In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.
Game: Cool Spot (1993)
Platform: Genesis, SNES
Developer: Virgin Games
Publisher: Virgin Interactive
Ahh, the 90s. Those salad days when Pogs were the latest craze, you could buy soda with little blobs of unidentifiable bullshit in it, and American democracy wasn’t a complete shambles. What a time to be alive!
It’s no secret that advertising games aren’t the most popular genre in the video game community. Many of them are obviously low effort rush jobs, after all. But that’s not to say that every “advergame” (okay, I threw up a little typing that) is bad. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact! On that note, let’s talk about a little game called… Cool Spot.
What is this game?
Everyone knows 7 Up is the coolest drink around. It’s the uncola, man! Totally radical! (Isn’t that what all these newfangled social media influencers say? Either way, I’ll expect my check in the mail.)
Back in 1993, Virgin Interactive was commissioned to produce a video game advertisement for the 7 Up brand of soft drinks. In true 90s fashion, the game was designed as a mascot platformer, in this case featuring the little red “spot” from the 7 Up Logo. Sporting some totally tubular sunglasses, gnarly kicks, and a super-cool attitude, Spot is tasked with rescuing his friends from captivity by gathering small red collectibles and unlocking cages at the end of each level. As a tiny little guy, Spot finds himself traveling through everyday locations (a pier, a toy closet, and so on) but facing down intimidating obstacles along the way. For example, there’s a level in the game which involves Spot journeying through a maze of wood and nails behind the wall of a house, fighting off cheese-flinging mice and black widow spiders. Real life-or-death stuff, if you’re a tiny anthropomorphic punctuation mark.
As far as his ability to fight back is concerned, Spot is basically limited to flinging projectiles from his sassy snappin’ fingers. I suppose the projectiles are meant to be soda bubbles, but this is not entirely clear when you’re playing. The implications of this are monstrous if you think about them for more than five seconds: is Spot able to create matter with his own hands? Can he call forth an endless supply of 7 Up from a dimensional portal? Does all of this make Spot a sodamancer, or even a god? Regardless, the soda projectiles are effective at dispatching just about every enemy you come across (with a few exceptions), so a majority of your playtime is often spent hopping around and blasting the ever-lovin’ high-fructose corn syrup out of the gangs of miscreant baddies who have the misfortune of crossing your path.
In addition to this, gathering a certain amount of collectibles in each level unlocks bonus levels, in which Spot must fling himself around the inside of a 7 Up bottle using bouncy bubbles, collecting items and trying to gain extra lives and continues. They’re an interesting fast-paced twist on the more deliberate platforming found in the regular stages, so they’re worth mentioning as well.
It’s also worth noting that the game was released on a bevy of platforms at the time, but for the purposes of this article I’m referring to the Super Nintendo variant. I can’t necessarily speak to the quality of the other various ports.
So what makes it so special?
If you’ve ever played Aladdin on the Sega Genesis, or perhaps one of the first two Earthworm Jim games, you may have seen the name “David Perry” in the credits. Perry is a game developer known in more recent years as the frontman of the streaming service Gaikai, but he has a long lineage of rock-solid platformers to his name–including, yes, Cool Spot. In a nutshell, David Perry’s skill at producing platform games lends Cool Spot its greatest asset: the gameplay itself.
The game performs and controls beautifully, with pitch-perfect precision jumping and movement. It’s always a pleasure to play a finely tuned 2D platformer, and going back to play a game like Cool Spot offers a great reminder why. There’s a special kind of satisfaction to be had in conquering tricky jumps and overcoming carefully placed obstacles. Cool Spot is replete with opportunities to hone and show off your platforming skills. The jumps have a perfect weight and arc to them, and Spot’s running speed feels just right. These are things that are hard to do well, but Cool Spot manages them with aplomb. It’s rare to find a game where the traversal itself is one of the most fun gameplay elements, but the clever and open stage designs (in concert with the solid controls) allow for a great time exploring.
