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Looking Back at Wolfenstein 3D

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wolf_1

In truth the dawn of the first person shooter (FPS) and its popularity is more a case of luck as a group of intelligent designers got together and created pseudo-3D worlds.  In 1991 John Carmack was accompanied by three others as the development team at id Software (that story was already told in our podcast) and funded by a company named Apogee (they also developed Rise of the Triad).  Carmack had created the Catacomb 3D engine, which utilized ray casting to create 3D looking environments.  In ray casting, basically lines are drawn in a grid and if they intersect a texture is placed at the intersection and over a grand enough grid, you get depth perception and a software-based flat image that looks like it’s in 3D.  Combine that with the fact that Muse Software, developers of the innovative stealth-action Castle Wolfenstein title from the 80s, had let the license lapse and you have the building blocks of this innovation in game design.  Apogee gave Carmack and his team $100,000 to develop a shareware title and they decided to move forward with Wolfenstein 3D.

wolf_2The game was to span three episodes, each being sold individually, and released as a trilogy.  Development was working so fast – about one level per day – that id was tasked with making a second trilogy, which resulted in the drastic tone change of the game after episode 3’s notable finale.  The six episode version (original release), each episode containing nine levels, was the final full game and unlike previous release Commander Keen the shareware model was to give out the first episode and charge for either single episode or full game unlocks.  Originally the game was to include stealth mechanics and closer resemble the original game, but at some point it just became all about killing guys in corridors, which honestly was probably the better move.  It’s a beefy title when you break down how long it takes to conquer it and id intelligently designed the game to run on almost any machine that could support the floppy disks.

wolf_3As it premiered in 1992, there was not a single kid on the playground in grade school that didn’t have the game.  It’s benefit of the shareware model meant that you could download (although this was a rare distribution), copy, or get the first episode almost anywhere.  Some of my friends would crank out copies if you got them the three disks required to get the game and others would simply run out and buy the newest PC magazine that had the first episode included in what seemed to be a six month span.  It was addicting and truthfully very few of us purchased the full game, but the model worked in id and Apogee’s favor and not only was Wolfenstein 3D the talk of the gaming world, but it was the beginning of a new world.  Not only were we enamored with the original game, level editors and mods were widespread within weeks and in a short time you were purchasing full versions of Wolfenstein 3D just to have access to all the cool mod features and textures.  In the end the game was ported to just about every platform from the 90s (I think I have like 5 console versions) and it wasn’t quite as staggering as Doom so parents didn’t have much of an issue with the game’s occasional violence.

While the firm implantation of the FPS wouldn’t start until Doom and thus giving away to the Doom clone, those games owe everything to Wolfenstein 3D.  Fortunately the same team brought us both, completely obliterating the stupid online debates as to which team was the true progenitor.  In the end Wolfenstein 3D did it first and Doom did it best.

Written by Fred Rojas

September 6, 2014 at 11:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Soliel / Crusader of Centy Review

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soleil_boxCrusader_of_Centy_boxConsole: Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe/Japan)
Also Known As: Soliel (the title used in this review based on the writer being from Europe), Shin Sōseiki Ragunasenti (Dawn of the Era: Ragnacenty) in Japan
Released: 1994
Developer: Nextech
Publisher: Sega/Atlus (NA only)
Digital Release? No
Price: $134.00 (used, cart only), $309.99 (CIB), Sealed price is $109.52, but that’s biased because the only known copy was a random eBay listing in 2012 (according to Price Charting)

In the twilight years of the Mega Drives life a surprising amount of gems came out for the system, and one of the biggest surprises for me was the 1994 release Soleil (Crusader ot Centy for North America).  Now I got very lucky finding this game when I was a lot younger. I was at a marketplace with my grandfather and I had saved up all my pocket money for four weeks to buy a game. Heading over to the only game stall in the entire market place I picked up the rather suspicious looking Soleil, a game I brought totally blind for eight British pounds and I was very impressed with what I found. Several years later, and revisiting the game, lets see how it holds up today.

