Rise, Fall and Rise again of game Mascots
Once upon a time the gaming landscape was filled with joy and innocence.
During the NES/Master System and later the SNES/Mega Drive (Genesis) days gamers were treated to a feast of bright and colourful characters all vying for their time and money.
These characters were a staple of the industry and every game company had at least one. Platformer after platformer was released all staring creatures that companies hoped would follow a certain overweight Italian plumber into stardom.
Lunch boxes, posters, pencil cases and T-shirts were all plastered with the latest video game superstar. These characters were central to video games for such a long time, so what happened and why do game companies no longer push for these exciting, family friendly video games?
THE GLORY DAYS
In the early days of console gaming, a superstar was born. This star started life as the hero in the original Donkey Kong but didn't really hit the big time until the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) when he got his own game. Super Mario Bros was a massive hit and put a NES on every kid's wish list. This portly plumber managed to sell the console and almost immediately Nintendo's competitors went into copy mode. Kids, Robots, Angels and animals of almost every variety were given their own computer game but it wasn't until a speedy blue hedgehog came along that Mario had some real competition.
Sega had some success with Alex Kidd as a competitor to Mario but it was until the days of the Mega Drive/Genesis that Sonic came along and really gave Nintendo's main man a run (pun intended) for his money. This success split gamers into two groups, Mario or Sonic. These two mascots dominated the 16bit era like no other. That isn't to say there weren't other successful mascots, there were quite a few. Rocket Knight, Bubsy, Aero Acrobat and Earthworm Jim all shared in the mascot money and while they never quite reached the heights of the big two, they were successful enough to spawn a few sequels and get plenty of love from gamers.
THE DEATH SENTENCE
That love seemed to stall once the world was introduced to the Playstation and its 3D abilities. Most of the 2D platform mascots rushed to embrace this new technology but most failed dismally. There was the odd success story, Crash Bandicoot being the most notable, but most 3D platformers failed to capture gamer's hearts. Many of the popular characters we had grown to love during their 2D days were dying and they had Sony to blame. New mascots were rising from the ashes of their 2D brethren, but one rose to a level never before seen by any video game character and that was Lara Croft. Tomb Raider became an overnight sensation due to Lara's exaggerated physique, tight gameplay and plenty of attitude. Lara caused an amazing amount of controversy. While many praised Lara for bringing a tough confident, woman to a lead role in a game some groups were upset at how she was sexualised, leading to a dismissal of Tomb Raider as nothing more than a teenage boy's dream.
Nintendo though, once again breathed life into the cuddly mascots of yore with the release of the N64. Old friends Mario and Donkey Kong were given the 3d treatment to great success and new characters such as Banjoo and Kazoie proved that if done right 3D platformers can not only work but can be some of the best games ever created. It was just the shot in the arm that our cute, furry friends needed. These games are still played today thanks to HD re-releases and download markets such as Xbox live.
THE AGE OF THE SHOOTER
What began with the PSone was completed with the release of the Xbox. Microsoft's beastly system launched with one game that would change what people expected from a console forever. That game was Halo. The lead character of Halo, the Master Chief, was the strong silent type. He wasn't cute like the 16 bit mascots or exaggerated like Lara and co from the Playstation days, he was stoic, serious and mysterious. This new style along with one hell of a game enabled the Master Chief to become the mascot for Microsoft's console, even to this day. It was a clear signal that games had grown up were aiming at an older audience. Halo's success lead the way for that generation of consoles, with Adult focused titles being the order of the day.
The new lead characters were people like Kratos and Tommy Vincetti, not Crash and Sonic and while there were some great new mascots introduced (Jak and Dexter, Rachet and Clank) they never seemed to reach the heights of the previous generation. Not even Nintendo could keep it alive, both Mario Sunshine and Luigi's Mansion failed to set the world on fire and are often considered the worst of all the Mario Bro's adventures. It seemed that maybe this time the platform mascot was done for good.
THE MORDEN RENAISSANCE
With the release of the Xbox 360 things began to change for the better. The XBLA service allowed small developers to create games with the expectation of reaching an established audience. These developers were also allowed to take chances an established studio would not be able to. Platform games are among the most commonly developed in this indie scene and some of them have been truly memorable. Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy and more recently Fez have all brought something new, something unique the genre, creating new characters and mascots in the process.
Indie characters are not the only platform mascots to be appreciated in modern times. Once again Nintendo brought out some amazing games featuring characters from their past. Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, New Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong Country Returns were excellent games and reason enough to own the Wii system. Riding on the coat tails of these successful games other classic characters began to return to our screens. Rayman, Kid Icarus and even Sonic have all recently had quality games released, allowing gamers to once again live in their worlds.
With XBLA, PSN and Steam it seems the platforming mascot is once again here to stay. With the steady re-release of previous games along with a fresh batch of new titles from both established franchises and exciting new properties these mascot driven games are once again getting the attention they deserve. If things continue on their present path of innovation and reinvigoration it is hard to see a future where these cute, appealing creations don't have an important presence in our gaming lives.