Corporate Schlock: Advertising Tie-Ins to Video Games

We see our hero, Nathan Drake, dangling precariously from the belly of an airborne cargo plane; one hand secures his life, while the other holds a refreshing drink from Subway, America’s premier home for sandwich artistry. The scene quickly changes to Drake running from a deluge down a hallway, drink in hand, asking viewers if they share his taste for adventure. From there he tumbles from the open hatch of an airplane, grabbing onto a handful of cargo netting at the last second, using his free hand to catch his 16 ounce beverage before it plummets to the dry desert below.

The commercial is a tie-in between Subway and Sony — publisher of Uncharted 3 — and rather than use a celebrity spokesperson, the advertising agency instead opted to employ a fictional character who also happens to star in a blockbuster videogame. When this commercial first began airing, quite a few people could barely muster more than an emphatic “Huh?” It seemed an unusual fit, Subway and Nathan Drake, and many fans of the series felt that this corporate cross-over in some way cheapened what’s arguably considered one of the PS3’s most important titles. But it’s nothing new — oh, not by a long shot. Corporations have been using videogames as a way to advertise for years, often with embarrassing results.

Yaris (XBLA)

In the relatively early days of the Xbox 360, Xbox Live Arcade was still trying to find its place in the universe. There were some good titles on there, but the idea of spending your hard-earned space bucks on them just didn’t quite yet feel right. Imagine my joy when I saw, while perusing available titles, a free game called Yaris. I had no clue what the hell “Yaris” was. To be honest, I just assumed it was some spiritual successor to “Yar’s Revenge,” a game I loved to play in my childhood on Atari 2600. A bit thin on premise, sure, but it was a FREE GAME. Who could resist that magical lack of price? Not even this heart of stone. I hit the download button and waited anxiously. After what seemed like a billion years (my excitement had somehow warped my perception of time), I hit the start button and realized immediately that Yaris is a sub-brand of Toyota automobiles. It was fairly obvious, actually, given the Toyota logo in the upper right corner of the attract screen. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, possibly aloud, “Yaris are those little Toyota cars that no one I have ever met drives. Well, this could be… a game about racing small underpowered economy cars. Hey, it was free!”

Yaris is about racing in the same way that Super Mario Bros. is about plumbing. The game has you barreling down a stark, ugly half-pipe while you avoid enemies like “fat guy in tiny car” and “bats made from gas nozzles.” There are some power ups to collect and some coins — real heady stuff here — and the game features two different songs that rotate throughout the levels. Basically, it’s the bonus stage from Sonic 2 with all the fun sucked out of it. Yes, a quasi-3D mini-game in a 16-bit title is somehow more fun and appealing than a game built on modern technology that probably addresses more memory drawing the headlight of the car than the entirety of the Genesis Sonic collection. There is nothing fun about Yaris, even for achievement farmers. I was so embarrassed to have my one achievement visible on my profile page that I was almost relieved when my first Xbox red-ringed.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (NES)

It’s no secret that radical dudes love pizza. Pizza is the official food of the tubular, because it can be delivered anywhere. Riding the sweet curl of a perfect wave? Pizza can be delivered to shore. Shralping the fresh pow-pow on your favorite mountain? The base lodge has more than just antler-themed furniture; it’s also a physical location to which pizza can be delivered. The dank sewers of New York City? You guessed it: pizza can go there, too. Kids love pizza, and kids love being rad; in the ’90s, kids f***ing loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It came as no surprise, then, when Pizza Hut worked out a deal with Ultra Games to slap a few of their logos in the game itself. To further sweeten the deal, and legitimize the gnarly ‘tude pizza is due, they tossed a few coupons into the game manual.

In the entire history of product placement and corporate tie-ins, there has never been a more perfect marriage of food and games. Few kids noticed or even cared that the Pizza Hut logo appeared in the game. When you’re 13 and you see an actual corporate logo in a videogame, through the use of kid logic, it seems to lend some realism to a game about cartoon turtles fighting multi-colored ninja on their way to beat up a man in a suit of bladed armor. Kids of the ’90s would say,”Whoa, the turtles like Pizza Hut? Just like me!” before jumping on their Pogo Balls and bouncing down the street for a personal pan and a tall red cup of Pepsi. Check your history, people. My account is rock-solid.

Darkened Skye (PC/GameCube)

There are quite a few red-flags that go up when reading the Wikipedia entry for Darkened Skye. Here are some from just the opening paragraph, shown with no context (for comedic effect): “…programmed it primarily in Ukraine,” “…also packaged with Outlaw Golf,” “[Skye] does not use firearms but can perform magic using Skittles candies.” Yes, someone at Mars Inc., makers of Skittles brand ascorbic acid snacks, decided that tasting a rainbow wasn’t enough. Rainbows are, by their very nature, magical, what with the pots of gold at their base and having absolutely no scientific explanation whatsoever. Therefore, in a fictional realm imagined by the finest game programmers in Ukraine, eating Skittles could therefore give a person magical powers. The weird thing is, nothing else in the game exists that isn’t straight fantasy. The setting is a fictional world where magic and goblins exist, where technology seems to be stuck in the middle ages and magic is a reality.

