The original Chex Quest was a landmark “Advergame.” Included for free with Chex cereals and first released in 1996, it was essentially a full mod or total conversion built on top of the original Doom engine. It featured five levels in which you played as a man clad in Chex cereal-shaped armor, and you used a set of special weapons called “Zorchers” to zap “Flemoid” aliens back to their home dimension so they wouldn’t eat all the healthy foods like vegetables and…Chex cereal.
It was quirky, clever, and almost as fun to play as other classic first-person shooters thanks to the flexible power of the timeless engine it was built upon. Like many games, it gathered a dedicated fan base. The development team at Digital Cafe made a full sequel a few years later, and later some of those same folks made a third game and packaged the whole thing up along with ZDoom, making it easier to play on modern machines. If you want to read more about it or track down where to download the original games, the Wikipedia article is shockingly thorough, thanks to those dedicated fans.
Now, over 20 years later, General Mills has decided to give it another go. They’ve published Chex Quest HD on Steam, developed by some of the original designers alongside a handful of passionate community members. It has five levels that mimic the design themes of the originals, it’s powered by Unreal Engine 4, and it has new music and sound design inspired by the first game.
It’s also not very good, and in no way lives up to the legacy of the original projects.
The move to proper 3D and a modern game engine don’t really suit this basic fast shooter design. The game still follows the design tropes of the original Doom, and has you navigating maze-like levels and finding colored keys to open doors. It even still has the original weapons. But the gameplay itself is now sluggish and slow. The first game moves at a frantic clip just like Doom does, and this new game feels about ten times slower. And rather than directly remake the original layouts, the designers have opted for entirely new designs with more environmental complexity, complete with awkward jumping moments that never feel great. The automap function from the original is now gone so it’s much easier to get lost in the game’s twisting corridors, and you can’t save the game mid-level. The original game has bigger enemy counts in its first level than this one does in its final encounters, and it dropped frames at random on my GTX 1070/i7 machine.
Alas, the game is plagued throughout by small bugs and optimization issues. It took me several tries to open doors on numerous occasions, forcing me to stand there and hammer the open button until the animation began. Enemy characters sometimes randomly take more or less hits to defeat with the same weapon. The weapons aren’t sorted in the order of their relative attack power in your inventory list. And while I did enjoy finding some of the secret terminals in the game with their humorous inside-joke-filled messages, the flat nature of the graphics means that looking for visual cues to locate these secret rooms is nigh-impossible. You’ll have to just spam the open button on every wall.
Graphically, the game attempts a modern take on the same art style as the original with its flat geometry, colorful surfaces, and cartoon character design. But the art ends up looking stale and untextured when compared with the 1996 visuals, and it’s far below the level of other modern video games. Everything is very soft and rounded, and outside of a neat effect when the enemies get Zorched away, lighting and shadow effects are mostly absent. Enemy characters glide smoothly around the environment, without the distinct wobbling animations of the originals. Sometimes, enemies will just stop functioning entirely, and stand with their back to you waiting for you to shoot them.
You can blast through all five levels in around 45 minutes. After that, there are new characters themed to the different pieces of Chex Mix to replay the game with, and a local splitscreen multiplayer mode. Unfortunately, General Mills decided to lock all of these features away behind codes you were meant to find by buying specially-marked bags of Chex Mix in stores. Fortunately, the codes aren’t unique, and after users started publishing them on the Steam store, the company relented and made the codes available on the game’s official web site.
Although the game is short, a little janky, and slow-paced, and the graphics don’t evoke nostalgia in me the way I thought they would nor look good enough to stand on their own, the sound package is wonderful. The game contains excellent new music tracks made in the 90’s synth style of the original game, and the sound effects accurately recall the weird noises of the past. There’s a handful of new animated cutscenes and plenty of new voice acting for all the characters, which has them reacting directly to the events of each level as you play.
The audio package is good enough that I would have much preferred if they’d re-released the original games with upgraded audio and the new characters added, instead of trying to make a whole new thing. I was hoping when I finished the game I’d unlock playable versions of the originals, but no. I was forced to go seek those out to see if my memory of them being better was right, and it absolutely was.
Chex Quest HD is a nostalgia play that isn’t similar enough to the original to generate enough nostalgia, and isn’t good enough to be worth playing instead. Still, it’s a free download and it was clearly a project with a lot of passion behind it. I can’t help but feel like the decision to try for a fully new game on Unreal Engine 4 with a meager budget wasn’t worth it.
Other games like Devil Daggers, Ion Fury, and Project Warlock have shown there’s still a market for new shooters that look like old games. A polished re-release of the original Chex Quest levels alongside new content, audio, and voice acting would have perfectly hit the right nostalgia buttons and also would be more in line with current trends.. In fact, I’d have happily paid up to ten dollars to get those true classics on my PC or one of my current consoles in an easily playable format with new stuff. I’m still ultimately happy that this weird thing exists, but it could have been so much more with the right design philosophy. And while I’ll happily revisit the original games many more times, I don’t think I ever need to play this one again.