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10 Strangest Video Game Tie-Ins for Famous Musicians

by Michael Atkins-Prescott
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

When I began researching this piece, I expected to struggle to find ten musician video games. But as Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in [internet pop-culture writing], the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!), but ‘That’s funny…’” The sheer number of games devoted to famous musicians is staggering, unexpected, and, frankly, a little weird.

So here are the strangest of those games, the ones that have a little spark of mad genius behind them or are such craven cash grabs they defy explanation.

Related: 10 Bizarre Video Game Marketing Campaigns

10 Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel (1995)

Puppet Motel: Hotel Room

Quite a few of these games will come from the world of interactive CD ROMs. With hundreds of times more capacity than a floppy disc, entire multi-volume encyclopedias with video and audio could be sold on a CD-ROM, and in the days before the Internet, it looked for a short time like CD-ROMs would be the innovation that would finally make the home computer fully interactive and educational.

But what could be done with that increased capacity? Encyclopedias aren’t exactly big business. Unsurprisingly, it was artists who explored the potential of the medium to render the worlds they create with their music in 3D. Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel is possibly the strangest and most well-realized of these musician-created worlds. And like Anderson’s music, it’s both hauntingly beautiful and disturbingly surreal. An electrical socket howls like a wolf, a painting on the wall bellows, “Get in the car, little girl,” and your guide is Anderson herself in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Puppet Motel is also slyly satirical. One of the mini-games is simply a word processor on which the player is invited to write a novel. In another, you’re invited to leave an answering machine message for Anderson, pointedly pointless but quixotic tasks. [1]

9 Devo Presents Adventures of the Smart Patrol (1995)

Devo Presents – Adventures of the Smart Patrol 1996 PC

Devo is possibly the world’s most accomplished one-hit-wonders because, while they’re universally known for their one massive hit, “Whip It,” their catalog is dense with ideas and concepts that are so singularly strange they’re nothing short of genius. Devo’s music also has an impenetrably vague and bizarre lore established in the band’s surreal short films The Truth about De-Evolution, The Men Who Made Music, and We’re All Devo.

Devo Presents Adventures of the Smart Patrol turned that lore into a fictional interactive world that fans can explore in a point-and-click style adventure as they try to capture the escaped mutant “Turkey Monkey,” discover the cure for “osso bucco myelitis,” and take on the evil corporations Big Media and Universal Health Systems, with the help of Devo alter-egos General Boy and Booji Boy. The game was scripted by the band, who also composed the music and oversaw the graphics.

The game was not well-received, but I suspect it would’ve been a hit if Devo weren’t just known for one hit, as seeing Devo’s world rendered in ’90s toxic neon tones is a real trip to anyone who recognizes it.[2]

8 XPLORA1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World (1992) and EVE (1996)

Peter Gabriel’s EVE Streamplay: Part 1: It Began With A Bubble

Peter Gabriel has never encountered a new piece of technology he didn’t immediately try to exploit for musical experimentation. His first interactive CD-Rom game, XPLORA1, was intended to promote Gabriel’s album Us and focuses on material from the album, such as behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the musicians. It also featured information about Gabriel’s world music project WOMAD and Amnesty International, and, of course, an impenetrable game element. The mix of these elements sits a little awkwardly next to each other. But XPLORA1 was successful enough to spawn a sequel four years later.

EVE is almost as bizarre an experience as Puppet Motel and follows the same sort of surreal dream logic. The game element is also a lot more coherent. The player must find fragments of Peter Gabriel songs hidden in “worlds” designed by famous conceptual artists such as Yayoi Kusama, then use those fragments to remix the songs.

However, not all of EVE’s gameplay is that straightforward. The player begins EVE as a single sperm that, after penetrating an egg, must find a briefcase in an abandoned house from which a naked man and woman are born.[3]

7 Highway 61 Interactive (1995; Bob Dylan)

Bob Dylan – House of the Rising Sun (Electric Version)

According to Rolling Stone, even though Bob Dylan was actively involved in the development of Highway 61 Interactive, no one at GraphixZone, the tech company that developed the game, was allowed to speak with or meet him until after the game was completed. This anecdote illustrates how strange it is that even though Dylan is famously eccentric, Highway 61 Interactive is a straightforward gamified showcase of Dylan’s work and music.

