Pack-In Games Through The Years


Ah, the pack-in game.  Remember the days when you bought a new console, and waiting inside the box was a brand new AAA title to help you break in the new era of gaming ahead?  Yeah, neither do we.  Nowadays on hardware launch nights we have to fork out up to $600 for new hardware (thanks again for that Sony) and then another $60 for the latest and greatest next-gen gaming goodness.  But once upon a time, people expected a little something extra for their investment.  Let’s take a look at some of the major pack-in titles from the past to present as well as some of the lesser known limited time specials that were packed into console boxes over the past four decades and see what we’re missing out on.

Magnavox Odyssey: Pong
The Odyssey was the world’s first home video game console, released nearly 40 years ago.  While people refer to its games as cartridges, they weren’t really so much cartridges as they were jumper pins that allowed the on-screen squares to move in a different pattern.  So in theory, all the possible games playable were built into the system already, but to access them you needed the appropriate jumper pin, aka cartridge.  The Odyssey came with the first version of video ping-pong, which is ironic because this version of ping-pong predates Atari’s legendary Pong arcade machine by two whole years.  The first pack-in title came out before video games had even invaded arcades which at the time were still ruled by pinball.  Ralph Baer’s little white box set the stage for consoles to come.
Atari 2600: Combat
War games of today are hauntingly realistic, but in the days of the Atari 2600, this cute little game called Combat was state of the art.  Hard to believe we’ve come this far since then.  On board were 27 different 2-player modes spread over a variety of games types including biplanes, jet fighters, tank pong, and invisible tanks.  That’s a lot of content for an Atari 2600 game.  The fun thing was that many of the modes offered some true gameplay variety and featured gimmicks such as letting you bounce bullets off the sides of the maze like arenas.  There was enough variety in fact that Combat is still quite fun to play today.  Simple or not, 27 games is a lot of content to put in a box with a console.  Combat remained the pack-in 2600 title from 1977 all the way to 1983.
Nintendo Entertainment System: Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt
Over the course of its life, the NES came in a variety of packages, including The Control Deck, The Deluxe Set, The Power Bundle, The Sports Set, The Challenge Set… you get the point.  But a large majority of owners remember the most popular bundle: The Action Set.  This this box, you got the NES, two controllers, a Zapper, and a copy of Super Mario Bros/ Duck Hunt – a multicart containing the titular games.  Super Mario Bros. alone was already a timeless pack-in, but sweetening the pot with the simple yet memorable Duck Hunt made the deal even more awesome.  There’s like a million of those cartridges floating around flea markets and pawn shops to this day.  Everybody had one.
Sega Genesis: Altered Beast/Sonic the Hedgehog
Launching a full two years before the Super Nintendo, the Genesis mostly rode in the face of the incumbent NES on its ability to bring home nearly perfect arcade ports of its cousin hardware – the System 16 board.  That wasn’t an entirely smart marketing tactic since arcade boards generally had a short shelf life back then, and arcade technology would eventually outpace the Genesis.  Sega started off with the home translation of Altered Beast, a game that is generally considered to be an inferior home conversion of what is already a rather slow and plodding brawler.  One of the problems in the conversion was that Altered Beast ran on an enhanced version of the System-16 board, and the game had to be scaled back for home release.  That didn’t really help to show off the Genesis’s marketed “blast processing” advantage over the then-upcoming release of the Super Nintendo.  The SNES had better graphics/sound, but the Genesis was considerably faster.  Sega wanted a game to show off their one true advantage.  In 1991, Sega of America launched an initiative where gamers could send in their copy of Altered Beast for a free copy of Sonic the Hedgehog (which became the new pack-in game).  It was a massive publicity stunt and resulted in the Genesis practically getting an image reboot in the eyes of the public, kicking off the fierce 16-bit war to follow.
Super Nintendo: Super Mario All-Stars + World
Super Mario World was released right alongside the Super Nintendo in August 1991.  Anybody who got a Super NES that year had a free copy of Mario’s biggest 2D adventure ever waiting inside the box – 72 levels and 96 exist of 2D gaming bliss.  That alone is one of the best pack-in deals ever, but Nintendo decided to do it one better in 1994.  After the staggering success of Super Mario All-Stars the previous year, Nintendo took that mega value cartridge and added Super Mario World (Super Mario Bros. 4) to the mix and pack it into the box with the Super Nintendo only at Toys R’ Us.  Five of the best Mario games of all time in one box with the console; there arguably hasn’t been a better gaming value before or since.
