Anyone who follows the modern gaming scene will know that publishers routinely fill their games with all manner of micro-transactions, cosmetic items, and a myriad of complex and confusing in-app purchases.
It’s a common-place practice almost universally frowned upon, but it should come as no surprise to games fans that, in an age of rising costs and diminishing returns, companies will look to wring a few more bucks from their loyal fan-base.
While we’re still trying to scrub that horrifying image of Geoff Keighley surrounded by piles of Doritos and Mountain Dew from our minds, let us not forget that the 8-bit and 16-bit era of gaming was no stranger to the same kind of money-making shenanigans.
Looking back, the practice of manufacturer and publisher entering into a mutually beneficial arrangement to cross-promote their products was actually fairly commonplace. Both sides had realised that, with the soaring popularity of the electronic entertainment market, games provided the perfect, if somewhat cynical opportunity to earn more money than relying on software sales alone.
In an era where the rules on advertising were far less restrictive than they are today, the industry was waking up to the fact that games provided the perfect mechanism for getting products – almost all of them sugary confectionery and beverages – in front of millions of impressionable youths.
And it wasn’t necessarily always out of sheer greed that such deals were inked.
Platforms like the Commodore Amiga and C64 were beleaguered by piracy, and with shareholders demanding greater returns on their investment, it came as no surprise that publishers would sometimes resort to this somewhat unsavoury practice.
In this edition of Retro Revisited, we’ll be exploring some of the most popular franchises – and worst offenders – from the 80s and 90s to feature product placement in games.
James Pond 2: Robocod – McVitie’s Penguin Biscuits
As one of the most fondly remembered games of the 16-bit era, Chris Sorrell’s fishy sequel should be, I hope, quite familiar with most of your readers out there.
With its bold graphics, expansive levels and smooth scrolling, James Pond 2 became a benchmark for platform games on the Amiga, and a game that managed to hold its own on Sega and Nintendo’s 16-bit consoles.
As I recall, this was one of the first games I had first-hand experience of where a deal had been struck between publisher and manufacturer to include product placement in a game, and it left my childhood self rather puzzled.
Somewhat tenuously, the game’s intro sequence attempts to establish the reason for penguins even being in the game, explaining that Pond must help rescue the flightless birds from the clutches of the nefarious Dr Maybe, Pond’s arch nemesis and evil genius, who has escaped to the North Pole and taken over Santa’s workshop.
Putting aside the fact that there are no penguins at the North Pole, the sudden encasing of said birds in a variety of brightly coloured foil wrappers is enough to raise suspicions that something strange is afoot, finally being hammered home when “the chocolatiest biscuit in the world” – the official advertising slogan – is splashed across the bottom on the screen.
My initial thought had been that this was some kind of in-joke between those who’d made the game, rather than a sponsorship deal made between besuited executive-types to get the chocolate biscuit brand in front of gamers, and it wasn’t until quite some time later that I’d understood the significance of what was being shown.
In any case, rumour has it that the tie-up was so successful that, for the first time ever, Penguin finally outsold Nestle’s KitKat following the game’s launch.
Aside from the initial introduction, the actual level of product placement isn’t particularly obnoxious. Aside from the use of large penguin biscuits as barriers or parts of the scenery, that’s about as far as it goes.
Of course, the licensing deal with McVitie’s wasn’t in perpetuity, and the enduring nature of the game meant that conversions of the game released in the intervening years since the Amiga original lack the McVitie’s and Penguin branding.
Such references have been scoured from subsequent releases, such as the Game Boy Advance port, replacing them instead with Santa’s elves.
The slight irony in all of this is that, with the loss of Penguin, so to did the game lose a modicum of the charm and personality that made it quite so special.
Zool – Chupa Chups
Regarded by many as the Amiga’s answer to Sonic the Hedgehog, George Allan’s ninja of the Nth dimension certainly appeared to tick all the right boxes.
Created partly in response to criticisms of Switchblade II, Zool was destined to bigger, bolder and better in just about every respect.
Despite a somewhat unfortunate resemblance to a sneaker-wearing ant, the end result was a pretty effective riposte to the Japanese console threat, and was well-liked by those who played it.
Of course, there is an elephant in the room here, and it happens to be a particularly sugary one at that.
At some point in the game’s development, Gremlin struck a deal with Spanish confectioner Chupa Chups to promote its unique brand of brightly coloured, hard candy lollipops within the game. In fact, you need take but a few steps within the game’s opening level – an appropriately sweet-themed world – before stumbling across a sizeable billboard in the shape of the Chupa Chups logo.