soleil_1The game starts in the town of Soleil (which is Sun in French) and puts you in the shoes of Corona – no, not the beer, though playing this game with any lime based beverage is definitely recommended, just remember to drink responsibly. Corona is only fourteen years old and the town of Soleil does what they do to every kid that age, equip them up with a sword and shield and go fight monsters because they are evil. Life expectancy must be rather short in the town of Soleil to be kitting out kids that age with weapons. The sword and shield are inherited from Coronas father who died in battle and has a great reputation in the town. On exploring the world and bumping into a suspicious fortune teller Corona looses the ability to talk to humans and can only speak to animals and plants (yep even flowers talk to you in this game). Corona then fetches his faithful dog, Johnny, (or Mac in the US release, they really changed a lot between the versions) and heads on a quest to regain the ability to talk to humans. However, Corona’s quest quickly expands into something much greater that will alter the world he lives in and question who truly are the bad guys in the game.

I have to say for a game that is aimed more at the younger audience, this game has one of the most touching plots I have ever come across on the Mega Drive (Genesis) system. This game touches on issues I rarely see in other games questioning who really is the barbarian in the game the monsters, the humans or something else. There were moments in this game that even replaying today pulled on the heart strings. One scene in the game has you put in the shoes of the monsters you are actually killing and seeing the world from their prospective. Of course the plot will only appeal to those whiling to immerse themselves in the world making this unsuitable for the arcade focused gamer keen to jump right into the action. There is a lot of text to read in this game and of course it can not be skipped.

So lets address the obvious: yes, Soleil looks like Zelda. It’s a overhead prospective action adventure game, you use a sword, and the game contains small puzzle solving elements. Soleil does manage to create its own identity by equipping animals. At one time you can have two animals follow you which can be switched out instantly in the game menu at any time. Each individual animal gives Corona a special perk for example Penguy the peguin adds freeze effect to your sword, Flash the cheetah increases your running speed, Moa the Ostrich strengthens the ability of other animal you have equipped. There are sixteen animals in total, most will be found as you progress naturally through the game though some you’ll have to earn through small side quests and exploration.

You can talk to animals!

You can talk to animals!

The game also has a fast travel map system allowing you to easily revisit levels and areas once you have completed them. It is worth mentioning a very famous hedgehog known as ‘Sonic,’ makes a small cameo in this game, you may have heard of him.  The game controls are quite clunky. When you begin the game Corona is slow and can be tough to control at times, the sword swing does not always seem to connect all the time with enemies and the game seems to favour you throwing it rather than swinging it. You learn to throw the sword early in the game, however, it requires a short charge up time to let loose, this can be a bit dull and repetitive as you’ll be using it a lot. Equipping certain animals fixes this however, the constant swapping of animals to make use of certain perks can become quite frustrating especially when fighting certain bosses in the game. The game does not have any other weapons or items apart from your sword and shield, just the animals to vary your abilities. The shield is completely cosmetic and has no use in the game.

For a game that is advertised as something Sega aimed at a younger audience I found this to be very tough the first time I played through it especially early on in the game. Your health bar is indicated by a bar of apples which I actually found a welcome change to generic hearts. Frequent saving is highly recommended and you can save the game almost anywhere.
Graphics are very kid friendly. Sprites are cute and cuddly, even a lot of the monsters look sort of adorable. The boss characters however look quite impressive. Usually something massive and threatening though the game really does not have enough of them. The levels and environments are colourful and vibrant. Its interesting how the game looks this colourful and cute even when the story takes frequent dark turns.

soleil_2Music is a nice mix of heavy memorable rocky style tones for the boss fights and serene melody’s when you enter the town of Soleil. The soundtrack is amazing and definitely one of the most memorable features I took from the game, it feels like it hits all the right notes in the right places. Of course remember this is also running on a Mega Drive as well so extra points scored for making the most of the hardware.  Soleil is long put can be easily finished in a weekend if your able to spare the time for it. The save feature helps if you need to spread the experience out for weeks and if you decide to take a extended break from the game the controls are simple enough that it is easy to go back to. Once you finished the game that’s probably it for you. It’s the sort of game you’ll probably re visit a year or two down the road but there is no varying difficulty or much reason to replay the game unless you want to speedrun it or explore areas you may have missed the first time through.

Overall, Soleil is a real hidden gem for the Mega Drive. The story alone is worth experiencing touching on points you don’t normally see explored in games. If the kiddie graphics put you off I advise to try look past it after all many hated the graphical direction of Zelda: WindWaker and people seem to love that game today still.  The game, of course is not without flaw.   The controls and be a bit tricky and the games difficulty spikes early in the game and occasionally through the quest.  Despite the flaws this is one game adventure fans would be very happy with and worth adding to the Mega Drive collection if you happen to spot it one sunny day.