So why are there Skittles there? Some of the chemicals in Skittles, like 6-hydroxy-5-[(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, need to be synthesized by skilled chemists in enormous facilities. How could these candies exist in a world where people still light their homes with torches? If you say “magic,” you’re either stupid or being deliberately obtuse, because Skittles are the source of magic, and to use magic to make Skittles means one would first need to have Skittles. You see the pickle this game’s canon has put itself in?

It’s odd that a game would need to be released to help raise Skittles awareness; most Skittles commercials, to me at least, are clever enough to elicit a chuckle at the very least. Being easy to please means a chuckle is all I need to remember something forever. It’s true. Think about it… when’s the last time someone offered you some Skittles and you said “Whoa, Skittles? I haven’t heard that word in a while!” If anything, there should have been a game made to promote Spruce Sap Chewing Gum or any other number of old-timey candies that have fallen out of favor with today’s generation of snackers. When was the last time someone had a loose tooth ripped from their gums by a Sugar Daddy?

Yo Noid! (NES)

Do you know what a Noid is? It’s something you wanted to avoid in the late ’80s if you were ordering pizza. You see, according to Domino’s advertising, ordering pizza from any other place in the world would result in the appearance of the Noid, a claymation mascot who would smash your non-Domino’s pizza into the pavement with his pizza crusher, a pogo-stick like device that brought despair to millions of pizza-loving people across the globe. However, as kryptonite is the weakness of Superman, Domino’s pizza was the Noid’s weakness. He simply could not ruin one of their pizzas, no matter how desperately he wanted. The boxes Domino’s came in were imbued with some sort of anti-Noid charm, and if he tried to destroy one, it would spring open and send him back to nightmarish netherrealm from whence he came. Capcom decided that it would be a lot of fun to take the idea of a terrible anti-pizza demon and shoe-horn him into a Japanese game called “Masked Ninja Hanamaru.” Yo Noid! is essentially the Super Mario 2 of licensed Capcom titles. Not to be outdone by Ultra and their aforementioned Pizza Hut tie-in, a coupon for a $1 off a Domino’s pizza pie could be found in the manual.

It’s kind of hard for me to hate on Yo Noid!, because Capcom NES games of the late ’80s/early ’90s were colorful and usually decent enough for a rental. I rented the game over one weekend and got enough enjoyment out of it to recall it for this piece 21 years later. Had the game been built from the ground-up as an original Noid IP, it probably would have been less enjoyable, but simply palette swapping out a ninja and putting in the Noid worked well enough that I can say this game is not terrible. High praise, indeed, for a game that stars an animated pizza hooligan who hates fun. There was also an “Avoid the Noid” game for Commodore 64/DOS that puts the Noid in the role of antagonist, and you control a delivery boy whose job it is to deliver pizza while avoiding the Noid, who would probably crap all over the pizza while you weren’t looking. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I really enjoy games with extremely literal titles. If there were games called “Shoot Other People While Not Being Shot Yourself” or “Jump on Platforms and Collect Power Ups,” I would appreciate them as well, simply for their honesty.

Cool Spot (Multiple)

You know that red circle in the 7-up logo? That used to be their mascot. But since he was on a bottle of drink made entirely from combining citrus with sugar and fizz, he was no ordinary spot, he was a cool spot. His name, in fact, was Cool Spot. The way you knew he was a cool spot and no ordinary spot was that he sported sunglasses and sneakers, the uniform of cool. Ordinary spots are sometimes unwelcome and often boring, and unless they’re on a Dalmatian riding a firetruck, they just aren’t cool. Cool Spot would peel himself off of 7-up bottles and do fun things like play football with peanuts or help Santa deliver toys to orphans. Cool? More like ice cold. In 1993 Virgin Interactive Entertainment put Cool Spot on every conceivable console that could support eye-popping graphics of a red dot in sunglasses and came out with what is actually a reasonably fun platformer; nothing groundbreaking here, but worth diving into the archives for a look. There’s another Spot game, this one a puzzler, that’s fun for a puzzler, but unless that’s your thing, it’s not as much fun as Cool Spot. I think we owe it to the little guy to remember his madcap adventures and not his boring puzzle twin, just called “Spot.” See how uninteresting even the name is? The best thing you can say about a puzzler like Spot is “it’s competent.”

