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.
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:
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.
The Simpsons Virtual Springfield, Honey Nut Cheerios or something:
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.
Jinx, PlayStation Magazine:
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:
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.
Animaniacs, Unknown Cereal Box:
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.
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.