thus "a Noid") that came with delivering a pizza in such a short amount of time. And so, it was deemed, a video game would be a fitting way to bolster pizza consumers' understanding of how hard it was to deliver pizzas while they were still hot.
Thus Avoid the Noid was born, a game that put players in the shoes of a pizza delivery boy who had to safely carry hot cheese pies through Noid-infested apartment buildings and deliver them unto the hungry customer. Though the game was actually pretty fun to play, it's safe to say that it exaggerated the challenges that come with pizza delivery. We doubt delivery workers usually have to worry about trap doors, pizza-destroying rabbits packing heat-seeking missile launchers, or being driven insane by digitized variations of classical music. Usually.
Yo! Noid (1990 - NES)
The Noid's video game follow-up, Yo! Noid, was originally released in Japan as a game called Masked Ninja Hanamaru. That game featured a ninja-in-training tasked with investigating a series of kidnappings. Of kids. During the game's Western localization, Domino's Pizza contracted Capcom to replace the ninja character with the Noid and its story with a new kid-friendly tale (preferably with fewer child abductions). This new story saw the previously evil pizza-devouring mascot become the hero as he set out to save New York City from his super-evil twin, Mr. Green.
Yo! Noid was a pretty cool action platformer game (seeing as its mechanics were identical to those of Masked Ninja Hanamaru). The Noid used his deadly yo-yo--which was quite the departure from Hanamaru's vicious hawk--to defeat enemies, and could obtain magical screen-clearing attacks via power-ups. Plus, pizza lovers were delighted to find a coupon for $1 off a Domino's pizza on the back of the game's instruction manual. Radical!
Spot: The Video Game (1990 - Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Game Boy, NES)
The marketing executives behind 7 Up soda weren't the first to try luring in a younger audience by making a video game based on a brand's mascot. Unfortunately, their first attempt resulted in Spot: The Video Game, a pretty boring virtual recreation of the obscure strategy game Reversi. Because, you know, that's what all the kiddies were into.
Honestly, we're not entirely sure about the logic on this one, aside from the fact that Spot--the sunglasses-wearing mascot of 7 Up fame--was basically an anthropomorphic Checkers piece. The developers tried to spice the game up by giving him hip animations as he moved across the board, and the game did offer four-player local multiplayer, a pretty novel feature at the time. Too bad it was kind of boring in practice. Nothing says "Drink our edgy soda!" quite like a weird version of checkers that no one knows how to play.
M.C. Kids / Global Gladiators (1992 - NES, Game Boy, Commodor 64, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS)
M.C. Kids became a cult classic in the years following its release, as it developed a reputation as a challenging platform game rife with tons of hidden secrets. It also introduced Mick and Mack, the titular M.C. Kids, who would later go on to star in Global Gladiators, another promotional side-scrolling action game licensed by McDonalds.
But McDonalds officials weren't too happy with the game, citing difficulty as a major barrier that prevented the fast-food chain's target audience--kids--from enjoying it. You see, the children were supposed to feel like heroes that could accomplish anything if only they ingested burgers that contained 30+ grams of fat per serving. Instead, all they found were pitfalls and migraine-inducing graphics. Alas, the McDonalds allotted a minimal promotional budget to M.C. Kids post-release, dooming the game's sales from the start. Tragic.
Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool / Wild Wild Quest (1992 - SNES, Sega Genesis)
The late '80s and early '90s spawned all kinds of "hip" and "cool" snack food mascots, and few are as immediately recognizable as Chester Cheetah. Cheetos' famous feline (who was the second mascot of the Cheetos brand, coming after the Cheetos Mouse of the '70s) spouted all sorts of sly slogans in an attempt to convince kids that rhyming about crunchy snack foods was awesome.
Good 'ol Chester burst into the gaming scene with 1992's Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool, a painfully slow sidescrolling platformer. Funny thing is, Chester's rhyming obsession made it into the instruction manual, which, thanks to poor translation, contained awesome gems like "As is Chester Cheetah way, is one-person play." A sequel entitled Chester Cheetah: Wild Wild Quest was released later in the same year, and though it was a bit quicker in pace compared to its predecessor, it was still... dangerously cheesy. Get it? GET IT?
Cool Spot (1993 - Sega Genesis, SNES, Game Gear, Amiga, Game Boy, DOS )
Not content to let its circular mascot be associated with virtual board games forever, 7 Up took another stab at advergames in 1993 with Cool Spot, a surprisingly good sidescrolling platformer. In it, Cool Spot had to save his friends from imprisonment while finding collectibles scattered throughout each level. He could also shoot 7 Up from the palms of his hands, disintegrating underwear-laden crabs from beneath their shells with the soda's unbearably high sugar content.
But Cool Spot deserves credit for more than just its decent platforming; it also featured awesome music, impressive character animations, and a bit of 7 Up history in its bonus levels. Here, you were tasked with collecting a series of letters, which would spell "Uncola" once they were all found. This was a reference to 7 Up's marketing campaign in the late '60s and early '70s, when the soda was called the "Uncola" in an attempt to appeal to rebellious teenagers. A follow-up sequel, Spot Goes to Hollywood, was released in 1995, and was far more difficult thanks to its 3D orientation, isometric perspective, and clunky controls. Uncoola.
McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure (1993 - Sega Mega Drive, Genesis)
Despite McDonald's many licensed video games, very few of them actually featured Ronald McDonald, the magical mascot who loved making kids happy. That all changed in 1993's McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure, where Ronald and his friends went treasure hunting in (surprise!) a sidescrolling adventure.
