Saturday, December 11, 2010

Our Patron Saints of Kusoge: US Games and the Chuck Wagon Legacy

Over the years, there have been many companies that have had, by all accounts, no business getting into the making of video games, but that siren song of crazy profit proved irresistible, and we’ve found ourselves with games that range from mere shameless cash-ins (like that ramen noodle version of Gradius), to the ill advised (LJN) to the downright inexplicable (Captain Novolin) all the way to the “somehow accidentally awesome” (that David Beckham platform game for the GBA). I won’t claim to know the very first example of a random-ass company trying blindly to cash in on the video game craze, but I’m sure most people would point to Chase the Chuck Wagon as the earliest example that matters.
Chuck Wagon was a game for the Atari 2600 that was distributed by (wait for it) Purina, makers of such fine products as Dog Chow and Cat Chow… and presumably other types of animal food named by combing the name of the animal with the word "chow." (they also own such brands as Beneful and Alpo, but it just doesn’t have the same comedic zing) The game itself, which was available only by mail order if you bought Chuck Wagon dog food and then sent in your proofs of purchase, was loosely based on a popular commercial for the product, in which a tiny chuck wagon pops out of a TV screen and a dog proceeds to chase it around the room.

What can I say? These were simpler times, advertising was a lot more innocent back then.

And when I say “loosely based” on the commercial, I mean it. This is the 2600 after all. Essentially, you run through a maze while evading a dog catcher and a bone that can pass through walls, and try to reach the opening at the top of the screen. Once there, you need to catch the falling dish of dog food, after which, you’re taken to the next level. Making the game no better, and let’s be honest, no worse than any of the myriad Pac Man clones for the system. Naturally, being a bad idea that didn’t succeed means the game is now - you guessed it - sought after by collectors.
Also, Purina has since merged with Nestle. That doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, I just wanted to put that thought in your head… enjoy your chocolate milk.

But I don’t really want to linger too long on Chase the Chuck Wagon, because, at the end of the day, it was really a one-off thing, and the goal of that little project was to boost sales of a particular type of dog food. It’s not an altogether terrible deal, I remember becoming quite fond of Cap’n Crunch around the time when you could mail away and get your name in a draw for a free Sega Genesis. In the end, it makes at least some business sense to do these kinds of promotions, though it probably would have been a better deal to just hook up with Activision and use one or more of their titles as a mail-in giveaway instead of creating an original IP about dog food.

But no, the real star of this here post is a company that decided, at the height of the Atari boom, that they just had to hop onto that gravy train as soon as possible. That company was US Games...
which was the video game division of (wait for it) Quaker Oats, makers of such fine products as… well… Quaker Oats… and other things.
Now, as far as the game crash of the early 80s goes, I think most of us would look to the whole ET fiasco as the perfect summation of what went wrong, but I think another excellent example is that a company like Quaker Oats, deciding seemingly out of the blue that there were craploads of money to be made from these newfangled game tapes the kids were all into, set up their own video game division, pumped out no less than 14 new titles, (spoiler: none of them were very good) and then shut up shop after only about a year.

This is yet another prime example of what I like to call a Goldrush Developer. In short, a company that looks in from the outside, and sees only the crazy popularity of video games, and by extension, the crazy profit, and mistakenly believes that all you have to do is make games and people will buy them. For most of your fly by night companies that produce a couple stinkers and drop off the face of the Earth, you can blame idealism, or at least inexperience, for making this kind of mistake. The last straw that really pushes US Games over the edge is that it rings a little false for them to try and play the inexperience card.

For the average person, the only real association we have with Quaker Oats is that guy with the awesome hat, but truth is, this company has made some crazy successful acquisitions and spin-off divisions over the years, (including Gatorade and Fisher-Price,) and is now owned by Pepsico, but key the point being, the guys in suits running this company were not and are not idiots. And yet, for whatever reason, they felt the lure of crazy video game profits, and despite having no real experience in the industry, and more importantly, not really understanding the harsh realities thereof, decided to jump in, head first.

It’s been tough to find decent information about the development of these games. Far as I can tell, they were programmed by such luminaries as Western Technologies, Wickstead Design, and other assorted dev studios with generic names that nobody’s ever heard of. Some of their games were released under the Vidtec label, which, as far as I can tell, is just the same company using a different label because they can. I dunno, maybe they wanted to create a brand distinction, or something.

The takeaway of all this is that, these guys were in it for serious. They hooked up with developers, launched a line of products, and did what they could to distance US Games from it’s parent company. Now, I’m not saying it would have been better if they had used their video games to advertise some of their other popular packaged goods, but if they had, then at least they’d have gotten something back for their efforts. (efforts being a term used in the loosest sense, trust me.)

So anyway, in the coming posts, I’ll be playing, and writing up, each of US Games’ 14 titles, giving my impressions, and telling bad jokes.

Mostly telling bad jokes.

So stay tuned for that.

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