Author: John Legendoffzelda
The big grudge held against advergames has been about compromising the integrity of a video game by introducing a specific consumer product to its concept, although having a game serve as a commercial isn’t bad in of itself. What’s key about this negative reaction is that the games themselves, as some arbitrary rule, are rudderless garbage heaps. They’re almost always hack jobs that can be misconstrued as failing because they were tossed off by the product’s big-name company as commercials first and foremost. Sometimes the companies do think that way (they particularly did during The Crash), but someone is still responsible for making the game. It’s at this point that Cool Spot, one of the few games that can do so, thankfully proves these product-placement titles can succeed when they’re made by real craftsmen. But then again, the craftsmen here are Virgin Games, whose titles have a curious habit of looking much better than they play even when they play fine. It doesn’t bode all that well for advergames’ reputations.
Spot, the central character here, was a mascot created for the soft drink brand 7 Up in 1987. He’s an anthropomorphized version of the red circle in the brand’s logo, brought to life with a pair of sunglasses and a set of cartoon limbs topped with white gloves and sneakers. There are eleven other spots that look exactly like him, and the objective of this game is to free them all from their imprisonment. These spots are scattered around a series of areas, ranging from a beach to the inside of a house. They are locked inside funky checkered cages Spot can only open if he collects a specific percentage of the level’s “cool points” – little red tokens also copied from the 7 Up logo. Fitting for a game about soda, he interacts with a lot of bubbles on his journey; he can jump on certain ones to bounce upwards, others carry him around in the air, and the only attack he can do is shoot concentrated balls of carbonation at his enemies and the locks on those cages. He’s quite an agile mascot, and the game partially bases its platforming on his penchant for bounding impressively through the air; the levels all have high ceilings where further dangers and cool points are stored, and some of them include sections where Spot is invited to dangle high off of the ground. His long-distance jumping has some float to it, but this is one platformer that uses the lightness of its playable character to still make the physics click. When Spot tumbles around and creates relaxing “pop” sounds by collecting increasing amounts of those red chips, the game attains a bubbly energy.
The unfortunate thing is, though, this only describes the game at its peak conditions. For the majority of the adventure, the game underestimates its own strengths and attempts things with Spot that bring down the enjoyableness factor. More levels in the game than necessary are cluttered, spacious mazes that are crawling with enemies and barbed objects of doom. Spot is able to defeat them easily, and his ability to aim in eight directions improves matters, but that doesn’t change the foes’ needling nature; it’s bad enough that they often re-spawn whenever they go off-screen, they’re also located in some of the least convenient areas in Spot’s path. Crabs nestled in the sand can be outside of his aim, or obnoxious mice that lob cheese crumbs incessantly can land a hit on him by being right next to a checkpoint. These gameplay dangers highlight how physically fragile and strange to control he is; in the air he has a feathery grace, but on the ground he has a hard time jumping forward and a slow walking speed that doesn’t pick up fast enough. Such limitations usually mean Spot can’t outrun an enemy in time, or he can only barely jump over a fishhook without taking damage. These liabilities are particular problems when the player is forced to do most of his platforming while earthbound.
They also reflect on the overall game’s middling design. Platformers by Virgin Games have at least two giveaway features: level designs busy with inconspicuous detail, and attempted augmentation of gameplay by including an assortment of items to find. That first feature always creates an easy-to-avoid conflict where the levels all look colorful and enjoyable, but the obstacles are hard to detect. The enemy spikes could stand to stick out from the foreground a little more for instance. Each level’s spaciousness is at least aided by the cool points, which act as markers along the path and even leave behind indicators of the right direction; they may not help the player avoid every single dead end, but they’re still beneficial. The cool points, of course, are also part of the in-game scavenger hunt, a part of the game that’s meant to provide an additional edge of entertainment. But as opposed to, say, a Mario title, these items don’t affect how the game is played in more than one way. All they do is just repair damage and add to the “cool” percentage, contributing to the same bland progress; programming these trinkets in the game only results in an empty collect-a-thon. The one thing to their credit is that they all look neat, a detail that’s ultimately inseparable from all of the 7 Up product placement. The little red chips, floating 7 Up mini-logos, and bottles of brand-name lemon-lime soda that replenish hit points all have the same eye-catching appeal as those black-and-white cages, and they’re refreshing images to find whenever they appear.
If enough cool points are collected, the player is transported to a bonus level where he bounces around on the inside of a giant 7 Up bottle, collecting one of six letters that spell out the company’s old “Uncola” slogan. These parts are where the platforming in Cool Spot is at its uninhibited best, and the synth dream that plays in the background easily beats any of Tommy Tallarico’s basic surf-rock; but it may seem ironic to some that the best parts of this game are where the advertising is at its most blatant. The green-plastic atmosphere and imposing, backwards logo suggest an unmistakable nakedness of concept – it’s all one big TV commercial – and that’s a very negative factor for certain people who enjoy video games. Any entertainment should stand on its own merit, but advergames get an unfair reputation in this regard because their near-uniform low quality is confused by many for the corporatism that controls their being and supposedly their artistic soul. Cool Spot is less than the game it could be, but it should be noted that the pretty 7 Up aesthetics do nothing except work positively with the rest of what’s there. Video games cannot be hindered by a familiar image – they are only hindered by themselves.
Three out of five stars.
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