Final Score: 4 out of 5  (review policy)

Written by jamalais

September 4, 2014 at 11:00 am

Review Update: Life of Pixel

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LifeofPixel33

Life of Pixel has come a long way since we last reviewed it almost a year and a half ago on the Playstation Mobile platform.  At the time developer Super Icon was self-publishing on Sony’s open platform and what they created was a gem of a title at just around a dollar.  You can read my previous review if you’re interested but suffice to say that despite the Playstation Mobile platform being dead, the game lives on in all its glory on the Vita (although you cannot search for it, you must browse the Playstation Mobile tab in the Vita store).  After a few attempts to expand the license and platform, Life of Pixel has re-emerged, this time on PC, with a slew of changes (mostly for the best) and three more platforms for your retro gaming bliss.  I must admit that the game is addicting and right at home on mobile, but that there’s definitely much to be gained by planting this tightly timed platfomer on bigger screens.

LifeofPixel13From the moment you load the game, you can tell it has been updated.  Most consoles are now unlocked from the start (previously you had to complete half the levels in a console to unlock the next), Professor Pixel has been added to provide console background introductions before each set and offer hints along the way, and everything seems just a bit more crisp.  I understand that retro fans will be hesitant with that last statement because it may mean that the classic Atari 2600 or ZX Spectrum graphics will no longer look authentic, but worry not because none of those factors have been tweaked.  Additional tweaks include a timer for speed runners (previously your final time was shown upon completion of a level), newer mechanics like bombs, driving, and even flying, and the ability to take two hits instead of one – I wasn’t personally fond of this change because I was of the few who 100 percented the original version, but you can self police by restarting if you get hit.  I also loved the addition of the 16-bit generation with the SNES, Mega Drive (Genesis to us US folk), and Amiga being integrated with as much care and appreciation as the previous consoles.  Also it appears developer Super Icon is less afraid to pay homage to the classics, as you can see in the screen shots, and it was a blast playing these interesting hybrids between the favorites of my youth and Life of Pixel‘s distinct level design.  All in all this is definitely a complete package that enhances an already wonderful game, updates more consoles (including making the most of the sound chips of each),  and getting it to a wider audience.

LifeofPixel23I will admit that it was a bit of a stiff control setup, but this is at the fault of the PC platform and not Life of Pixel.  It fully  supports keyboard and controller inputs natively, but a fierce platformer will mop the floor with the lackluster 360 gamepad d-pad that I used on my PC for gaming.  Fortunately I had a PS1-style USB controller that worked wonderfully to counter these issues and I found this guy for only $5 at Micro Center.  Once you overcome that initial hurdle Life of Pixel had me all over again and I couldn’t help but try to 100 percent it a second time (thanks to the new levels and a few of the harder original ones I’m not quite there yet, but I will be soon!).  Some may criticize the game’s $6.99 price point, but I find it hard to scoff at the authentic and beefy game you get for half the price of the average indie release nowadays.  Furthermore, I have always touted that $2 on the Vita was far too low and that this game was easily a $5-$10 back then, let alone now.  Trust me, if you like old games and grew up with many of these consoles (and microcomputers for our European gamers) then there’s no way you won’t be charmed to death by Life of Pixel.  I don’t mean to gush, but I cannot say enough good things about this great throwback title that nails neo-retro.

Editor’s Note:  Due to the fact that this game is technically similar enough to the original that we do not deem it a new product, Life of Pixel’s original score would have been kept the same.  Since we did not support scores when the original game was released, it was re-evaluated for a score, which is posted below.

