By Jeremy Parish

To casual observers, the longevity of Chex Quest must seem downright bewildering. Today’s advergames—that is, video games designed primarily for the sake of promoting some sort of product or service—tend to take one of two forms. On one hand, you have web-based freebies, hastily cobbled together in cheap-looking Flash-style animation by teams with little game design experience, working under tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. On the other hand, you have mobile apps, which frequently exist as a promotion and a source of revenue all at once. These usually involve some sort of whale-baiting feedback loop designed to tease players with popular imagery and hints of progress before pressing them to continue playing via microtransactions. Neither style of game is meant to be memorable or substantial; they’re merely a way to build a little brand awareness in an increasingly noisy media environment.

Chex Quest bears no resemblance to any of those games. It has exactly two things in common with web clickers or mobile match-threes: It was designed to promote a product (actually, both a product and a service), and it was given away for free. 

Well… free with purchase, anyway. The price of admission to Chex Quest was a box of Chex. This is how the game began to make inroads with its audience.

“The in-box promotion made an obvious impact on sales of Chex cereal, boosting it significantly,” says Chuck Jacobi, one of the original developers of Chex Quest, and a consultant on the reissue currently available through Limited Run Games. However, Jacobi notes that cereal sales were in many ways an incidental consideration in the game’s creation. The ultimate purpose behind Chex Quest was to help drive subscriptions to America OnLine, a dial-up internet portal. In the era before high-speed home connections and pocket-sized phones that can access the entire web became standard fare, America OnLine (or AOL) connected millions of Americans to the web through their phone lines.

As Jacobi explains, “At that time, AOL was pressing discs by the tens of millions to attract new customers. The Chex Quest partnership was just one of many they had going during this period.” 

Free AOL trial diskettes and CD-ROMs seemed inescapable in the late ’90s, showing up in magazines, at checkout counters, and even as free giveaways with unrelated retail purchases. AOL adopted a blanket coverage strategy, enticing U.S. home users to try their service for free and hoping their experience would convert them into customers. 

Chex Quest represented a more subtle approach. The game shipped inside specially marked packages of Chex series, and it used the brand’s imagery—the protagonist wore armor designed in the style of the cereal’s distinctive mesh of “woven” fibers—but ultimately existed to steer kids (and, more to the point, their parents) toward using AOL. The campaign was designed to boost Chex sales, as kids would actively seek out a breakfast cereal that came with a free video game, with the end goal of planting a seed of awareness of AOL in that household. 

The action itself, however, had very little to do with AOL, though it was unusually family-friendly for an FPS. “Chex Quest is remembered as being one of the first E-rated first-person shooters,” says Jacobi. “That fact, combined with being free in a cereal box, meant that Chex Quest was the first shooter to be played by many gamers, particularly those aged 7-11 at the time of release.”

It was a revolutionary approach to advertising. Certainly it required less effort for kids than the Atari 2600 Chase the Chuckwagon promotion of the ’80s; that campaign required consumers to mail in multiple dog food UPC symbols in order to acquire a mediocre branded game. In the case of Chex Quest, a complete copy of the game shipped in each box of Chex. Fish the prize out of the waxen inner bag and you had a few hours of free entertainment, simple as that. 

Unsurprisingly, it became a huge hit on multiple levels—just not on the sales charts that gamers typically use to judge the impact of a game’s release. Nearly six million copies of Chex Quest ended up being distributed via Chex manufacturer General Mills, which amounted to an absolutely massive release by any standard, and an equally staggering ad campaign. “The project won a couple of marketing awards for its effectiveness and willingness to embrace new media,” Jacobi says, though he notes the campaign’s overall effectiveness remains something of an unknown. “It's hard to know if AOL saw any significant spike in new subscriptions from this particular pack-in,” he admits.

Chex Quest may or may not have done much for AOL’s bottom line, but the game would go on to become a communal touchstone for millions of kids within a very specific age range. If you were an American tween in the late ’90s, you probably played Chex Quest. And while it may not have had the addictive depth of that other tween fixation of the late ’90s, Nintendo’s Pokémon, it nevertheless stood on its own merits. Despite being created as a free giveaway designed to sell food and dial-up subscriptions, Chex Quest turned out to be, against all odds, a fun, well-crafted video game.