The game consists of videos of Dylan performing, as well as alternate takes of his songs, written lyrics, and videos of the musicians who influenced him are hidden around environments associated with Saint Bob, such as a Greenwich Village coffee shop, the Columbia Records recording studio, and backstage at Madison Square Gardens. For instance, a song called “Only a Pawn” can be found under a chess board in the coffee shop (get it?).

Each of the environments also includes a piece of a concert ticket. When the player retrieves all the pieces, they’re treated to snippets from the now-legendary Supper Club bootleg.

As a die-hard Dylanologist, I’d pay $59.99 and spend untold hours in search of a waltz-time version of “Like a Rolling Stone” or a remix of “House of the Rising Sun,” but it’s hard to imagine casual fans doing the same. The most amazing thing about Highway 61 Interactive is that it exists at all. I cannot think of an artist less likely to have a video game tie-in than Bob Dylan.[4]

6 Samantha Fox Strip Poker (1986)

Samantha Fox Strip Poker – Commodore C64

(Note: Despite the game’s content, the above is SFW. Though most playthroughs on YouTube are not.)

A little less than a decade before Bob Dylan was rewarding gamers with music, British pop star and model Samantha Fox was rewarding players… with pixelated boobs.

Samantha Fox Strip Poker is a very simple game—5-card or 7-card stud poker played against Fox. Winning a hand results in her taking off her clothes until she is topless. Though there’s nothing going on below the belt—to quote one of Fox’s songs, “The pants stay on.”

For the player, undressing is presumably optional.

It’s a game so simple, in fact, that it was sold on cassette tape. The humble cassette tape held enough storage for the entirety of this game. There was a time when it was common for games and software to be sold on cassette tape, but 1986 was at the tail-end of that time, as the switch from 8-bit to 16-bit programming made cassette tapes impractically limited. Samantha Fox Strip Poker is a game so unambitious it was sold on an obsolete medium.

This may be by design. The in-game version of Samantha Fox does not possess a great deal of artificial intelligence. After all, what would be the fun if seeing a pop star’s boobs were a challenge?[5]

5 The Thompson Twins Adventure (1982)

The Thompson Twins Adventure Walkthrough, ZX Spectrum

Speaking of games squeezed onto improbably limited mediums, Thompson Twins Adventure is one of the few games ever issued on a vinyl record and possibly the only one that anyone remembers. Even more impressive is the fact that it was squeezed onto a 7″ 45RPM flexidisc. Flexidiscs were records on thin, flexible vinyl that could be slipped between the pages of a magazine and given away as a promotional freebie.

The game is a text-based adventure with the three members of the band, rendered as stick figure-like sprites, each recognizable by their distinctive new wave hairstyles, in search of ingredients for a witch doctor’s potion. The giveaway was a competition where the first player to identify the potion and send their answer to Computer and Video Games magazine would win concert tickets.

Although retrospective reviews of the game are universally unkind, it’s hard not to be impressed by the feat of squeezing an entire playable game onto a vinyl 45 or the extreme geekery of connecting a vinyl turntable to a Commodore 64 via a preamplifier to install the game, then racing against time to win concert tickets.

You can still play Thompson Twins Adventure yourself at the Internet Archive.[6]

4 Various Michael Jackson Games

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker – Full Game – Part 1/3

When I began researching this piece, I did not expect to find more than one video game devoted to the king of pop, either. Though I remember Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker from my childhood, I still assumed its existence was a one-off fluke. However, it turns out that Moonwalker itself was, in fact, a series of games, including isometric beat-em-ups and side-scrolling platformers.

The specific titles are Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1989), Michael Jackson in Scramble Training (1993), Space Channel 5 (1999), Space Channel 5: Part 2 (2002), and Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 (2000).

This reflects Michael Jackson’s cultural omnipresence prior to, say… 1993

Most of the games featuring Jackson were published by gaming giant Sega. In 1993, Sega was on the cusp of launching an international chain of arcades. The flagship game of these arcades was a motion simulator game in which Jackson took the role of a commander training space cadets on a training mission. However, the sexual abuse allegations against Jackson all but scuppered the release of Michael Jackson in Scramble Training.