Review Score: 5 out of 5  (review policy)

Life of Pixel is available on the PC and MAC platforms directly from the developer’s site at http://www.lifeofpixel.co.uk for $6.99.  A review copy was provided to the site.  It was played for approximately four hours to explore new content and properly evaluate all changes and enhancements.  If you wish to see the game on Steam, it is currently up for the Greenlight Program and you can vote for it.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 29, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Gaming Coverage and Review Policy

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Greetings retro gamers and readers of Gaming History 101,

Normally I do not find the following information necessary or standard, but the fact of the matter is that the world of video game coverage has changed. With most of my written reviews, articles, and stories there is a small amount of traffic that aggregates to the wonderful number of views this site receives everyday and I have no one to thank but all of you. Breaking it down, each video receives about double to triple the views and article would receive and the podcast blows all of them away by literally hundreds of times. At this point I cannot ignore the data, nor would I ever fight it, and concede that audio is the most popular medium for retro, followed by some following for video, and lastly with written. It then occurred to me that perhaps the volume of coverage I put into each game far surpasses the interest of most of you readers and, in truth, probably surpasses the volume I care to read in articles myself. For this reason I have decided to alter written coverage in the following ways:

  • There will only be one or two “lessons” per month. These are long (typically 2000+ word) articles that get into detail on broad topics and thus aren’t commonly written. When I do cover them, these articles will remain the same. For the record, I think it has been around a year since my last lesson.
  • Blog entries regarding neo-retro topics (ie: games or topics that harken to the days of retro) may be more frequent.

Finally, and probably the biggest news, is a revamp to the review policy. Typically I gave hybrid/retrospective reviews on games that seemed to relate back to the days when they released as well as give a modern perspective. Now reviews will be shortened to 500 words or less (I’m trying for 300 or less), which is a start breakdown compared to the now 1500-2000 word reviews. These reviews are now broken down within a single paragraph or two that gives you a quick perspective on the game, not to mention allowing a larger number of reviews to be done each month. You will see a significant increase in volume. Additionally there will now be a review score and a “would you like to know more” section (when applicable) added to the end of each review. While the “would you like to know more” link will typically attach to a related video, podcast, or extra article I write (usually the next day and with the same shortened format). The review score will be on a 5-point scale and allow the reader to get a quick snapshot. Since review scores are so varied from site to site, I have my review score guidelines pointed out below, including what each means. You can still expect my usual profile snapshot at the beginning of every review to let you know how to find the game, download instruction manuals, see box art, and if it the game is available digitally.

Review Score Guidelines

Nothing fancy, just a way to know where the game stands. As I have always felt, review scores (especially retro) require no more than a 5 point scale, no “.5″ necessary. Scores on Gaming History 101 will be rated on a 5 point scale, 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest, and 3 being average, which is a rarity on most sites. Here are what the numbers relate to in general terms.

  1. Poor: Games with this score are typically broken in many ways. Whether there are programming glitches that prevent the game to be played, continued, or finished, games with this score demonstrate an overall lack of quality. This also means that from the perspective of the reviewer’s definition of fun and playability that it demonstrates almost no merit. Games of this score can be appreciated, but this is typically on a heavily biased or “cult” perspective.
  2. Fair: Games with this score are usually regarded in a negative light. While they may be free of flaws or have no drastic blemishes, the game has little reason to enjoy. In some cases this can be lack of proper instruction, misleading information, poor controls, or just an absence of value. Often these games are celebrated by a select few who see promise in what the game attempted to deliver but the title itself never came close to that vision. These are below average games.
  3. Average: It’s simply a game; no more, no less. This can be granted to titles that don’t particularly do anything impressive, but stand as a means to pass the time. They may be fun or even at times inventive, but overall they offer little to a user hoping to have a fresh experience. Sequels of the sprite-based era or titles that attempted new technology first (not necessary launch titles) often fit this category. There are many reasons to play games in this category, but rarely do they have a lasting effect or generate strong nostalgia as a complete experience.
  4. Great: Titles with this score go above and beyond to achieve a memorable experience for those that play it. Aside from bias (ie: genre, console, rarity), these are titles that should be played by any fan of gaming and in many cases should not be missed. Almost free of programming and gameplay flaws, these titles show that they stand above the rest for their platform and are often part of lists as to why to own the console. Additionally these tend to be of the first re-released when given an opportunity.
  5. Excellent: While the highest score, these games are not perfect. Perfection has not been achieved yet in game design, but if you are going to argue that case any title with this score creates a compelling point. Brought together by innovative design, professional programming, and amusing gameplay, these titles are not to be missed. Not branded on so-called classics as often as most would like to claim, these titles should be played in spite of a bias. They were and continue to be achievements in the realm of gaming.

