You may know from past posts that I’m a big fan of Primal Rage – though more in the “enjoy playing it” sense than the “knowing every bit of trivia about it” sense, which is why I only recently discovered that there was quite a slew of merchandise released for it back in the 90s. Between the comics, action figures, Polly Pocket-esque miniature playsets (what do you mean, your Polly Pockets never went on murderous rampages across a post-civilised Earth?), and even a board game, it’s clear Atari hoped Primal Rage would become the next big character-driven fad.
Anyway. The question of whether I can justify buying half a dozen plastic dinosaurs on eBay aside, this got me thinking about some of the other bits of game ephemera (another word for “gratuitous tat attempting to cash in on the fanbase, and succeeding”) I’ve known and loved. Mostly, in my case, novels.
Novels have always been popular tie-ins for all kinds of media, probably because they’re cheap to print, cheap to have ghostwritten, and the buyer doesn’t know how terrible they are until they’ve already bought the things. Growing up, I was aware that most tie-in novels were slush-pile rejects and that if you wanted a good videogame novelisation you had to turn to fanfiction, but I bought several of them anyway. As my dear wife commented a few posts back, branding is a powerful force, and no matter how anti-consumerist we claim to be there’s something in us that always lights up at the sight of merch for our favourite things.
This was especially so back in the day, when game merchandise just wasn’t a common thing. Living in the UK during the SNES era, we didn’t get even the trickle of tie-in products that the US saw. (I would’ve killed for the Nintendo Cereal System.) The one time I saw a Tails plush hanging in the window of Future Zone/EB/whatever it was at the time, my granddad wouldn’t let me have it because “toys made in China are dangerous” – something about the eyes being held in with spikes! While I’m doubtful that my longed-for Tails doll was actually a death trap (yes, we know – and if you don’t know, btw, that link goes to a creepypasta), I would have happily put up with the chance of being stabbed if it had meant getting to indulge my forbidden love for the enemy.
…I’m still bitter about that doll. Decent-looking Tails plushes are hard to find, dammit.
Anyway. We didn’t have much, mumble grumble snow uphill both ways, so when you sighted some merch for a game you loved, you had to have it. Even if it was a crappy tie-in novel. But you know what? Some of them actually weren’t that bad.
Written in the space of four months by a team of three writers under the pseudonym “Martin Adams”, Virgin Publishing’s four short Sonic novels were my first introduction to books based on games. While they weren’t released outside the UK to the best of my knowledge, many Brits my age remember them fondly, for the simple reason that they were fun. Not earth-shattering literature, but fast-paced and playful, giving Sonic and Tails some believable flaws (Sonic’s confidence in his coolness makes him narcissistic at times; Tails’ desire to be like Sonic leads to him biting off more than he can chew) without delving into either Saturday Morning Specialness (“Now what have we learned today?”) or brooding angst.
Honestly I think if there’s one thing Sonic should not be, it’s angsty, and I suspect these books played a large part in cementing that view for me. The Sonic who brushes off claims of immodesty with “You know I’m good, I know I’m good, so why should I pretend I’m not?”, and the good-hearted, overcompensating Tails who borrows a book of out-of-date slang from a friend and proceeds to indulge in it throughout the story, feel fresh, funny and right to me in a way that none of the games’ overwrought attempts at being plotful ever have. Interestingly, in associating Robotnik with eggs (he constantly eats eggs in the books, and is described by Tails as “addle-pated”, to which he replies “I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like the sound of it”), they also managed to tie his Japanese “Eggman” moniker and his Western “Robotnik” one together better than the game canon ever did…
But enough of that, lest I descend into long tangents on the early Sonic canon. The next two novels I owned, unlike the popular Sonic series, seem to have all but vanished from collective memory. I can’t find any reference to it online – and Street Fighter, like Sonic, is a fairly well-documented fandom – but I swear that at some point in the 90s I picked up a thin paperback novel based on the Street Fighter II canon, specifically featuring Chun Li and her quest to bring Shadaloo to justice. The only evidence I have that it existed is that I remember it listing Chun Li’s favourite food as crepes, which is apparently canon; the only other SFII canon I’ve ever owned is the SNES game’s manual, which fails to mention such trivialities. Anyway, I remember not finishing this one due to it being fairly bad, but it’s now giving me a mental itch; if anyone has more info on this book, or any other (non-graphic) SFII novels that might have been published around that time, do drop me a line.