Though seemingly innocent, the game quickly ventured into "WTF" territory. For starters, Ronald McDonald used his magical scarf as a grappling hook to get from platform to platform. Then he'd blast trolls, gnomes, and other cutesy creatures with a fistful of Dragon Ball Z energy magic until they violently exploded. And just when we thought the game couldn't get any weirder, Ronald and his buddies fly a rocket ship to the moon, fight aliens, and then ride a rainbow back to earth. Because that's how rainbows work.
Coca-Cola Kid (1994 - Sega Game Gear)
Coca-Cola's second advergame outing was a Japanese exclusive that never made it to Western shores. Released for Sega's portable Game Gear console in 1994, Coca-Cola Kid featured the soda manufacturer's Japanese mascot of the same name in a side-scrolling adventure. The protagonist would unleash his fury upon enemies in the form of kicks, and could find power-ups in the form of soft drinks that would bolster his bad-guy-brawling prowess.
Of course, modern science has taught us that slamming dozens of cans of soda per day does not, in fact, make you stronger or faster. All it really does is this. We can only imagine what the Coca-Cola Kid looks like 18 years later. If he's still alive, that is--after all, his power-ups were laced with so much sugar that he probably fell victim to cardiac arrest.
Chex Quest (1996 - DOS, Windows)
Chex Quest, also known as the greatest Ultimate Doom mod of all time, was the first ever video game to be included as a prize inside a box of cereal. Not only did this game come with a whopping 50 free hours of subscription time to America Online, but it gave younger children access to a non-violent spin-off of a game that helped popularize the burgeoning first-person shooter genre.
The developers of Chex Quest basically just replaced any blood with slime, and all violent assets--such as weapons and scary, demonic character models--with kid-friendly counterparts. As in, super-powered sporks and green snot goons. It was a tremendously successful marketing technique for the Chex brand, too, as it was free, and cereal prices didn't increase to supplement development costs. So successful, in fact, that Chex Quest 2 was released in 1997 as a free download exclusive to Chex's official website. Alas, the Chex Warrior mascot was forever put to rest following the sequel's release.
Pepsiman (1999 - PlayStation)
Pepsi's Japanese branch created a superhero-like mascot in the early '90s named Pepsiman, who looked like a branded version of Silver Surfer and saved the day by delivering Pepsi to mega-thirsty bystanders. Also, his face was super smooth aside form one terrifying hole that consumed Pepsi and made weird hissing sounds. Though the character made a playable appearance in the Japanese Sega Saturn version of Fighting Vipers (his specialty being "to quench one's thirst"), he didn't receive a starring role until his 1999 debut in a game that shared his name.
Pepsiman--the game--was basically a 3D cross between Sonic and Paperboy, where the object was to avoid obstacles while collecting cans of sugary drinks for thirsty, distressed denizens. Those same denizens would cheer you on after completing a level in appreciation for your kindness, before chugging cans of Pepsi like their lives depended on it. The game was quite humorous, as Pepsiman would often get stuck in trash cans or become injured during his journey. Plus, there were live-action cutscenes of a Pepsi-obsessed chubby dude that inhaled soda by the 12-pack. Gross.
M&M's: The Lost Formulas (2000 - PC)
Over the years, the M&M's brand has appeared in a variety of mostly mediocre video games (including one incredibly terrible kart racer). But the delicious chocolate candies got their virtual start in the delightful Crash Bandicoot clone called M&M's: The Lost Formulas.
Lost Formulas was a totally competent 3D platformer that featured a stylish cartoonish aesthetic, in addition to cool driving segments and decent cinematic cutscenes. While its basic gameplay was a tad simplistic, it also included a neat math-based minigame that taught us how to count just how many melt-in-your-mouth candies we were shoving into our gaping esophagi.
Big Bumpin' / PocketBike Racer / Sneak King (2006 - Xbox Live)
As games evolved--alongside development costs and gamers' tastes--fewer companies made brand-licensed games for advertising purposes. Those that continued to do so, like Burger King, transitioned to downloadable titles. Burger King formed its own publishing division under the banner King Games, contracting developer Blitz Games to make three downloadable titles (each costing less than $5) full of BK-related characters and products.
Big Bumpin' was a bumper car game where players duked it out on trap-laden stages, while PocketBike Racing was a silly kart racer in which one could drive around as a giant hamburger. Sneak King, however, was a creepy stealth sim that had you recreating commercials by sneaking up on unsuspecting (and quite famished) victims as The King like some sort of fast food-obsessed Solid Snake. The King would make his presence known with a totally normal "SURPRISE, HERE'S YOUR CHEESEBURGER LOL." Most who played this game never slept again out of fear that The King would sneak into their beds.
World Gone Sour (2011 - PSN, Xbox Live)
Sour Patch Kids are exceptionally good at tearing the roof of your mouth into shreds and burning your tongue raw with all their sour, sugary powers. World Gone Sour, however, provides a glimpse into the harrowing trials those gummy candies must overcome once inside your stomach.
If this $5 downloadable is to be believed, those trials mainly include Pikmin-style puzzle solving, where one giant Sour Patch Kid launches tinier ones to activate levers or switches. Sometimes, though, they just fall into the buzz saws and spike traps that line the human gut. It's a wonder we never feel those things moving around in there.
Advergames have existed since the dawn of gaming--and industries outside the scope of junk food have adopted the practice as well. What other promotional games can you think of? Do any of them have any kind of nostalgic meaning to you? Let us know in the comments below.
GamesRadar is the premiere source for everything that matters in the world of video games. Casual or core, console or handheld - whatever systems you own or whatever genres you love, GamesRadar is there to filter out what's worth your time and to help you get even more from your games. We deliver the best advice, the most in-depth features, expert reviews, and the essential guides for all the top games.