Bring Back Cereal Box Games

You have to go shopping with your mum or dad when you’re young. It’s never fun. Even choosing which cereal I wanted wasn’t fun because I wasn’t allowed any of that fancy Cookie Crisp stuff. For me, it was almost exclusively Cheerios and at a big push Frosted Shreddies. Then there came a strange time in gaming history where CD-Roms found their way into your Coco Pops (or Rice Krispies if you were me). Despite the saturation of the digital distribution platform market and the overall abundance of games at everyone’s fingertips, this - for me - was the most diverse time in gaming history.

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There was a certain element of gambling to it. You know exactly what you were getting with a free copy of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” or “Championship Manager”, both of which littered my kitchen. Quite often my hopes of a fully playable game were obliterated into bran flavoured powder when I’d put my CD into the PC, click install (then next, next, next, next, next, next, accept, add shortcut to desktop and run) and the game that would ensue was some kind of weird mini game or even a non-playable demo. That phrase… “Non-playable demo”... It still haunts me. I have been betrayed many times by the concept of a free game. Though, I’d never give up. I’d never stop hoping. Sometimes, my hopes would would be affirmed with titles like “Toy Story 2” that I picked up in a box of what I swear was Golden Nuggets (a rare cereal in my household) but must have been Frosted Shreddies. I remember thinking so when is this going to end? Level 2? 3? At what point does it say “Thanks for playing our demo!” and it never did. I got the whole game. It was awesome.

Around this time was a seriously extensive amount of physical media at my fingertips. Thinking back to it, how did most of that stuff end up anywhere? When a game was released, that was it. No updates, no patches, no day one DLC. As a result, a lot of weird stuff ended up out there. Pretty much every magazine said “100+ Demos! Free with X Magazine!” Then the smallprint would read something like by the way, there’s only 6 playable demos included haha got you. Even going down to my local Choices DVD rental, picking out five Playstation 2 games for a fiver and if they weren’t scratched, playing them a bit.

Here’s a comprehensive list of some memories of weird games that it felt like nobody played but me:

 

Toy Story 2, Frosted Shreddies:

 

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Just for the nostalgia trip, here’s an obscure photo. Also, the irony of playing Buzz was not lost on me as a child. Woody was jealous of Buzz for being the next space-themed toy that all the kids wanted, the scene in the second film where Stinky Pete talks about how nobody wants cowboy themed toys anymore and hated Buzz for being cool. “Nobody is being replaced.” Right? Yet here we were, playing Buzz because he was “cooler”, had wings and a laser. Felt a bit wrong.

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The Simpsons Virtual Springfield, Honey Nut Cheerios or something:

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One thing I feel I have to mention, if only to find at least one other person who also played this, is a cereal box game I found called “The Simpsons: Virtual Springfield”. Released in 1997, this somehow ended up in my bowl and I played it quite a lot, really. I don’t know why. All you did was walk around Springfield. It was a game where easter eggs were an actual mechanic. It was surprisingly accurate, superbly detailed and pretty damn funny. It was one of the first cell shaded games and was painstakingly produced. Every square inch of springfield was analysed in 2D and then hand replicated in 3D. It was a tough game to make with a full team behind it. It fell out of a box of Honey Nut Cheerios that were probably about a quid. That right there was the magic of it all. Running upstairs, booting it up and seeing if it was any good.

 

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Jinx, PlayStation Magazine:

 

                    Keeping it low rez = Keeping it real

                    Keeping it low rez = Keeping it real

Hit ctrl + to zoom and still not fully understand this screenshot.    

Hit ctrl + to zoom and still not fully understand this screenshot. 

 

I mean, what is even happening in that image? God, the PS1 just looked terrible. It handled pretty well from what I remember but I only got a 10 minute playable demo. You could get as far through as you like in 10 minutes but then you’re time is up. What the hell was this game? Who made it? Who funded it? If it was you, let me know in the comments. I’m resisting the urge to Google it all and ruin the mystery.

(C-12) Final Resistance, PlayStation Magazine:

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This was a cool one. There’s not much to say about it. Allow me to indulge my nostalgia, if you played any of these (except Toy Story 2) I’ll buy you a beer. This was one of those demos I had that I would actually dig out of the box of demo discs just to play. I thought it was the coolest game. Why did I never buy these games? I don’t know. Maybe the demos were enough. 

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Animaniacs, Unknown Cereal Box: 

It was blurry in real life too, according to my memory

It was blurry in real life too, according to my memory

This was truly a God awful game. A compilation of half-arsed mini games, all incredibly difficult. Where did it come from? How did I get this game? It even had original animated cutscenes so it clearly had a decent enough production team. The Belchinator mini-game had me well and truly stumped for hours. This is where I developed my fear of key cards. 

