['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

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Don't tell me you don't recognize the above two advertisements, or at least the basic style of them. They have been running in US game mags for 15 years now, with almost the same ad copy even, and they're such an ingrained part of many readers' psyches that the question "Does anyone actually win any of this stuff?" must have been asked rhetorically to no one in particular thousands of times across the country over the years.

Yes, it's the seemingly continuous contest to win the Ultimate Gaming Rig -- either all the current consoles plus games, a "tricked out gaming computer," or a giant-arse TV with all manner of media hardware attached to it. The contests, held by Oregon-based Baindramage Inc. (AKA Pandemonium Promotions Inc. AKA Puzzle Me Inc. AKA Rattlebrain Inc.), have run uninterrupted since debuting in the August 1991 issue of GamePro, save for a lull in 2001-3 due to a reported bankruptcy.

The basic idea, amply explained in the latest ad (found in the 2006 Tips & Tricks Video Game Codebook), is this: You solve the ridiculously simple Mystery Word Grid in the ad and sent it off with your entry fees to join the contest. You then receive four more puzzles of only slightly increased difficulty (and must pay to submit each one), then one final tiebreaker to determine your score and the ultimate winner. (It's not mentioned in the ad, but everyone who completes the final tiebreaker round wins a free magazine subscription -- though, considering you'll be out at least $12 by that point, it may be a more economical use of time to just buy that subscription yourself.)

The big question, then: Does anyone really win in the end? Answer: Yes, I'd imagine so. Otherwise, as contest director Rick Lund is quick to point out when you email him, the company would not be in business. However, two important little niggles prevent the great majority of people from winning. One, Baindramage can't take responsibility if you receive a round of puzzles after the entry deadline's already passed, and if the Internet is any indication, this happens all the time with this contest (though Lund offers refunds in this case). Second, the final tiebreaker puzzle is much harder than the previous rounds, requiring you to use your own words and fit them into a much larger grid of clues.

It may be for these reasons that the majority of game magazines stopped printing Ultimate Gaming Rig ads after 2000. I had heard from fellow editors that reader complaints led to ads being refused, but I never talked with a magazine sales rep about it personally, so I can't confirm that. However, it is true that pretty much the only mag you'll find their contests nowadays is in Tips & Tricks' semi-annual codebooks. Shame, really. Mag ads these days...they're so, well, non-manipulative, you know?

For the sake of research and nostalgia, I've collected and scanned in all the Ultimate Gaming Rig ads I could find. You can browse through them at your leisure by clicking below. (NOTE: I could have sworn that I saw a largely identical Japanese-language version of this ad in a Famicom Tsushin from 1993-4, but after two hours of leafing through my collection, I couldn't find it again. If this rings a bell with anyone, let me know.)

[Click through for more!]

- Version 1 (1991). The video contest includes a Genesis, TG16, Super Famicom, and Neo Geo AES. The media-rig contest has graphic equalizers and dual-cassette players! The game on the 40-inch monitor is Sinistron for the TG16.

- Version 2 (1992). A Super Scope 6 has been doctored into the ad to represent the American Super NES.

- Version 3 (spring 1993). The video contest now includes the Sega CD, Menacer, and TurboDuo instead of TG16. There is a different screenshot from Sinistron on the TV.

- Version 4 (winter 1993). A much nicer photo with all the accessory boxes in full view. A 3DO is also in the contest but not pictured, and the media rig now includes a laserdisc player. The TurboDuo has dropped out, but Sinistron's still alive and well on the TV!

- Version 5 (summer 1994). The 3DO has now replaced the Neo Geo as well.

- Version 6 (winter 1994). The media rig's grown a satellite dish, and the Jaguar's been added to the video contest.

- Version 7 (summer 1995). The introduction of the PC contest, featuring a Pentium-90! The video contest's grown a 32X, and Sinistron's finally been replaced with Atari's Aliens vs. Predator.

- Version 8 (winter 1995). Welcome to the next generation! All the old detritus is brushed out of the video-game contest to make way for the Saturn, PSX, Virtual Boy, and the new Goldstar 3DO. The computer's been upgraded to a P133, too.

- Version 9 (summer 1996). Another PC upgrade (I guess they overclocked the PC a little!).

- Version 10 (winter 1996). The Jaguar's gone and in its place is a fake Nintendo 64 box. I feel stupid for not recognizing the game on the 40-inch monitor. The PC's gotten a few updates all around (including Windows 95).

- Version 11 (summer 1997). The Virtual Boy is gone, replaced with a Game Boy Pocket and some joysticks and stuff. The PC's slimmed down a little and gets some more RAM and such. Magazine subscription notice. The monitor is now 60 inches.

- Version 12 (winter 1997). Yet another PC upgrade. They do a good job keeping up with the times. The contest moves from Minnesota to Oregon.

- Version 13 (spring 1998). Nothing new in the contest itself, but they updated the screenshot to Tomb Raider.

- Version 14 (summer 1998). Bit of a crazy design variant here, but the basic prizes are the same. The screenshot went from Tomb Raider to Tomb Raider III. Pandemonium Inc. becomes Puzzle Me Inc.

- Version 15 (winter 1998). PC upgrade, and whoa, now there's a Dreamcast and a DVD player!

- Version 16 (summer 1999). PC upgrade!

- Version 17 (winter 1999). PC upgrade!

- Version 18 (spring 2000). The PlayStation 2 is in! PC upgrade, and the TV's changed channels to a preprodution image of Syphon Filter (I think). The contest also gets around to removing the Saturn box from the photo even though it hasn't been offered in a year and a half.

- Version 19 (2004). After a long hiatus, the contest strikes back with a full upgrade all around and a pretty hard-to-identify shot from Halo (Master Chief in the waaaaay background). Puzzle Me Inc. becomes Rattlebrain Inc.

- Version 20 (2005). The PSP replaces the PS2, but no Xbox 360, funnily enough. A much more recognizable image of Halo 2 comes on TV. Rattlebrain Inc. becomes Baindramage Inc.

- Version 21 (2006). The most recent contest has the entire next-gen lineup (complete with Gears of War on the TV), a new 72-inch TV, and finally -- finally -- some nice entertainment-center shelving to stack all those bonus prizes on. Whew. The contest finally launches on the web. Note how the introductory Mystery Word Grid hasn't changed in eight years.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]