Let's talk about dog food. That got your attention, didn't it?
These days, video games have in-game advertising all over the place. I'm not bothered by it when it makes sense in context of the game, like when an ad for Pennzoil shows up on a billboard in Project Gotham Racing or even hiding behind a Full Throttle vending machine in Homefront.
However, there is also the long-running gaming phenomenon known as "adver-gaming," in which an entire game is made to sell a product. Believe me, that didn't start with those three Burger King games on the Xbox 360. It's actually been going on for decades, and the Atari 2600 has some of the most notorious examples of it.
So, with that out of the way, let's talk about Chase the Chuck Wagon, an Atari 2600 game designed to advertise dog food. The idea for the game came from the classic commercials featuring a dog chasing a stop-motion animated toy chuck wagon (see one here). The game was one of those freebies that was given after sending some proofs of purchase to Purina and never saw an actual retail release. Because of that, it's something of a collector's item.
Of course, you're all wondering if the game is actually worth playing. The answer is ... maybe. Despite the title, the well-animated dog you control doesn't actually chase the chuck wagon; the nicely-drawn wagon doesn't move. Instead, the game is a group of timed mazes that you have to navigate to reach the chuck wagon within one minute. Control is pretty solid, though it can be too easy to get caught on corners of the maze. The four mazes that you cycle through are built well considering the console's limitations, but, once you've figured out the layout of each maze, you can get through them in seconds.
That's where the obstacles come in. One is an object (that varies with each stage) that bounces back and forth across the screen, ignoring the walls of the maze. When it hits your dog, he's frozen in place for a few seconds. There is no recovery time; it's entirely possible to get hit over and over again and be stuck in the same place for almost the full minute. As if that wasn't enough, there's also a dog-catcher running around the maze. If caught, you lose a life. Even though the animation for the dog is pretty good, the dog-catcher's spastic movement makes him look like he's having a seizure. On top of that, his AI routine must have taken lessons from Clyde, the dumb ghost from Pac-Man. The only reason he will ever catch you is because he runs twice as fast.
Points are earned based on how much time you have left when you reach the chuck wagon. Then comes the bonus stage where a bowl of dog food comes down from the wagon. Time a press on the fire button so that your dog reaches the bowl, and you get to feast on a 100-point bonus. Bonus stages were very rare on the Atari 2600, and it's nice to see one here.
Beforehand, I was expecting Chase the Chuck Wagon to be about as pleasant as puking up Puppy Chow, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It's certainly no masterpiece, and there are times that it can be irritating and unfair. However, Chase the Chuck Wagon is pretty much average. I have played much better adver-games, but I've also played much worse. This piece of kibble is only somewhat soggy.