If you’re looking for a TL;DR on what the first “gamer” flavor of Coca-Cola tastes like, I can answer that at the top: It’s weird. Blueberry, maybe? But only if a blueberry was dunked in a pool of Red Bull. That’s “Coca-Cola Byte.”
Upon its announcement, I asked Coca-Cola if I could sample Byte, slated to launch in the United States in early May, because I found its gaming-adjacent existence fascinating. Many other soda and junk-food makers have enjoyed a cozy commercialization relationship with video games for decades—so much so that you can close your eyes and imagine a stereotypical “gamer” holding a sugary, carbonated beverage by default. (It’s probably Mountain Dew. So much “gamer” Mountain Dew out there.)
Yet somehow, Coke has avoided direct tie-ins with the gaming universe in most of the world. We’ve never seen limited-edition Super Mario cans of Coke. We’ve never had bottles of Coke hide codes under their caps that give away free XP in online games. And the stuff basically never appears inside games’ virtual worlds, despite so many brands clamoring to capture gamers’ eyeballs and disposable budgets.
A Creations primer, from Starlight to Byte
That changed this month with Byte, which Coca-Cola advertises as “inspired by the humble and iconic pixel.” Its advertising card about this fact poses a can of Byte on a Tron-like grid of black, green, and violet neon lines, next to two colored 3D blocks. (Are those supposed to be pixels? They have a Z-axis, Coca-Cola, so they’re technically polygons.) And its launch was paired with a Fortnite “creator island” zone, full of Coca-Cola branding (but made by an advertising agency, not Epic Games). So I had to know: What did all of this look and taste like, and how did it fit into the games-and-soda pantheon?
If you’re wondering where Coke is going with this on a pure flavor basis, look to the Coca-Cola Creations line of limited-time sodas. The first one, dubbed Coca-Cola Starlight, launched earlier this year and was pretty decent—at least, in a world where every cola flavor is seemingly possible if you experiment for long enough with one of those Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. In Starlight’s case, Coke mixed cinnamon and cream-soda syrups into its standard formula, resulting in something best described as Coke Roasted Marshmallow. Unique! Drinkable! Not bad. Doesn’t necessarily pair with Doritos, though.
Byte, on the other hand, goes for an out-there, fruit-forward flavor, and I had someone photograph my first impressions as I sipped it. For context, I liked the atypical Starlight flavor, and I can appreciate bold, weird, and sweet flavors. In particular, I manned the soda fountain at a fast-food joint during high school, where I engineered a bizarre mix of pink lemonade, root beer, and lemon-lime soda as a daily driver, much to my coworkers’ dismay.
I eventually drank the rest of the single can I received, and it arguably got better a few days later without carbonation—revealing more raspberry flavor. But unlike Starlight, or even standard grocery aisle variants like vanilla and cherry, Byte’s mix of new flavors loudly punts Coke’s recognizable nutmeg base. It may still be there, buried beneath this drink’s lab-generated berry formulation, but the recognizable Coke core is virtually nonexistent in this drink.
And, yeah, it pairs decently with snacks like tortilla chips. But that’s because the chips’ texture and saltiness balance the phosphoric acid-driven kick.
Avoiding the laser-beam eyes of Coke Legal
Byte is technically Coke’s second overt gaming tie-in. The first came in 1994 as a Japan-only Game Gear game, made by a longtime Japanese Sega support studio, and it revolved around Japan’s mid-’90s Coca-Cola Kid mascot. Maybe Coke’s Japanese office felt like this exception to the company’s history was okay if it happened on the go—and the game was played on the Japan-exclusive Coca-Cola Game Gear model, which was as red as a can of Coke. Either way, players must run, jump, kick, skateboard, and throw red frisbees around a colorful city while beating up anyone who gets between Coca-Cola Kid and his Coke habit.
Beyond that game, the Coca-Cola company has been surprisingly mum inside of the billion-dollar gaming industry. That stands in stark contrast to film and TV, where the company is obsessive about finding ways to get its variety of drinks into productions—and it has a massive network of company historians, product placement specialists, and supply-chain assistants eager to make sure you see as much freaking Coke in your entertainment as possible. Era-appropriate signs, cans from the ’80s, desperation to make SmartWater seem like something modern people like: They have it all… so long as the content in question is, as a Coke marketing person puts it, “in line with [Coke’s] brand values and strategically in line with where we’re going as a company.”
