There’s a lot of people mentioning older games in the wake of Halo 4’s ad-laden spin-offs and services. Cool Spot has come up on many occasions. Jim Sterling mentioned Biker Mice from Mars. But no-one mentions arguably one of the most blatant, and yet most enjoyable sinners – Mick and Mack: Global Gladiators.
Mick and Mack as the Global Gladiators (also known as Global Gladiators) was a 1992 video game released for the Mega Drive amongst other weaker platforms, by Virgin Interactive.
It’s easy to look at Halo 4, it’s ‘Fuelled by Mountain Dew’ offspring and its subsequent tea-bagging of advertising and monetary gravitational pull and think that it is the pinnacle of blatant, sickening game advertising. Yes, Cool Spot advertised 7-Up, the soft drink. But that wasn’t blatant, it was subtle and as a younger more naive human being in those days the whole advertising thing was completely lost on me. Similarly with Biker Mice from Mars, sure it was selling a cartoon that was selling toys that were selling Snickers bars, but it still felt all obtuse as if somehow it was trying not to make this horrid reality known to us all. There have been other games that have advertised real-life products; Hasbro have been doing this for decades now, not to mention the likes of Chester Cheetah (Cheetos) and the unbelievable volume of Power Rangers arse being thrown about at the time. Games have been subtly and not-so-subtly advertising for years. Halo 4 is not unique, and truth be told here, it’s not even the master.
Because one look at the cover of Mick and Mack as the Global Gladiators tells you everything you need to know about it.
It’s an action-shooter-platformer in the traditional 16-bit era vein, blatantly advertising McDonald’s without a hint of shame (they did this on the NES too) to a younger audience being raised on cool, hipster-style cartoon youths who had attitude. It also coincided with a push for more awareness on the environmental impact that businesses like McDonalds were having on the world, so it was even pulling a massive, unashamed PR coo to a new audience who could be psychologically swayed into thinking this fast-good giant might actually have been doing something about its global and environmental footprint, even though I guess even then most of us knew that the game production itself was inherently pollutive on its own. with all the electronics and plastics being used in it and also those hefty instruction manuals of the era. Seriously, at the time using a video game to somehow promote yourself as environmentally-conscious was idiotic at best and ironic at worst.
As Mick and Mack blasted their way through the four themed worlds – Slime Land, Mystical Forest, Toxi-Town and Arctic World – they had to collect magical McDonald’s golden arches to proceed with the aid of the ever-reliable Ronald McDonald, who arms them with yet another marketing stunt – super soakers. Yes, those big hefty water pistol cannons. Yes, this rabbit hole runs deep – like, REALLY deep. I’m sure even the outfits being worn by Mick and Mack were probably advertising something. It was that sort of game. There was no attempt at covering this stuff up, it was patently in your face and it absolutely didn’t give a toss that it was shoving such utter marketing and PR arse forcefully through your optic nerves.
But here’s the weirdest bit of all… I actually remember Mick and Mack with a degree of fondness!
Okay, yes, there is a case to be made against advertising in games but you know something? I’m perfectly fine with it as long as there is a certain degree of honesty between us. I will stomach your advertising, your marketing and your shameful PR stunt if you can do one thing, one fundamental and important thing. That is, entertain me in the process. Because that’s the real clincher of a good marketing drive and/or PR stunt. It’s no good to just do it and then hope the reaction is favourable enough that it doesn’t get your ass fired in the end, you want it to pay off and work because if we like it, then we might be more swayed towards a favourable outlook on whatever is being promoted. The zenith of this sort of thing is not to make it so blatant that it pushes us away – it’s to make it open, honest and say something like, “Okay, we know you don’t like this stuff. We understand. But, that’s what we’ve been paid to do and so we’ve done our damnedest to make it into a decent game. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it in spite of the marketing we’ve been made to include.” Because a good game promoting something is better than a bad game promoting something. Good games will likely sell products. Bad games can sink them.
It’s hard to really pinpoint why Mick and Mack as the Global Gladiators works but perhaps it’s the unashamed simplicity of it that lends it some favourable quality. It’s a mix of platforming, shooting and collecting and it never really – despite the pretence of the PR behind it – strays far from those roots. Virgin Interactive did a damned good job of making the game look good, handle well and even reward players in a sense. It had challenge, most games of the era did. We weren’t all softies in those days, take one look at the headache-inducing ragefest that is the magnum opus of The Bitmap Brothers, Gods (Dark Souls so didn’t get to the hard game adventure thing first!) and how well received it was – and the rage when the GBA port was cancelled without warning. You felt like you had accomplished something throughout it and although everything else is simpering marketing drivel of the purest and most non-condensed form, it works as a game.
It works as a game because, fundamentally, it IS A GAME. At heart, there is a game there. The marketing, the PR, the simpering drivel of ecomentalism – it all takes a sideline to the actual process of there being a game. It was an era where games cost £50+ – a hefty chunk of change for the youth audience it was targeting at the time. It had to be a game. It wasn’t a disposable PR product. It was going to last, and last, and last. And it has lasted, and in fact has weathered the ravages of time considerably better than most other attempts of the 90’s to advertise via video games.
We forget we’ve been through this all before – Pepsi Man, The Coca-Cola Kid, Micro Machines (although this was actually one of the better games of the era!). Halo 4: Fuelled by Mountain Dew looks cynical because it IS cynical. It’s forgotten that it’s purpose is to promote a game as well, rather than tarnish it. It is, inherently, supposed to entertain whilst being a marketing stunt as well. That it doesn’t entertain is where it all falls down and actually becomes one of the worse examples of how to do this sort of thing; we have more modern gadgets and gizmos and smartphones and other things that make this sort of thing perhaps more easy to push, but ultimately Fuelled by Mountain Dew looks cheap because it probably was cheap to make, and push, and maintain. It looks stupid because the principle behind it is, inherently, rather stupid. It’s latched onto Halo 4 not because it needs the name, but because as one of the years biggest games it needs to leech off of its credibility, and yet in doing so takes away some of the credibility of Halo 4 might have otherwise enjoyed to itself. It’s had an aggressive, disgusted backlash because it’s a disgusting PR stunt being aggressively pushed to us that has little correlation or meaning to the actual product.
You can say what you like about the 90’s, but when they did put marketing into games, they were still games. Not always good ones, but still all at heart knew that to survive in the world of video games, they had to actually BE a video game. There was never any doubt about that. Halo 4: Fuelled by Mountain Dew is designed only as marketing, a device riding high on the shoulders of a giant. A position it neither warrants nor deserves.
That’s why it has seen such a backlash. And why we will look back at games like Global Gladiators with a fondness that perhaps we didn’t expect when they arrived on the scene. Sure, they probably did their best to ensure we’d end up in this sad situation where a game can only be advertised by disgusting corn chips and a drink that tastes like gnats piss after an especially heavy night on the pond, but they at least remembered in their hubris and insanity that ultimately, we would judge them as games. As entertainment. As a product, not the products it was pushing on us.
It’s a lesson that newer persons into the PR world might want to take on board. We won’t mind if the product in the end is good. But if it is bad and inherently stupid…
Well. Watch out.