These allegations also retrospectively made Moonwalker feel a little tasteless, as the game involved Jackson rescuing kidnapped children from a gangster named Mr Big.

This did not stop Jackson from appearing in two other Sega games, the dance games Space Channel 5 and Space Channel 5 Part 2, and bizarrely as a playable character in the boxing game Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2.[7]

3 Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1985)

C64 Longplay – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

The history of gaming is a history of the medium gaining more and more legitimacy as games became more advanced and more able to represent realistic environments. Though gamers themselves may have always viewed the medium as a legitimate art, early games, with their blocky monochrome graphics, were easily dismissed as children’s toys.

While Frankie Goes to Hollywood, another game released on cassette tape, is about as rudimentary as they come. The game is so imbued with symbolism that it’s hard not to see it as a work of art. According to the game manual, the player starts off as “an amorphous shape in the land of the mundane” (aka Liverpool). The goal is to become a “complete person” by collecting “pleasure points” that contribute to four elements of your personality—sex, war, love, and faith—as you journey toward the pleasuredome.

Pleasure points can be gained by completing tasks that range from feeding a cat to picking flowers to spitting on Margaret Thatcher to defending the city in a World War II dogfight.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the band, was unapologetically queer, and it’s hard not to see the subtext of queer self-discovery in the game, even as the game is frequently surreal. This symbolism is astoundingly ambitious for such a rudimentary game.[8]

2 Journey’s Escape (1982) and Journey (1983)

Arcade Game: Journey (1983 Midway)

The two games produced for the band Journey in the ’80s are the kind of idea that’s so simple and perfect as to be impossible to screw up, yet somehow someone did screw up. Not only was Journey one of the world’s biggest rock bands, but their anthemic bombastic sound was the perfect soundtrack for ’80s arcades.

And their 1981 album Escape had a video game-ready insectoid spaceship escaping some sort of black hole on the cover.

The first game, Journey’s Escape, was a perfectly fine game that did not overthink its mandate of making a fun game out of a fun rock band. It was the following year’s game, simply titled Journey, where the wheels fell off. Journey has a similarly simple plot to Journey’s Escape, with the player taking control of the five members of the band as they try to retrieve their instruments from alien worlds. Each band member is represented by a photograph of their head on a cartoon body, and the effect is just plain silly due to the limitations of the technology.

The game originally was not intended to feature Journey. Initially, the photograph technology would’ve used an early digital camera embedded in the arcade console cabinet to take pictures of the player so that they could play as themselves. However, the idea did not work out as some players flashed the camera during trials.[9]

1 Aerosmith’s Various Games

Revolution X gameplay (PC Game, 1995)

Aerosmith has a surprisingly long history with gaming, and to their credit, most of these games do not overthink things. The games include Revolution X (1994), Quest for Fame (1995), 9: The Last Resort, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, and Joey Kramer Hit Hard (2010).

Revolution X is a light gun game in which the player pilots a helicopter gunship to rescue the band from a mononymic leather-clad dictator named Helga who’s outlawed youth culture across the new world government. It’s silly, but it never claims to be anything more serious. The rest are all rhythm games where you play along with Aerosmith songs, even drummer Joey Kramer had his own mobile game.

9: The Last Resort, however, is the strangest rhythm imaginable. 9 was produced by Hollywood star Robert De Niro and features the voice talents of Cher, Christopher Reeves, Jim Belushi, and Ellen DeGeneres. The player has inherited a hotel from their mysterious uncle (Reeves) that used to be a hangout for artists and creatives.

Due to the nine muses who resided there, however, a pair of malicious apparitions, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, have ruined the hotel’s inspirational powers. The player can exorcise Tyler and Perry by solving puzzles based on musical themes provided by Aerosmith, aided by a fortune-telling machine (Cher), an octopus (Degeneres), and a tiny man in a tiny airplane (Belushi).

Games featuring Aerosmith run the gamut from unpretentiously silly to pretentiously silly.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen