These days, if you want to play a demo for an upcoming game, it’s simply a matter of finding it in the game’s marketplace and downloading it. However, if you grew up in the old-school days like we did, there was another way to play video game demos -- in the form of a disc.
In the days of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, game demo discs were all the rage, whether you were getting official discs directly from Sony and Sega or as part of a promotion through a third-party partner like, for instance, Pizza Hut.
Alas, those days are gone but the demos still live on with a number of collectors picking them up left and right and enjoying the small piece of game action that they provided. There’s truly nothing like them.
So join us as we jump back into the time machine and take a look at some of the best game demo discs that made the rounds and how you could get your hands on them. Sigh. We might need to go on a collecting run…
Back in the late 90’s, Sony began a “fan club” with the introduction of a PlayStation Underground digital game magazine, one that featured discs that you could put into either your PlayStation or PlayStation 2 console.
These discs weren’t just loaded with game demos but also included other stuff that you could dig around for as well including interviews; a preview of imports that weren’t available on the U.S. market; a download station so you could add on to your current games (early DLC?); an event center talking about forthcoming Sony events; and hidden content, including Easter Eggs with bonus rewards.
There were several notable interviews with this magazine including ones with members of the Final Fantasy VII team; David Jaffe of Twisted Metal fame; Tony Hawk with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater; and Todd McFarlane, who talked about the Spawn game he produced with Sony.
Eventually, PlayStation Underground merged with the Official PlayStation Magazine in 2001, which then lasted until 2007. There’s nothing quite like the Underground...particularly with the Jampack, a set of paid demo discs that were released to keep some fans happy. It wasn’t quite as successful.
Hey, Sony, feeling nostalgic? A PlayStation Underground for PS4 would work wonders these days.
Not to be outdone by Sony’s line-up of demos through PlayStation Underground, Christmas NiGHTS did wonders for Sega.
Originally released in 1996 as a promo item (as part of a Japan-only bundle), Christmas became a huge hit with fans, despite the fact it was a one-level release. It still had a robust amount of content to unlock, and also did a seasonal twist outside of the Christmas season. It was still much beloved and became included with the Sega Saturn Magazine in late 1997, helping boost its readership even further. (As if the game demos it was offering at the time wasn’t enough.)
While other demos eventually released through the publication, nothing came close to the success of Christmas NiGHTS. And there are still a handful of gamers that are still trying to track it down, having to pay a good amount of money for it on eBay or other services. (No, really, go look it up.)
Following the discontinuation of the Sega Saturn Magazine (after the platform itself was dead on the market), Dennis Publishing moved on with the Official Dreamcast Magazine, partnering with Sega to discuss everything about the system. But of course, it also included a demo disc, enabling fans to check out a number of games. It was a big hit, and also at one point included a full match-up game called Sega Swirl, which was also made available through the Sega Smash Pack Vol. 1 release. (That package also came with various emulated Sega Genesis titles.)
However, in the height of Dreamcast’s success, the magazine folded up shop, with a number of its staff moving on to the Official Xbox Magazine. But that publication would also support its platform with a demo disc featuring a number of playable games on a monthly basis. Eventually, the Xbox 360 would adapt to downloadable demos (even though Xbox Magazine did have some Xbox 360 demos on hand!), but what a time it was for official game publications and the discs included inside!
There were other ways to get your hands on demos that weren’t with publications. Sony actually made quite a practice of this, including demo discs with key releases to get fans excited for upcoming releases while at the same time selling more copies of said games.
For instance, the fighting game Tobal No. 1 came with a Final Fantasy VII demo and that actually got players anticipating the RPG game more than the fighting game they were actually playing. That wasn’t the only occurrence either as a PlayStation Collector’s CD was also included with Parasite Eve and other Square Enix titles.
The demo process was a huge success and lasted for several years, with other noteworthy examples -- even leading into this generation. Konami actually included demos with games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Rising Revengeance with Zone of the Enders and Zone of the Enders HD Collection, respectively; and both got a lot of attention from fans as a result.
That practice has seemingly gone by the wayside although there are occasional instances of game codes being packed in with certain releases. Usually they’re for full games, but sometimes there’s a demo thrown in just for the sake of being enjoyed.
Nintendo offered up a preview disc for its GameCube in the height of its popularity, featuring five game demos of popular titles like Sonic Adventure DX and Viewtiful Joe among others. And of course, it grasped the idea of game demos as well, like Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike’s limited edition preview disc (complete with a playable version of the Star Wars arcade game from the 80’s!) and the Metroid Prime 2: Echoes demo disc, which was given out to those who registered a number of games through that company.
Perhaps the most notorious of demo disc releases for Nintendo, however, was the Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition, which features four classic games such as the original NES Zelda, as well as Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The game was originally made available through Club Nintendo, although there were some GameCube systems that had them bundled as well; or you could subscribe to Nintendo Power (remember that?!) to get a copy. Nowadays, it fetches a good amount of money on eBay and is well worth it to any die-hard Zelda fan.
Finally, it seemed like the most ideal way to get demos in the hands of consumers was to offer some kind of promotion with a retailer or food chain. That’s what Sony did with Pizza Hut long ago, offering a free demo disc with a food order. And these demos weren’t too bad, with playable games like Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot III: Warped and even Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft. You can see early video from the video below. These continued on for a little while, making for a rather fruitful partnership.
Best Buy did something similar in 2002, offering a number of demos for its Greatest Hits Demo Disc Volume #1 as a promotional item that was given away to consumers. You can see video of that particular disc below:
There were other partners to be sure; and they offered a variety of demos just as these others did. But sometimes they went a little too far on promotion. Like, for instance, does Pizza Hut really need to tell us to buy another Stuffed Crust Pizza after we just got one? Hmmm...perhaps they were just trying to make us hungry later. Oh, well.
Ahhhh, game demos on discs. How we miss you..