This article is a response to Free Girls in the Dryer!
Magazines have always looked for ways to sucker you into buying their rag. Be it a simple game demo in your favorite game magazine or the flimsy plastic records found in music magazines of the 1960s, these gimmicks seem to work. But it's rare for a magazine to give you something truly valuable. Oh sure, you may like that song or that game demo, but how long is that really going to last you?
That's why in this Brief History of Gaming I would like to bring to your attention three different magazines in three different decades that went far beyond the call of duty. They could have simply given us a lame demo or bonus strategy guide, but they decided to throw caution to the wind and give you a full video game. And not some budget title, either. All three of these games were actually worth something at the time, and one of them is even more valuable today. But don't get too excited, because most of these free games came at a cost. Was that cost too high? Did the magazine get the desired results? And whatever happened to those free games? These are the questions I plan on answering as we take a look at three decades of free video games!
The 1980s: Nintendo Power unloads Dragon Warrior
In Japan Dragon Quest is one of the biggest games around. The level of fandom for this simple role-playing series is astounding to the point where many consider it to be a national holiday. In the U.S., Dragon Quest (re-titled Dragon Warrior when it came to the 8-bit Nintendo
This cover is WAY more exciting than the actual Dragon Warrior cartridge!
Entertainment System) is, shall we say, less popular. In fact, it's a night and day difference between the two cultures. So far none of the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest games have been sellers, no matter what it was called. Yet Enix (and now Square Enix) continues to release these games in hopes of making a few extra bucks.
Given the overwhelming success of Dragon Quest in Japan, Nintendo understandably predicted that it would be just as popular in the English-speaking countries. What they didn't realize is that American gamers, who had been raised on Super Mario Bros., Metroid and Kid Icarus, were not ready for a slow-paced adventure game with swords and slime. The game sold poorly, which left Nintendo (the game's U.S. publisher) with a stack of unsold Dragon Warrior cartridges.
Luckily Nintendo had their own magazine, so they did the obvious: They bribed video game loving children with a free game in order to secure a $25 subscription. While
It's hard to believe that with covers like this Nintendo Power ever had to trick people into subscribing!
Nintendo Power has never been known for their objectivity, they had a well-established following and a unique strategy guide-esque layout that would later be used by nearly every other mass market game magazine. But Nintendo was not content to rest on their success, their idea to pair up the magazine's subscription with a free game was a brilliant move that is still remembered twenty years later. Nintendo could have just as easily buried all of those unsold Dragon Warrior cartridges in the desert, but that's what separates the Big N from Atari.
Luckily Nintendo had their own magazine, so they did the obvious: They bribed video game loving children with a free game in order to secure a $25 subscription. While Nintendo Power has never been known for their objectivity, they had a well-established following and a unique strategy guide-esque layout that would later be used by nearly every other mass market game magazine. But Nintendo was not content to rest on their success, their idea to pair up the magazine's subscription with a free game was a brilliant move that is still remembered twenty years later. Nintendo could have just as easily buried all of those unsold Dragon Warrior cartridges in the desert, but that's what separates the Big N from Atari.
The 1990s: NEXT Generation dreams of Christmas NiGHTS
Released hot on the heels of the popular NiGHTS into Dreams, Sega unleashed the holiday-themed Christmas NiGHTS as a Saturn pack-in in Japan. Christmas NiGHTS combines all of the action of the original game with a heavy dose of Christmas cheer. All of the levels are snow-covered; there are Christmas presents all over the place and familiar
Is it too much to ask for St. Patrick's Day NiGHTS?
faces get together (you can play as none other than Sonic the Hedgehog). While the game itself is only a couple of hours long, it comes with enough bonus material and extra features to keep you entertained. But don't be confused, Christmas NiGHTS is not a demo. Sure it's short and does an excellent job of selling people on the gameplay of NiGHTS into Dreams, but it's not a demo in the most traditional sense. Instead it would be more of an expansion pack.
Completely out of the blue, NEXT Generation magazine (along with the Sega Saturn Magazine and Game Players) decided to offer up Christmas NiGHTS to subscribers and some lucky newsstand hounds. For NEXT Generation this was more than just a fun little bonus to give to
I have a hunch that NEXT Generation gave up long before they shortened their name!
subscribers, it was also a way to prove once and for all that they have nothing against Sega and their 32-bit console. Up until that point the NEXT Generation editors were being forced to defend what felt like a pro-Sony sentiment from the magazine. Month after month their feedback section would be full of angry Sega fans upset at the unbalanced coverage. Offering up Christmas NiGHTS was a good way to get back on their good side.
The stunt worked and NEXT Generation's subscriptions increased. Unfortunately this stunt alone was not enough to keep the magazine alive. Thanks to an increase in competition, an unfocused editorial staff and a number of unneeded changes, NEXT Generation magazine called it a day. For a long time it looked like the fate of NiGHTS might parallel that of NEXT Generation, however Sega recently surprised everybody by releasing a sequel on the Wii. Up to that point we had only seen hints of NiGHTS and the characters, so it was nice to finally see an official sequel. While the game itself may be fundamentally flawed, Journey of Dreams does play homage to Christmas NiGHTS some 11 years after the fact.
The 2000s: Incite uncovers Tomb Raider III
Do you like video game magazines but hate all of the pesky video game coverage? Do you want to hear about celebrities and their video game habits? Would you rather see women in bikinis than screenshots of video games? Then Incite is the perfect magazine for you. Back in
None of the Incite covers had much to do with video games, instead it was mostly D-list celebrities and women in bikinis (and sometimes both)!
the early 2000s, Incite was the only video game magazine whose second focus was video games. This was a magazine about celebrities, plain and simple. There were articles about game systems celebrities owned, features where celebrities competed against each other in video games and interviews with celebrities that had some loose connection to something game related. And then there were the interviews with celebrities that didn't play games, weren't in video games and had nothing to do with video games. In other words, it was the soft core version of Maxim (which is already the soft core version of Playboy).
Thinking that it would help their bottom line, Incite started handing out copies of Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft to anybody that would subscribe. There was a time when Lara Croft was one of the hottest things around and the very idea of giving the game out for free would secure you at millions of subscribers. Unfortunately that time was a couple of years earlier. By the time Tomb Raider III came out, game critics and fans
It shouldn't surprise anybody how quickly people turned on Lara Croft!
were starting to be ambivalent to Lara's adventures. A franchise that had once been the toast of the town quickly became yesterday's news, so packaging the game with a half-assed celebrity magazine wasn't the big deal it could have been.
We'll never actually know how many copies of Tomb Raider III Incite handed out before it ceased production. The magazine lasted less than a year, and given the mag's low price (half of the issues were under $3) and shoddy journalism, I can't imagine that many people taking them up on the offer of a free Tomb Raider game. Speaking of Lara Croft, things went from bad to worse as more and more terrible Tomb Raider games were released. In the past couple of years Lara has found her footing and the Tomb Raider series seems to be back on track, however there was a good year where the name Lara Croft was nothing more than a punchline to an overused joke.