As far as art design is concerned, the rest of the package may be a bit on the bland side by virtue of its association with shameless marketing imagery. But that’s not to say that the game is necessarily a slouch visually, either. The graphics on the Super Nintendo version are rich, and the parallax backgrounds move smoothly and provide extra flair and color to each stage. The enemy designs are a hodgepodge of random things you might find around a location: the beach, for example, is filled with hermit crabs and insects. But there’s a certain charm in the way everything is presented.
And then there’s the music. Tommy Tallarico put together some catchy tunes here, but of all the various tracks in the game, the legendary Bonus Level Theme stands in a class of its own:
I mean, come on. This song just kicks ass. A friend of mine even told me once that he heard a remix of the tune in a dance club one night. I’m not sure whether I believe him or not, but I like the image of a guy in a club yelling “holy shit, this is Cool Spot!” so let’s just go with it.
…Alright, so the game isn’t exactly perfect. I can think of a handful of criticisms to be leveled at it, not the least of which being its brevity. The entire game can be completed in an hour or two, so it’s not exactly going to devour weeks of your gaming life. (I’m looking at you, Persona 5.)
The lack of a real story isn’t a deal breaker for me personally, but it does sort of call attention to the fact that there aren’t really any bosses or final encounters of any kind in the game. You play through a level collecting spots, find the cage, and free your friend. Rinse and repeat. Who imprisoned the Spots, anyway? Are they simply watching you as you fight your way through each stage, unraveling their handiwork? I suppose none of this really matters, but the point is, it would’ve been an even better game had there been some larger and scarier enemies to fight off from time to time.
The game also re-uses a decent amount of its own assets in the back half. Palette swaps are hardly unheard of in 2D games, but the game does start to feel a little thin on content when you have exhausted the handful of unique settings they created. A number of the later stages utilize the same settings as the earlier ones, with slight variations in background and enemy coloring. Had the game been any longer than it is, it would start to become a real problem. As it stands, it’s merely a quibble.
Why was it overlooked?
Cool Spot was overlooked by a lot of people for the same reason that most advertising games were overlooked at the time: they’re usually pretty awful. The game has a fairly solid reputation these days among people who have experienced it, but nonetheless, it’s not exactly everyone’s first memory when they look back upon the vast libraries of the Genesis and SNES.
How can I get a hold of it?
Unfortunately, if you feel the desire to pick up and play Cool Spot, your only legal recourse is to buy a used copy of the cartridge and play it that way. There has been no official digital re-release of the game for modern platforms, probably because it doesn’t really fit with 7 Up’s modern-day marketing approach. I suppose that’s the way things go when you’re dealing with a game that’s as much of a historical artifact as this.
Alternatively, there’s always emulation. But you didn’t hear that from me. No illegal ROMs here, no sir! Just good, honest 7 Up-loving consumers. All hail our benevolent overlords, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Corporation.
Just do yourself a favor and play it with a real SNES controller. Or a Genesis controller, if that’s your platform of choice. The mechanics are too tight to be wasting them on sub-optimal input methods!
One of the goals I set for myself with this (somewhat) recurring column is to put the spotlight on a whole variety of games. Some of them might be moving experiences–they might have something to say about the world; about you; about me. Others might just be good examples of game design, or art design, or musical talent, or some combination of the three.
I know that Cool Spot isn’t high art. But it’s fun, dammit. And isn’t that what video games are supposed to be? 7 Up may be trying to shove heavily-marketed cans of carbonated sodas down my throat, but at least they’re doing it with a smile and a surprisingly competent mascot platformer. So I’ll say cheers to that. In David Perry and the team at Virgin, they found a talented corps of creators who were able to spin this silly concept into retro gold, and that should be celebrated.
Replaying Cool Spot today is like getting a high five from a time-traveling marketing executive from the 90s.
Awkward and artificial? Perhaps.
But totally radical, man.