Just mix it up a little
Land of the Licensed is an ongoing series where I take a look at licensed games, how they represent their intellectual properties, and if they’re actually worth playing.
Whatever happened to the art of the rip-off? Where did all those brave souls go, those entrepreneurial shysters who weren’t afraid to brazenly steal from a more popular competitor in order to make a quick buck? Without those who boldly copied what no one had copied before, whether in concept, mechanics, or any number of things, we wouldn’t have gems like Bubsy, or Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale. The spirit of blatant theft seems to have waned from the public eye in recent years, but thankfully, the history of the gaming industry is full of thievery, waiting to be exploited for comedy purposes by those who know where to look.
I’ll admit, the game I’m addressing today isn’t necessarily a rip-off, or at least, it would be the closest to a legally sanctioned rip-off ever produced. This bold little piece of corporate 1996 wacko nostalgia is called Chex Quest, and some of you might have heard of it, or even played it, if you’re old enough to remember when Braveheart won Best Picture and the original Pokemon just hit the market.
For those unaware, Chex Quest is a Doom clone, which is a term used here quite literally. Through a series of marketing ploys and corporate plans to appeal towards the PC generation while remaining kid-friendly, a promotional agency secured a license for the then-obsolete Doom engine (as Quake had just been released), which was then aesthetically reworked into an E-rated title based off the moving parts which ran The Ultimate Doom. The resulting game was then released in various boxes of Chex cereal for free, and innocent cereal consumers never knew what hit them.
When Chex Quest burst onto the scene in ’96, the whole shebang ended up a massive success for the Chex brand and General Mills. Even though the promotion only lasted 6 weeks, General Mills reported a 295% increase in sales, and the grainy grids were essentially revitalized. The game was subject to a massive advertising campaign, and hell, the discs even came with 50 free hours of AOL! Chex Quest was more or less destined for success. Although many other cereals would follow suit, with titles such as Cap’n Crunch’s Crunchling Adventure, history would never quite be as kind to these stray offerings as the almost rabid cult fanbase that seems to hover around Chex Quest even to this day.
So here we are, twenty years after the release of the first video game ever included in cereal boxes as a prize, and the question lingers in the air like the last soggy piece of wheat-based cereal drifting through milk- how does it hold up? What are the essential differences between Chex Quest and its bloody demon-filled progenitor? Are those 50 hours of free AOL still redeemable? Well folks, those inquires are the ones I intend to answer today. I played this novelty promotional cereal-based DOS shooter so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
From Nickelodeon’s iconic ooze to whatever went down between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, there was plenty of slimy stuff happening in the 90’s, and Chex Quest is no exception. The difficulty levels include “Not So Sticky,” “Extreme Ooze,” and “Super Slimey!” as the game’s hardest offering. It seems odd to mention, but if not for the branding, Chex cereal might play second fiddle to the sheer amount of green goop present in this game. The enemies, known as the Flemoids, are composed entirely of the sticky substance, and the final boss, the Flembrane, is simply a wall of slime. Your character, the Chex Warrior, isn’t harmed by these foul creatures, but simply covered in slime until he becomes immobilized.
Chex Quest’s slime-drenched aesthetic takes the M out of Doom, but it doesn’t leave us with Doo. The visual changes are humorous in places, what with the Chex Warrior gulping down bowls of fruit for health and picking up a giant piece of Chex as armor, but Chex Quest is strangely cohesive enough to make it all work. In fact, Chex Quest offers a wink and nod at its source material in places, with the final level featuring goo-covered cereal pieces in place of desiccated corpses. And come on, how can you not chuckle a little bit when you pick up the Super Bootspork, an energy-laced eating device that coyly replaces the chainsaw?
Of course, you don’t kill the Flemoids, but rather teleport them with your weapons – sorry, with your “Zorchers.” Thanks to the shaky state of running DOS games on modern systems, I missed on the plot scenes of Chex Quest, but according to the Chex Quest Wiki (!!!), the planet Bazoik, which is “renowned for its quality nutritional products,” has been subjected to a Flemoid invasion after a volcanic explosion, and the Chex Warrior must teleport them all back to their home dimension. It’s truly amazing how far Chex Quest goes into being age-appropriate, stretching itself to ensure that none of your Zorchers remotely resemble a gun. Even though Doom was the kind of game to cause moral panics, Chex Quest is G-rated through and through.
So, what we end up with is a bizarre situation in which, under the guise of a kid-friendly cereal promotion, five levels of Doom were smuggled to children across America through Chex cereal boxes. It leaves me wondering: how many kids, denied the glorious violence of Doom by their parents, got their fix by playing a re-skinned version that’s the most nutritious game since Captain Novolin? How many homemade WADs of Chex Quest were passed between friend groups in 1996? Was a bootleg multiplayer Chex Quest ever played at LAN parties? I’m afraid delving into Chex Quest may have raised more questions than it answered.
As a Doom clone, Chex Quest offers little new ground aside from an intriguing aesthetic overhaul. As a representation of the Chex brand, I highly doubt eating Chex cereal is as exciting as this game. As a cultural artifact, however, Chex Quest says a lot. It’s a relic of a time when people played fast and loose with modifying first-person shooters, and it holds the distinction of being not only the first, but most likely the best game ever packaged in a cereal box, short of when Roller Coaster Tycoon was given out as a freebie.
For those interested in weird promotions like New Coke or Disco Demolition Night, Chex Quest is a must-play. Same goes for anyone who’s interested in the history of Doom and its various derivatives. Other than that, Chex Quest doesn’t offer much as a legitimate, stand-alone game that can’t be found elsewhere. The experience stands as a strange balancing act in that it’s not quite mind-boggling enough to be funny like, say, Super 3D Noah’s Ark, but it’s also much better than any other promotional cereal games.
To recommend actually playing such a mediocre game as Chex Quest in this day and age would be silly considering the effort involved, but Chex Quest should be respected. It doesn’t deserve a Steam release or an anniversary celebration, but it’s a singular and unique title that came together under bizarrely specific circumstances, and to lose it to the sands of time would be criminal. It’s an object that should be kept in a museum – never to be played, but always to be admired, in a semi-ironic-but-sort-of-genuine kind of way. Take your place in the Hall of Weird But Successful Promotions, Chex Quest. You’ve earned it.