Originally released in 1996 as a free CD-ROM in Chex cereal, Chex Quest — developed by Digital Cafe — took Doom and created a Chex cereal coated mod over top of it, tasking players with saving their cereal friends from the slimy Flemoids. It was awesome.
Digital Cafe had done other tie-in products with ad agency WatersMolitor: a screen saver for BMW, movie screen saver press kits, and other “cheap, quickly made” multimedia projects. But for one client — Ralston Foods, before it was bought by General Mills — Digital Cafe proposed the idea of doing a game.
With the release of the new Doom, we thought it was a good time to revisit Chex Quest, which is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Zam talked with Chex Quest lead artist Charles Jacobi about how the game came to be, working within Doom, and details on the upcoming Chex Quest HD. An edited interview follows.
What did you draw inspiration from for the game? You had stuff like the Flemoids, the Zorcher, the spoon…obviously the main character comes from Chex, but I’m curious where some of the other ideas came from?
The Chex character himself, obviously, yeah, he is very much a brand thing, right? They wanted that. He had to be immediately recognizable as the brand. But all the other parts of him were kind of, honestly this was shortly after Toy Story had come out, and I was heavily influenced by that, and a lot of things.
But in particular, I loved Buzz Lightyear. And so it’s obvious, that like the shape of his head and a lot of those sort of things kind of played into [that]. Anyway, Buzz Lightyear and especially that cartoon that followed it up … that sort of universe was something that we wanted to recreate.
The monsters themselves were something, I think, that came from Ralston…and a lot of the reasons why things got colored and textured the way they did had to do with the 256 color palette that we had available to us from Doom. So, that’s why we went with the green for the enemies, because there was a lot of green available in the palette. There was a lot of blues, there was a lot of grays, so the palette of Doom itself actually drove our need to do certain things.
You had the Chex license to work with, so aside from the character was there anything else you had to work in brand wise?
Yeah, of course. They were very adamant about…they just wanted the brand name everywhere. Obviously putting it in the HUD was a big part of that. They liked the fact they we found a place for it in the HUD, so it was basically there all the time.
And then, in moments of opportunity, stick it onto doorways and boxes. We tried not to be too obnoxious about it — I know at times it was — but we tried to do it at least somewhat where it would make sense that there might be an ad there, rather than just plastering it on the walls at random places. So, yeah, there definitely was a request that the branding be very much in your face.
Was it tricky to get the Doom license?
No, actually, we were surprised. My friend Scott and I, we had already been making mods, just as something we did as a hobby. So, I had been making maps and he had been tooling around with changing functionality and stuff. And we mentioned that to Mike [Koenigs, one of the owners of Digital Cafe] ‘What about a total conversion?’ … and his first reaction was like ‘No, that’s going to cost us like a half a million dollars or something.’
And we sort of thought that was the end of it, and then later, like a week later, he said he had talked to them at id and they were totally willing to drop the rate for something that wasn’t a commercial title, since it wasn’t going to follow a traditional gaming revenue model. There wasn’t going to be a royalty or anything like that. So, they were willing to cut a special deal.
And also the fact that, by then, Quake had already come out, so Doom was kind of already old tech, so they weren’t protecting it that much. So, we ended up getting it for — I don’t know what the actual dollar amount was — but it was a very reasonable amount.
How long was development of the game?
It really wasn’t very long. I probably spent, boy it couldn’t have been more than four months. And that was just for making the mod itself. I know there was another group that did all the stuff that appears on the CD, which included the AOL installer, the game installer, some other promotional things. I think that took a little extra time. But the whole thing start to finish was no more than six months. And that’s why it’s so short.
What was it like making a game within the framework of Doom?
I had so much fun with it. Because, being a big Doom fan, I loved the idea of putting a disguise on the game that I loved to play so much. We know we couldn’t — we didn’t have the technical expertise to get into the source code and with a lot of confidence make some big changes — so that’s why for the most part it’s functionally still exactly like Doom.
We tried to put little inside nods back to Doom. In Doom, you had guys all bloody hanging from the wall, where we just made a sprite of basically the same thing, but it’s just a little cereal dude slimed and stuck to the wall. But they’re all meant to be sort of callbacks to ideas that were in Doom, but just made kid friendly. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to interpret that sort of thing.
What was the initial reaction to the game like?
We were pretty amazed. I mean, obviously, because it was kind of the first of its kind, something that to a lot of people they felt like had a lot of value compared to what they would normally get for a little prize in a cereal box. They were getting this whole video game. There were a lot of people that just were pretty shocked, you know, despite its faults it was still, they thought, quite a valuable little thing that they were getting for free.