 

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As I walk down memory lane, honestly, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There’s a weird atmosphere that comes to mind. When it was just me, my youthful imagination and a CRT from the mid 80’s, I was totally immersed in a way that no VR headset can ever achieve. With no frame of reference, these games were ultra realistic. I played them over and over, even the demos. All those empty, strange, low-poly environments were real to me. It could get really creepy really fast. Imagine opening your eyes, looking around and all you can see is a nearly empty garden, save for some weird robots scooting around. Or a weirdly dark and very brown alleyway as in Final Resistance. A strange dreamscape where you're not entirely relaxed, not sure why you're there but lucid enough not to descend into nightmare. It was this limbo of atmospheres, somewhere between happy and deeply unsettlinging that conjures such strange, surreal memories. 

Between the DVD rentals, the cereal box games and the free CD-ROM magazines, this was the most fun I’ve had in my gaming life. Yes, it’s probably all nostalgia and the fact I was a child, but even though my Steam library is absurdly large today, I don’t have that sense of mystery anymore because I look up reviews for everything. Bring back cereal box games and bring back the fun of it all, for better or worse.

Sound Design is Important. But you already knew that, right?

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Sound design is important. Every time I say it I get a reply such as “yeah you’re so damn right, dude. Gosh I love sounds.” But still, sound comes last pretty much always.

I’m not talking about music per sé, though I do enjoy a good soundtrack. Sound design isn’t something that just happens, it takes a lot of time and effort and if it’s done correctly; nobody notices. Unless it’s absolutely vital to your game.

When Jeff Kaplan said “I don’t care about deaf people”, you knew he wasn’t playing around. Overwatch’s entire gameplay is pretty much balanced with sound. Ever tried playing Overwatch quietly while your girlfriend is asleep next to you? Perhaps you left your headphones at work. You’re kind of farked. Overwatch suddenly becomes largely impossible. All those distinct footsteps of flanking characters, all those announced super-moves. Even just the perfectly crafted aural distancing helps you tell whether a shotgun is in lethal range or too far away to be a threat. Vital information is given to your ears, not your eyes. Things that you take for granted, things you rely on so heavily are stripped away when the sound is off.

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Then there’s bad sound design. Take Xenoblade Chronicles X, for instance. Let’s compare it to Dark Souls. Battle music is an important thing. It can greatly increase the stress levels (in a good way) of the player with tense dissonance and fast pace, increasing the immersion. It can also be really really annoying and make everything worse. In Dark Souls, the music is usually an orchestral number. Something epic and huge and imposing. It makes you feel that these ancient, incomprehensible beings that you are slaying are worthy of such chorus. It doesn’t always have to be high-stress, though. Listen to the song that plays when you fight the Moonlight Butterfly. A mysterious, awe inspiring and harrowing score. The butterfly floats from atop its ruined tower perch. A lone, melancholy soprano sings to you. With no lyrics, she chants a melody while a harp accompaniment is quietly plucked. As the fight picks up, another voice joins in harmony with the two present melodies. You really feel that you are destroying something beautiful.

What about Xenoblade Chronicles X? The battle music here is rapping over rock music. I love both of those genres, yet they still manage to combine to butcher everything I once loved. The combat can often last half a lifetime so the music just loops, it’s not a score it’s a song playing on infinite repeat. Something no one ever really does. You have characters throwing battle quips from a very, very small pool of recordings. You have the sound of the weapons clashing and the monsters attacking. You have numbers being scattered around everywhere and useless pieces of over-complicated UI crowding your screen. It’s just S-E-N-S-O-R-Y O-V-E-R-L-O-A-D. The game is filled with repeated songs, ones that would be best suited to the opening sequence of some mecha anime and not in a highly intense battle sequence. It was a soundtrack that wanted to be cool and down-with-the-children but actually it just annoyed the bejesus out of everyone.

How does it filter down to indie titles? Recently I’ve been falling back in love with Hyper Light Drifter. This is a game that forfeited voice overs, hecking dang and flip it even forfeited words. It did almost every piece of storytelling with beautiful visuals and well executed sound. I first started thinking about the creativity behind the sound design when I heard the noise your character makes when you click speak to an NPC you’ve already spoken to. It’s like a muffled chirp, a bitcrushed Pac-Man noise. But it kind of sounds like talking. It definitely implies it. Under other circumstances it might just sound like nothing, but they knew what it would both look and sound like. Most people will think of HLD as a masterclass in visual storytelling and visual learning (and they’d be damn right) but actually – despite its incredible visuals – the atmosphere is mostly conveyed through the sound. The sound design in this game blends in real world sounds, such as the noise the slash makes as you hear the cloth robes move off of the arm of the Drifter. Adding those real world noises – in careful moderation – adds weight and feel to an otherwise very simple 2D character. The background noise almost feels like it’s the world around you that is making it, but really it’s just ambient noises from a synthesiser. However they’re so perfectly contextualised that you genuinely feel a sense of lonely emptiness in the vast expanses of the world you inhabit. It’s not just sad music to make you feel alone, it’s sound design that conveys a range of feelings and establishes an ambience for a reason. This is a game in which muting it, where you could otherwise be listening and experiencing, would be a terrible shame.