Smacking some of these signs with Zool’s spinning sword attack will result in a cascade of sugary candies to spill out (much like a pinata), which can be scooped up for bonus points.
It’s a trend that extended to the game’s eventual sequel, as well as the multitude of console ports and conversions that would appear over the coming months.
Whether the tie-in between Chupa Chups and the Zool games resulted in an explosion in sales of teeth-rotting lollies isn’t clear, but the size and frequency at which the company logo is thrust into your face makes this one of the more unashamed entries here.
Cool Spot – 7 Up
Undoubtedly one of the most widespread (and popular) video-game franchises to include corporate sponsorship are those between Virgin and 7 Up, the lemon-lime flavoured soft drink by PepsiCo.
While Fido Dido remained the official brand mascot for the self-described ‘uncola’ in Europe, the US decided something a little different was in order.
First appearing in 1987, Cool Spot – or simply Spot – became the official brand mascot for 7 Up stateside, featuring prominently in a range of TV commercials and other promotional material.
With his black shades and over-sized sneakers, the anthropomorphic disc cut an altogether cooler, edgier jib, something that would translate to video games far more effectively than his wavy-haired counterpart.
One of the most prolific product-related mascots to appear in video games, Spot’s first game outing would be in Virgin Mastertronic’s Spot, a turn-based puzzle game created by Graeme Devine and Richard Stein (who would go on to create horror-themed FMV game The 7th Guest) for Amiga and Atari ST computers, as well as several 8-bit platforms.
An altogether more cerebral experience than later titles featuring the character, this Othello-alike gained praise from magazines for its intelligent gameplay and amusing animations.
However, it would be Cool Spot which made the character a worldwide video-game super-star.
Launching on Sega Genesis and SNES in 1993, Cool Spot provided just the kind of slick, console-oriented platforming experience that made the 16-bit generation so popular, and the end result was a title with far more mainstream appeal than its puzzle-based predecessor.
The game was ported to a wide range of consoles, computers and handhelds over the coming year, including the Master System, Game Boy, and even Commodore Amiga. These conversions might not always have been up to the standard of Dave Perry’s original Genesis version, but they’re pretty good games in their own right.
While the US edition features the 7 Up branding prominently throughout, the European and non-US versions of the game are the complete opposite.
Owing to the fact that Fido Dido remained the official 7 Up mascot for these territories, most of the branding was removed from these versions of the game. The logo was removed from Spot’s soda bottle surf board at the start of the game, resulting in a corporate vehicle which, in advertising terms, was really quite benign.
The character would receive a final outing in 1996 with Spot Goes to Hollywood, an isometric arcade adventure for the Sega Genesis, although a 32-bit version would arrive later for PlayStation and Sega Saturn in 1997.
Despite some attractive artwork, the pseudo-3D perspective didn’t quite cut it in lieu of the true 3D showcased in contemporary titles, and the game would be a somewhat limp finale to an otherwise lauded gaming career.
I suppose in hindsight, Cool Spot really is an example of a game where the mascot really did increase the appeal of the game. Perhaps more for those of us in Europe and the rest of the world, we associated the character with the game more than the soft drink from which he originated.
In any case, Spot proved to be a significantly more bankable vehicle than Fido Dido, whose own video game never actually saw the light of day.
Judging by the footage floating around on the net, it’s probably just well!
Push-Over – Quavers
Another game on the list that I’m sure Amiga owners will remember, Push-Over is an example of yet another fine video game encumbered with the unedifying weight of corporate product placement being foisted upon its shoulders in exchange for extra revenue.
Push-Over was a rather clever union of platformer and puzzle game, requiring players to arrange and then topple a series of dominoes in order to open the exit to each of the game’s levels. Its thought-provoking gameplay drew much praise from the gaming press at the time, bagging scores well in excess of 90% across a range of publications.
Despite receiving a conversion to the SNES, the Amiga and Atari ST were lead platforms for the game, and it’s these that earned Push-Over its place in this article. Ocean Software brokered a deal with Smiths Crisps to feature the snack brand’s Quavers – a curly, cheese-flavoured potato snack – prominently within the game.
The brand mascot for Quavers at the time was Colin Curly, a large cartoon dog (voiced by UK comedian Lenny Henry) with a serious case of ADHD, as well as an insatiable hunger for the greasy, cheesy snack.
Colin loses his sizeable stash of Quavers down a nearby ant hill, and it’s up to his insectoid pal, G.I.Ant, to save the day.