Sega Saturn: Virtua Cop/Daytona USA/Virtua Fighter 2
The Sega Saturn was an overpriced piece of hardware.  Launching a hundred bucks more than the PlayStation, you would expect Sega to give you something extra for your money.  Indeed, you got a little something extra… try three free games.  Yeah, Sega ponied up three full games in the box waiting on you.  First was the sublime Virtua Fighter 2, sequel to the world’s first 3D fighting game.  Next was a port of the best arcade racer of all time – Daytona USA.  Lastly, you got a copy of the light gun classic Virtua Cop (which seemed a little redundant because the package didn’t include the light gun, but hey, free is free).  All the freebies couldn’t help the Saturn trounce the PlayStation, but at least you had a lot to do when you opened that box on Christmas morning.
PlayStation: Ridge Racer
Sony knew what was at stake with the release of the PS1.  They were a no name player entering into an industry where established brands ruled the roost.  Sega had their own arcade racing hit packed into the box, so Sony followed suit by signing on Namco’s Ridge Racer and putting it in the box.  This was a brilliant move because Sega seriously botched the home port of Daytona USA.  While Daytona was arguably the better game, Ridge Racer looked nearly as good at home as it did in arcades.   This cemented the public opinion that the PlayStation was the better 32-bit 3D machine, and set a dark tone for the future fortunes of Sega’s 32-bit Saturn.
Nintendo 64: Donkey Kong 64
The N64 didn’t have a pack-in title in the beginning.  Super Mario 64 was a stand-alone title (even though everybody bought a copy).  However in 1999, Nintendo decided to release a variety of “Funtastic” multi-colored Nintendo 64 colors.  As a special limited time Holiday offer, Donkey Kong 64 was packaged in with the jungle green edition of the N64 with a jungle green controller.  Predictably, green became the most popular Nintendo 64 color variant.  102 hours of possible gameplay packed in with a game is a good deal any day of the week.
GameCube: The Legend of Zelda Collectors Collection
The “little purple lunchbox that could” didn’t launch with a pack-in of any kind (although Melee could just as well have been it since it sold almost 1:1 with the hardware), however it would go on to get some pack-in goodies later in life.  One of those super sweet deals came in the form of The Legend of Zelda Collector’s Edition disc.  Essentially the “Super Mario All-Stars of Zelda”, you got The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Ocarina of Time, and Majora’s Mask all on one disc.  Majora suffered some framerate issues and music stuttering due to the strain of running an N64 emulator on GameCube, but the issues weren’t nearly as bad as reviews claimed.  Just having all these Zelda classics on one disc was a treat, and you could only get it as a pack-in (or from Club Nintendo for a limited time if you registered a couple of games online).  The only flaw of this pack was its glaring omission of A Link to the Past, but that was likely due to the GBA port being on the market at that time.  Oh well, nothing is perfect I suppose.
Nintendo Wii: Wii Sports
Not only is Wii Sports the Wii game that went on to become the defining title of the casual gaming revolution, but that pack in status also helped it to become the highest selling video game of all time, surpassing Super Mario Bros. sometime time last year.  It’s interesting because the decision to make Wii sports a pack in didn’t actually come from Japan, but rather Nintendo of America.  In Japan, the Wii actually flew solo on store shelves at launch.  Packing in Wii Sports across the rest of the world may have been the smartest marketing decision in the history of video games.  Not only was it a perfect demo for the system’s capabilities, but it was also the perfect hook for casual gamers, providing just enough gameplay to excite players about the console’s possibilities and encourage you to buy more games for it.  Without Wii Sports, the Wii platform would certainly have been successful, but arguably to a far lesser degree.
The pack-in game is a showcase for what a new generation console can be.  It has often been a vital factor in the purchase plans of many a value minded shopper.  Nintendo showed the world once again just how important the right pack-in game can be with the release of the Wii.  Perhaps going forward we will see pack-in games become more of a staple once again, but the odds are that the pack-in titles offered in the future will skew towards the family minded non-gamer crowd since ultimately they are the ones who need encouraging to purchase new software while core gamers are far more likely to go out and buy new releases without much encouragement.  Here’s looking forward to Wii Sports Carnival Games Hula Hoop Simulator HD with your next shiny new Nintendo console.