Burger King Games (Xbox 360)

I like Burger King more than McDonald’s. Yeah, it’s true, and you know why? Burger King isn’t afraid to take risks. The riskiest thing McDonald’s might offer is the choice of two quantities of ketchup: “normal” or “extra.” But Burger King will consistently rattle my expectations of what hastily assembled fast-food burgers can be. There was a point where the people at Burger King decided to make a spicy jalapeno burger, but instead of throwing jalapenos on the top of the thing, they cooked them right into the friggin’ patty. At Wendy’s one of their chefs suggested using three pickle slices instead of two and was fired immediately for being too much of a renegade. But Burger King just doesn’t care. They perfected the art of forming chicken into a french fry shape. Someone decided that nuggets just weren’t convenient enough and ordered the food scientists at the Burger King’s lair to just make them more convenient, whatever it took. I like to imagine there’s a breed of very thin, very tall chicken that hatches pre-breaded with your choice of exciting sauces.

In 2006, to prove just how little crap they gave, Burger King decided to release a series of games. Three titles for the Xbox 360 were suddenly available for your pleasure: Sneak King, Big Bumpin’, and Pocketbike Racer. For the cost of a value meal plus $3.99, you could walk out of a Burger King restaurant with a bonafide videogame. I am 100% certain that at the time McDonald’s was not offering videogames, proving the superiority of BK’s risk-taking. The games are worth all of the 399 pennies they cost, and people mostly remember Sneak King because it brought all the creepiness of the Burger King mascot to Xbox 360 in player-controlled form.

M.C. Kids (NES)

If my previous entry on Burger King games has already been forgotten by your brain, let me refresh your memory: McDonald’s is boring. Their menu is boring, the zestiest sauce I believe you can order with your McNuggets is oatmeal, and they don’t even know how to make a game that’s at least theoretically entertaining. The BK games weren’t good, but the idea behind them was. In 1992, Virgin Interactive released M.C. Kids, a game about two jerks named Mick and Mack who are listening to Ronald McDonald ramble on aimlessly about whatever it is nightmare-clowns talk about when the Hamburglar steals Ronald’s magic bag. It’s up to Mick and Mack to find the stupid Hamburglar, rough him up, and get back Ronald’s sack.

Oh, were it only that interesting. Most of the McDonaldland cast is here, like Birdie, who is a bird, and Grimace, who is an obese monster from hell, and of course Ronald, whose face children can recognize more easily than that of their own parents. Seven stages of boring beckon children to meander through the world of lameness that is McDonaldland. All in a quest to find Ronald’s magic bag and get it back from the Hamburglar. The Hamburglar, the guy who simply cannot resist a McDonald’s hamburger. Oh, if only there was some way to entice him into a trap, some bait that could be used to lure him out of his spider hole in the desert. Were it only that easy to get him to show his grotesque face, Mick and Mack could apprehend him and beat the location of Ronald’s bag out of his striped suit. But that would be fun, and McD’s hates fun. That’s why you can’t get cheese on your burger in some states– it gets the young folks’ blood up, and that’s when the mischief starts.

Marlboro Adventure Team (Lynx)

If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you know that everyone in the world used to smoke cigarettes. And why not? They used to be cheap, plentiful, and extremely addictive. Today they’re only two of those things, and as a result the number of smokers in the U.S. has declined sharply from the days when doctors would prescribe cigarettes to treat cancer. Before Congress came along and took a cue from McDonald’s book of “Boring,” smokers could be rewarded for their dedication to a particular brand by collecting small tokens from packs that could be exchanged for cigarette-branded goods. Camel had “Camel Cash,” small notes that resembled money that could be collected and redeemed for Camel branded gear like sleeveless t-shirts or even camcorders. Marlboro, keeping with the Marlboro Man spirit, had Marlboro Miles, which were found on the corner of packs and could similarly be collected and redeemed for gear. While Camel made inroads with the NASCAR set, Marlboro attempted to show how manly and exciting smoking could be by offering the type of gear smokers would likely take on adventures, like duffel bags, canoes, and bottle openers that would break after two uses.

However, there was one small problem with these offerings: mom and dad could stock up on everything they needed for a weekend of whitewater rafting, but what would little Billy do to occupy his time? Smoking was obviously out of the question since tobacco companies would never think to stoop so low as to advertise their harmful product to children, but how could kids feel a connection to their parents if their parents were wearing cool Marlboro gear and having awesome adventures in flavor country rustling cattle? How about a Marlboro branded Atari Lynx? IT EXISTS. Good luck finding one, though. From what I’ve been able to learn from forum posts and webpage entries, it’s really rare and may or may not have only been available in Germany. But fear not, because there is a working ROM of the pack-in cart, Marlboro Go!, available. If you’ve ever wanted to race a crappy dirtbike game while Marlboro logos scroll past, by all means, get this game. If you find yourself suddenly desiring a cigarette, stop playing immediately. Imagine dying of lung cancer in the future and knowing that it all started because you played a crappy game for a system that never caught on. That’s a special kind of regret right there.

Corporate Schlock: Advertising Tie-Ins to Video Games