While trying to track down any info on this mysterious novel, I did run into this, which I’m quite sure is not the one I read; but it does lead into an interesting bit of trivia, in that the UK magazine SNES Force was apparently responsible for publishing (or rather, giving away for free) several game-based novels over the course of its run. Unlike other giveaways that were “samplers” of books you could buy, these books weren’t available anywhere else: they were literally created for the magazine. An attempt at promotion, an outlet for an enthusiastic fanfiction writer, or both? I’m not sure, but SNES Force was apparently also responsible for the one other game novel I remember: a book featuring, of all characters, Putty.
Does anyone remember Putty? Also known as Super Putty in his outing on the SNES, he was a blob of blue goo with eyes who had a mildly successful run of games across various platforms. Actually, scratch that: apparently he had two games total on three systems, two of which were Amigas, and basically didn’t exist in the States. Which is surreal, because when I was a kid it felt like there was a Putty game out every week. But then, I had an Amiga.
Anyway, Putty was popular enough in the UK, if a slightly odd choice for a speaking protagonist, that a novel was written for SNES Force. The only record I have of its existence comes from archive.org’s OCRed text of SNES Force, issue 6: “If your Super Putly book isn’t here ask your newsagent lor it.” (Has OCR technology improved at all in the last 20 years?) But I remember that it involved Putty and his former enemy Dweezil as washed-up has-beens in a noir-like setting, drinking at a bar called the “Axe & GameBoy” with other ex-heroes. I vaguely remember there being some kind of deeper plot in there, something that would rejuvenate them and give their lives meaning again, though I’m sure it can’t have been anything close to canon, inasmuch as Putty had a story.
Certainly, a book like that would never get published these days; it’s not dour enough for most of today’s videogame franchises, and not mindless enough for the others. Somewhere along the line, game writers decided that storytelling meant manpain, meant hypermasculine gun-toting war veterans slogging through endless reams of carnage, meant vampiric anti-heroes mournfully combing their silken locks as they curse their immortality. And somewhere along the line, anyone who wasn’t trying to craft poetic fiction or grim realism decided that “meaningful story” and “fun” couldn’t coexist, and began to churn out purely comedic games with none of the heart or soul of even the cheesiest 90s titles.
There’s little room today for sincere playfulness, whimsy without nihilism – even though a light moment here and there can make a serious story bearable (has anyone ever criticised Final Fantasy VI for lacking emotion and gravitas, despite the quasi-regular encounters with a purple octopus wielding four-ton weights?), and though many of the most memorable and enduring games of previous generations began from patently absurd premises (blue hedgehog who travels at super speed collecting rings? Portly Italian plumber traversing a land of mushrooms and turtles?), yet were cherished enough by their creators that they transcended their absurdity and became something more. Became worlds we enjoyed spending time in, rather than (just) transparent attempts at cashing in.
Few developers heed this balance today. But in the 90s, people seemed more aware that you could play with the stories of games – nudge the fourth wall, have the hero’s time-honoured traits be his undoing – without losing what made us love those stories. That there was room to get a little self-reflective about games while still producing something that made fans sit up and go, “Yes, this. This is the world I know and love.” That it wasn’t a choice between outright parody with no substance and grimdark with no levity, but that you could have both.
That was what 90s gaming taught me: that fun and meaning could go hand in hand. Seeing my favourite worlds portrayed playfully yet well helped me to appreciate the serious themes in lighter-hearted games, and the lighter themes in serious ones. And that’s why, cheesy as they are, embarrassing as they are, these novels will always be important to me.