One of the best things about the CD-ROM era was that it was a great promotional tool. And the best kind of promotions were free games.
Specifically: free games with food.
One of the famous specials from Kellogg’s, Monopoly Tycoon was a building and economic management sim from – amazingly – the studio who would go on to port Terraria to mobiles.
There’s still some allusions to the original board game, with auctions and the ability to build hotels once you acquire all blocks of a certain colour. But beyond that Monopoly Tycoon is mostly a relatively compenent money making sim that’s closer in spirit to some of the economic games of the late ’90s, than actual Monopoly.
Interestingly, the game was also a commercial hit. It sold over 2 million copies over six years, helped by the fact that management sims tend to sell better over time than something like a first-person shooter. “But world-building, social-sims, God-games, Tycoon games… they just sell forever,” Clive Robert, founder of the studio, told Rock Paper Shotgun in an interview.
Milo: The Fuel Run
I never played this one as a kid, but I heard from friends who did. Made for 486 PCs back in the day, Milo The Fuel Run was a side-scrolling platformer with a skater. The whole goal is to save the world’s supply of Milo from a Dr.Robotnik-type evil character, collecting ollies, flips and, of course, Milo tins along the way.
It’s pretty rare to find this now. Someone’s trying to sell the CD for over $200 on eBay, which I’m sure might appeal to some collector somewhere.
Age of Empires 2
The HD remake of Age of Empires 2 is probably one of the most popular RTS games still going. Hell, it was massive at the time it was released. And strategy games were no small fare back then: by the time this popped up in Nutri Grain boxes, Red Alert was still selling gangbusters, Age of Mythology was doing well, you had the Empire Earth series, and WarCraft. Warcraft 3.
How the hell did AoE 2 end up being given away for free?
Made by Beam Software down in Melbourne, Cricket 96 was given away with boxes of Weet-Bix in the mid 90’s. The game was basically an update of Super International Cricket on the SNES with some questionable commentary.
Some example lines: “That was a sickening blow … just like the one I got when I wrote my first alimony check,” and “What a catch for the wicketkeeper … funny that’s exactly what [someone] said when they ran off with your ex-wife, Richo.”
Thank God Cricket 97 brought in Richie Benaud and Ian Botham. And the gameplay was ten billion times better.
Final Fantasy XIV
One of the greatest redemption stories in video games brought back some good will of its own. Most of the games on this list were given out in the ’90s or early ’00s, but years after FF14 recovered spectacularly, the game brought back the “game with your pizza” promotion that Pizza Hut used to do so well. $59.95 got you a three large pizza deal with garlic bread, a drink and a digital code for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, which probably wasn’t enough pizza for all the time you’d need to actually carve through the original story content.
Still, it’s a rad idea. Codes are much easier to giveaway than physical discs.
Image: Alex Gorzen/Flickr
Chex Quest was more than just a free game. It was released alongside boxes of Chex cereal in 1996 as a tie-in for the company, with the game designed to be a non-violent FPS based on the DOOM engine. The idea was to make Chex cool amongst kids who also thought PC games were cool.
Tools used in-game to encourage healthy eating included health pickups tied to water, fruit and vegetables. And the in-game armour: well, it looked like a bit of Chex cereal.
Not the best game to come in a cereal box, but it was a hell of a smart way to promote cereal. And the best part: you could load WAD files from the original DOOM into Chex Quest.
People are still doing amazing stuff with RollerCoaster Tycoon.
I can’t even remember when it’s been given away for free in the last couple of years. It’s been cheap as chips, but never free.
What an amazing promotion.
Cap’n Crunch’s Crunchling Adventure
Image: Giant Bomb
Developed as a promotion in 1999 for Cap’n Crunch cereal, Crunchling Adventure was an action adventure that was bundled into double boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal, unless you ordered the game by mail. The gameplay was essentially three separate mini-games, which you can see below:
Far from the best game ever released in 1999, but for something that came with breakfast you can’t really complain.
Over a decade ago, you could get a copy of Battlefield 2 if you ordered three large pizzas. Probably would have been faster to order pizzas and a legit copy of BF2 than copying it over the network back then.
What a night that would have been.
Atlantis: Search for the Journal
This one was available only to North Americans. Search for the Journal was a tie-in game for Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire movie, although from 2001 the game was released for free on Disney’s website.
The gameplay largely consists of “navigate stuff and don’t die”. It’s a short, generic FPS with no checkpoints, and mostly functions as a demo for the movie and Trial By Fire, another game based off the Atlantis movies.
Interestingly, Search for the Journal also shipped with a multiplayer mode. It was pretty garbage, and the singleplayer element was ten, fifteen minutes long at most. But it was a neat PR move – it’s a great message to say, hey, buy a box of cereal and get a multiplayer shooter.
Age of Empires
Take yourself back. Imagine smashing back a high sugar, high crunch bowl of Nutri-Grain. Then imagine your parents telling you “oh by the way this came in the cereal box”.
And it just happens to be one of the best RTS games ever made. Still.
V-Rally Expert Edition 2
Another Kellogg’s promotion, V-Rally was a serviceable rally game that was published under the Need for Speed name in the United States. It was just V-Rally in Australia, though.
Released in 1999, V-Rally 2 let people race 80 tracks from the 1999 World Rally Championship. It shipped with four player multiplayer and a working track creator. The soundtrack was also … very industrial.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was another Nutri-Grain special, and even though it was better on consoles you couldn’t argue with a bloody Tony Hawk game for free.
Activision would never give this game away for free now. But can you imagine if it showed up in a box of Weet-Bix or something now? I’d run to the store for that
Matt Hoffman’s BMX
Imagine in 2001 you’re a kid, slamming Nutri Grain, and you get a free BMX game to go with it.
Doesn’t matter that Matt Hoffman’s BMX is a bit crap, at least compared to Tony Hawk anything. (Except maybe the most recent one.)
God being a kid was great.
Moto Racer 3
Also available in the big packets (800 grams, I think) of Nutri Grain was Moto Racer 3. It was nowhere near as good as the original Moto Racer, but you were getting a singleplayer and multiplayer racing game with your breakfast. And Moto Racer 3 did have Eastern Creek in it.
The footage just makes me want to find my old copy of Motocross Madness, though. That game was really something.
Need for Speed: Underground
An Urban Dictionary post from 2010 reminiscing about the glorious days of Pizza Hut deals
There was a time in Australia – 2004, specifically – where you could order two pizzas and get a choice of Need for Speed Underground, The Sims, the original Medal of Honour or Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
The year after, Pizza Hut did a follow-up deal where you could get Battlefield Vietnam (this was before their BF2 deal), Sims 2 or Need for Speed Underground 2 for $35. And that came with a ginger beer, coke and two pizzas. $39.95 if you wanted it delivered.
What a time to be alive.
This story has been updated since its original publication.