Statements like that are the best we have to understand Coke’s general gaming absence: They likely didn’t think having their products in games reflected well on the brand. Even so, Coke and its sugar-water rivals had all the opportunity in the world to organically appear as branded elements in decades of games. This Tumblr site will let you spend hours clicking through the robust history of soda machines in video games, and brightly colored aluminum cans have often served as an arcade-style health item. The most Coke-like of these virtual cans appears in Data East’s 1991 arcade blaster Desert Assault, and if the game ever saw a formal re-release, it’d honestly need a touch-up to avoid the laser-beam eyes of Coke Legal.
On the other side of the Big Soda In Games divide is Pepsi, though that company’s first appearance in a video game is technically Coke’s fault. The game in question, Pepsi Invaders, was commissioned to be made and printed by Atari as a limited-edition cartridge, then given away exclusively to Coke sales representatives at a company convention in 1983. A quick peek makes clear why this game never went beyond reportedly 125 copies: It makes players shoot at the letters “PEPSI” in Space Invaders style, and upon completing the single level, the top of the screen proclaims, “COKE WINS.” Coke and Pepsi were happy to call each other out by name in their ’80s and ’90s advertising campaigns, but an official commercial launch of anti-Pepsi lasers might’ve been too far.
Pepsi’s first true video game appearance didn’t come until the ’90s. Its advertising campaigns for 7-Up at the time revolved so loudly around the “Cool Spot” mascot that the character wound up in a well-regarded 1993 platforming game, made by the same 16-bit development wizards that eventually worked on the acclaimed likes of Disney’s Aladdin on the Genesis and Earthworm Jim. Cool Spot arguably beat Donkey Kong Country to the “CGI in sprites” revolution in terms of making the 7-Up mascot look sharply drawn and animated, and its tight controls and unlimited cap-throwing ammo made it a fun 16-bit lark.
Six years later, Pepsi would barrel ahead with another wacky soda-in-games collaboration, though this too was a Japan-only push. Despite never launching in the West, Pepsiman for the original PlayStation is mostly in English and includes bizarre full-motion video (FMV) sequences revolving around an overweight American who loves Pepsi. Between these, players control Pepsi’s Japan-only cola mascot in a “runner” game that predates the likes of Temple Run, where players automatically run forward while dodging dangerous objects and picking up blue Pepsi cans.
Top up at MyCoke
By the early ’00s, junk-food advertisers largely shifted away from boxed retail games for their promotional tie-ins, which include lengthy development and promotional cycles, and toward the quickly distributed likes of Flash games. Coca-Cola’s primary dalliance in this world came with MyCoke, an online chat space that revolved around Flash in its years of operation and included pedestrian mini-games and music remixing tools.
A few exceptions emerged in the gaming space in the early ’10s, most notably from Doritos (Crash Course) and Burger King (Sneak King), but by then, you were more likely to see gaming branding on bottles and cans, advertising in-game perks for buying “gamer” and “extreme” variants of various sodas and colas. Coke has avoided this trend, though it got close to the concept by running a cross-promotion with Overwatch‘s official esports teams starting in 2019. Fans of specific Overwatch League teams can order cases of Coke with teams’ logos on the bottles, but they have to order these directly through a special website.
Which is to say: Coke has historically shied away from public connections between its signature red bottles and cans, and the idea that they tie directly into video game culture. Don Draper can tell the world to try Coke, but Master Chief shouldn’t even think about doing the same. This month’s launch of a Fortnite “creator island” that’s smothered in Coca-Cola branding is arguably as close as the company has ever gotten to saying, “how do you do, fellow gamers,” but even that requires finding and entering a Fortnite-specific code, without any loud advertising by Epic Games to direct players their direction. It’s also not really that fun, in terms of making players jump and race around an otherwise generic 3D space. (If you want to see Fortnite branding done right, Coke, maybe head to Weezer World.)
And the whole thing is advertised by a version of Coke that, once again, must be special-ordered from a website. (Coca-Cola Starlight, conversely, launched widely enough to appear at multiple Ars staffers’ normal grocery stores; Byte will apparently not receive the same distribution treatment.) Perhaps that’s for the best. Maybe Coke thinks that scrutinizing gamers will furrow their eyebrows at inauthentic branding attempts, or respond with links to the company’s dubious practices regarding nutritional research and science. Thus, the company would rather keep these gaming-culture overtures as mild and limited as possible.
But we at Ars are fans of wacky, branding-fueled snack-and-gaming crossovers, where the silliness of blatant commerce collides with interactive entertainment and sometimes results in incredible gaming memories. Maybe Coke will emerge with the gonzo likes of its own Chex Quest one day. For now, the soda producer merely Bytes.