The secret, Jacobi says, was that Chex Quest developer Digital Cafe happily stood on the shoulders of giants to create their game. “Chex Quest will always be closely tied to Doom, the greatest of the first wave of first person shooters,” he says. “Anyone who has played both will quickly realize that Chex Quest is more or less the same game, albeit with completely different level designs, graphics, sounds and music.”

Chex Quest didn’t simply play like Doom; it ran on the Doom engine. This was a common technical approach in the early days of the first-person shooter, and back then “running on the engine” translated into something far more straightforward than what people mean today when they say something is (for example) “powered by the Unreal Engine.” Tweaking the framework of an early FPS was remarkably easy, often requiring little more than some new graphical and audio files, and maybe a bit of technical tweaking under the hood to adjust weapon physics and enemy behaviors. This led to the proliferation of commercial game releases that essentially amounted to facelifts for seminal works like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and even Bungie’s cult Macintosh favorite Marathon

That list of “standalone facelifts” includes Chex Quest, which may have been the most subversive of them all. It took a game that inspired media outrage for its gruesome, immersive violence and repurposed its tech for non-violent means. (The other candidate for the subversion sweepstakes would probably be Wisdom Tree’s Super Noah’s Ark 3D, which involved biblical figure Noah rounding up animals to herd to safety on his famous ark and allegedly ran on a hack of id Software’s pre-Doom shooter, Wolfenstein 3D.) 

The non-violent nature of Chex Quest worked in its favor. The game arrived in 1996, right around the time id upgraded its engine tech to proper 3D with the blistering fast Quake. Even though this rendered Chex Quest technically obsolete immediately upon arrival, the game’s target audience didn’t see it that way. Quake demanded more powerful graphical hardware than kids using their family computer likely had access to, whereas Chex Quest could run on machines nearly a decade old. On top of that, the bloody nature of the newly minted FPS genre gave that style of game the taste of a forbidden fruit for most kids: Most parents didn’t want a 10-year-old fragging hell’s legions into chunks of graphic, steaming meat. But there was none of that in Chex Quest; the protagonist simply subdued aliens with the use of a device called a “Zorcher,” a non-lethal handheld gadget that looked more like a Star Trek tricorder than it did a gun. The result was a game as fast-paced and exciting as most M-rated shooters, but which neatly avoided all the red flags that set parental tongues wagging about Doom and its peers.

Sharing tech with Doom has helped ensure Chex Quest’s longevity in other ways, too. For example, the Limited Run reissue is designed to run on modern Doom interpreters, most of which are free, open-source, and can be tweaked and tuned to the player’s preferences. This technical parity with one of the world’s most popular and influential games of all time has always been present in the Chex Quest experience, explains Jacobi. “There was a great deal of cross-over between the modding community of Doom and Chex Quest,” he says. “Subsequent source ports and new features that were added to Doom by the fans were easily adapted to Chex Quest.”

This built-in Doom DNA hasn’t simply helped preserve the original Chex Quest, it also allowed Digital Cafe to extend the concept beyond that initial pack-in giveaway. Jacobi worked as lead artist on both Chex Quest and its sequel, 1997’s Chex Quest 2, and has remained engaged with the series even beyond that. “I created the majority of the sprite, texture and UI art seen in those games, as well as drafting the layouts for the levels,” he says. “In the 20-plus years since, I've created new content for the Chex Quest fan community, including the sequel Chex Quest 3 and, more recently, Chex Quest HD.”

Despite all the factors working to Chex Quest’s advantage, and despite his long involvement with the franchise, Jacobi admits the game’s enduring legacy has far exceeded his expectations. “It is a bit surprising,” he says, “particularly considering its origins as an advergame. It speaks loudly to the enduring quality of its progenitor Doom, with its super-fun gameplay and legacy of mod support over the years. Chex Quest has certainly ridden those coattails.

“I believe it has earned a lot of that on its own too, with its family-friendly take on an otherwise violent genre and silly premise—all while still being a genuinely fun game.”

Image source: HG101

Chex Quest is available for preorder from Limited Run Games through May 15: Chex Warrior Edition | Big Box Edition | Soundtrack

April 29, 2020