In a move that would certainly send health groups into a spin today, Smiths came up with a TV commercial that specifically referenced the promotional relationship between the game and snacks, using that tried-and-tested method of bagging extra sales by giving kids the chance to win a Commodore Amiga if they found a winning pack.
Although the depiction of a large dog sitting on its butt, scoffing potato snacks and playing video games was an unashamed attempt to peddle more bags of Quavers to impressionable youngsters, at least Smiths had the decency to offer the Amiga as a prize, rather than the Atari ST.
Superfrog – Lucozade
Another Amiga game to make the list, Team 17 was keen to prove that Commodore’s ageing 16-bit machine could keep up with Sega’s ‘Blast Processing’, as well as out-pacing a certain blue hedgehog.
One of the final tranche of classic Amiga platformers, Superfrog delivered on its promise of slick, dynamic platformer, boasting some excellent cartoon visuals and engaging soundtrack by Allister Brimble.
What is perhaps less commonly known about the game is that the source of Superfrog’s powers were originally supposed to come about as a result of the down-on-his-luck amphibian chugging on a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale.
In a decision that was probably for the best, Team 17 decided it wasn’t sending a particularly great message to a young and impressionable audience that ingesting copious amounts of “Newkie Brown” could make you super powerful, instead choosing to strike a deal with Lucozade.
Long considered to be the quintessential tonic for sick and convalescing Brits, the glucose-packed soft drink was chosen as the perfect replacement, and subsequently included in final game in all of its crinkly cellophane glory.
In addition to being the source of Superfrog’s powers, the famously orange drink can be found throughout the game’s various levels, restoring Superfrog’s health when collected.
While its medicinal properties were always rather dubious, there’s certainly no doubt that anything packed with that much sugar was sure to give the imbiber a real boost, and the drink’s presence within the game ends up being marginally less contrived than its contemporaries.
Hang-On/Super Hang-On – Various
Released into the arcades in 1985, the first game to utilise Yu Suzuki’s ground-breaking super scaler technology was a genuine marvel. The incredible speeds and a convincing pseudo-3D perspective showcased in this super bike racer set the bar for arcade racing games for some time to come.
With such blistering speeds, you’d be forgiven for not noticing some of the famous brands that somehow made their way on to various track-side furniture.
Look closely though, and you’ll spot advertisements for petroleum giant Shell oil, watch-maker Tag Heuer, and, more controversially, a bastardised version of the logo used by Marlboro cigarettes.
The fact that this particular sign simply reads “Marbor” suggests that the companies didn’t actually pay to have their products placed within the game, more that Suzuki ‘borrowed’ several brands associated with the world of motorsport and quietly put them in the game.
It’s a trend that extends to the 1989 turbo-charged sequel.
The newer version of the game doubles down on its racing heritage, featuring an impressive array of advertisements for brands like NGK spark plugs, Bridgestone tyres, RK Takasago bike chains, CEBIE automotive parts, and ELF oil! There are probably several other brands secreted away in there somewhere, but it’s not always easy to get a good look at the signs as they go whizzing past!
Global Gladiators – McDonald’s
The final game on this list is yet another from the fine folks (read repeat offenders) at Virgin Games, this time with Mick & Mack as Global Gladiators.
Another platform-shooter from Dave Perry and co, Global Gladiators pitches the two friends as a pair of eco-warriors tasked with saving various planets under threat from all manner of slimy, alien scum.
The dynamic duo are armed with guns that look suspiciously like goo-spewing Super Soakers, although that turns out to be a mere coincidence than product placement.
In this particular instance, Virgin Games partnered with McDonald’s Corporation, an example of a business that has continually struggled with its public image over the years, so it’s understandable that a game focusing on recycling trash and conserving natural resources was just the kind of vehicle for anyone attempting to portray itself as a responsible, civic-minded institution.
This was by no means the fast-food chain’s only foray into the world of video games, but Global Gladiators was certainly a decent enough platform game, one that got ported to many of the 8-bit and 16-bit machines of the day.
Perhaps understandably, the consumption of hamburgers, fries or milkshakes would have been a really difficult sell, particularly in the US where obesity levels were on the rise, so the designers decided to side-step that particularly thorny issue.
Instead, lovable clown mascot Ronald McDonald puts in an appearance, acting as both host and guide for the young adventurers, and mini versions of the iconic Golden Arches act as the game’s principle form of collectable.
It’s perhaps not quite as shameless as the corporations infamous Happy Meal toy promotions from that period, but the game could easily stood on it’s own two feet without the weight of a corporate tie-in weighing it down.