And I know the client was super happy because they increased their sales numbers more than they had hoped.
That was my next question, actually. So it had success in that regard, people were buying more cereal?
Yeah, it definitely did. And enough so that they ponied up a little bit more money to make the next five episode, the Chex Quest 2. So, we knocked that out for them.
And then after that the purse strings had sort of tightened up, it’s like ‘Well, OK, we’re not really willing to spend much more on this,’ but they did want to pay for the sequel so we got to do five more levels. It didn’t have the budget to do any kind of intro cinematics or anything like that for the second one, unfortunately.
And then you put together Chex Quest 3 too, correct?
Right. Yeah, so around the 10th year anniversary…I started to get a whole bunch of emails from fans who asked me if I was interested in, not necessarily making something myself, there’s a huge mod this guy’s been working on forever, it’s called Ultimate Chex Quest, where he wants to just essentially fill out all of what Ultimate Doom actually has…so that’s his ambition.
And he approached me asking if like — because he wanted to get that done for the 10th year anniversary — if I would be willing to make some content for it. And I was like, ‘Well, you know, I’ll think about it.’ And I did end up making a new monster, I created a bunch of sprites to replace the Cacodemon and handed that off to the community.
And I was just pretty amazed… 10 years later there was still a fan site for the game that had active users and then that they went crazy over just getting a bunch of new sprites. And so that just kind of, I don’t know, got me excited about the universe again. And so over the next year and a half, just kind of in my free time when I could, I started building more sprites and built five more levels and got a little help to get everything moved over into a modern source port, into zDoom, because the old game often doesn’t even run on modern Windows. And yeah, so, that was a lot of fun and it was pretty well received.
I don’t know if you’ve been paying any attention, but I recently announced — because it all started happening again with this year being the 20th anniversary — so they’re all like, you know, ‘Are you going to make another, Chex Quest 4 or whatever?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’m definitely not interested in that.’
But I’ve always kind of wondered about like ‘Well, what would it be like if I just did a remake of the first one, but with a modern game engine?’ And at my professional job, I use the new Unreal, Unreal 4, and I love it. It’s a really powerful tool set, especially for content people…I don’t necessarily need to be a programmer and I can build lots of functionality with it. So I’ve started building, basically, a high-def remake of the first one.
That’s awesome! I did not know that. So that’s something you are working on now?
Yeah, and again, just like Chex Quest 3 it’s really just a hobby thing that I do on the side. So, you know, progress is slow. I think I’ve got maybe half the monsters made, half the weapons made, and maybe two levels.
Chex Quest really has a cult following behind it. Why do you think people latched on to the game?
I think there was a big chunk of kids at the time that, you know, Doom was so notorious, like bloody, violent and everything else that there was a big chunk of kids that would love to play first-person-shooters but had parents that would not let them, right?
And this was the case where being G-rated or whatever, it might be, for some of these 6,7,8-year olds, their only first person shooter experience for quite some time, until later. And that’s what I’ve heard quite a few times. So I think, had those same kids played Doom they probably may not care as much about Chex, but because they grew up playing that exclusively for maybe a few year, they just have more fondness for it.
Did you ever think you’d still be talking about it all these years later?
No. I mean, we thought of it as the same way we thought about all the little promotional things we did for other clients, right? Nobody cares about the BMW penguin screensaver, no one cares about the various things we made for some movies and stuff like that. We just figured it would be a big thing while it was out and then it was kind of go away like everything else had. But, it’s nice that people have appreciated it and continue to.
I think a lot of the continued interest on the fan forums specifically these days is because there’s a lot of users out there that make new content. And they kind of encourage each other and play each other’s mods. And it’s similar with Doom, there’s a lot of Doom modding that keeps it alive.
Have you played the new Doom?
I haven’t yet. I feel like I probably should because…I feel like I maybe want to play it through and find a few iconic things about it that maybe I can stick into the new Chex.
What’s your favorite thing about Chex Quest?
To me personally, it’s a bit of an homage to, like I said, the Buzz Lightyear Star Command universe. It has similarities to it. It’s my personal homage to it, which is something I loved, when I saw Buzz Lightyear in the theaters when that movie came out I was like ‘He’s…so cool! I wish I had that toy!.’
That, and the fact that it’s, you know, I was always a Doom fan, and getting to make my own sort of cheesy kid’s take on it is something that I’ve always had a lot of fun with.