There you have it, a taste of things to come. Starting in August you will see a significant increase in the number of reviews posted and by all means please feel free to request reviews in the contact area. In the meantime, happy gaming.

Sincerely,

 

Fred Rojas
Executive Editor/Site Owner
Gaming History 101

Written by Fred Rojas

July 23, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Review: Life of Pixel

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pixel_iconRetro “style” has become exponentially popular these days. What started as an amusing aesthetic for Mega Man 9 or upgraded project like Retro City Rampage has spawned a rush of pixelated, sprite-based games that may look like they came from yesteryear but play like anything but. To the untrained eye (or non-technical gamer) these are nothing more than cash-in titles hoping to embrace the nostalgia of gamers like myself and strategically place a casual game in a 1985 wrapping. My only exception to this style probably lies in titles like Retro Game Challenge on the DS, which fully recreated new games that actually play like old games, or titles like Pier Solar on the Genesis, which is an actual title that plays on the console. Life of Pixel rests just in the middle because it plays completely like a game from the past, but also looks like a game of the past as well. The twist: it does this with eight different known consoles/microcomputers.

One of the first systems is the Atari 2600

One of the first systems is the Atari 2600

Released on the Playstation Mobile platform, an odd choice at first but completely appropriate in hindsight, you follow a single pixel lost to the annals of history that rediscovers its value visiting a retro game museum. In this museum he discovers that he was quite useful on international consoles Atari 2600, Gameboy, and NES, along with five microcomputers that dominated 80s gaming in the UK. These work as “worlds” for the game, each containing eight levels of pure retro platforming bliss. In truth the levels are nothing special if not for the fact that each level and console looks and acts just like it did in the past, flaws and all. An easy example is that of the Atari 2600, which cannot scroll its screen in any way and thus the levels are contained in what you see. Additionally microcomputers could not scroll at will like the NES could so you have to move screen to screen. These are just a couple of examples of how the particular console you are on relates to the type of tactics you use in each level. This isn’t the only hook, as game design “grows up” as you progress in the consoles, so do the mechanics and gameplay styles. In the end you’re basically playing the same series and concept of game across 8 consoles and more than a decade of hardware and game design. If that doesn’t speak to the retro style I don’t know what does. Life of Pixel is a full retro experience, complete with visual styles that faithfully resemble the aesthetic of that console – you know how each console seemed to have a “look” – and properly credited music that holds as true as the graphics.

An example of a Gameboy level

An example of a Gameboy level

Personally I found no true flaws to the game. It ran smooth, it was fair in its collision detection, and the challenge, while occasionally frustrating, wasn’t being mean. Then again I am a retro gamer and have enjoyed all of these consoles/microcomputers for their positives and negatives. It’s clear from the Super Icon’s web site that a group of gamers do not share my sentiment when it comes to flaws like not seeing where you are going to fall or the behavior of enemies. If you are patient, observant, and don’t mind dying a lot, this title has a very Demons Souls methodology about it; you can learn to get around these obstacles if you just pay attention. On a particular level that had leaps of faith (and I’m not talking about the level “Leap of Faith” either) as you jumped around large pools of water, it looks like you’re just jumping and praying. Not the case, there are specific ledges and areas that will keep you out of harms way if you fall off of them. Admittedly you have to die a few (or a few dozen) times to learn the layout of the level, but it’s a mechanic you can work with nonetheless and it again comes down to skill and puzzle solving rather than pixel counting to overcome. For those that still struggle, complete maps are now available at the developer’s site.

I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by what I assumed to be a barebones title. At a dirt cheap price of $2, I’m getting more game and enjoyment than I have on titles up to five times that price. It’s also clear that developer Super Icon really cares about the product they’re selling and if this much care and development went into a $2 game imagine what they could do with an indie budget or even a large one. Either way those that have a mobile device with the Playstation Mobile platform and every Vita owner should download this title immediately and show support for one of the few mobile developers that takes making a game seriously.

By the NES you're talking high quality visuals

By the NES you’re talking high quality visuals

Editor’s Note:  Since we did not support scores when the original game was released, it was re-evaluated for a score with the re-release on PC, which is posted below.

Review Score: 5 out of 5  (review policy)

This game was not provided to our site for the purposes of review.  It was purchased by the author, Fred Rojas, in the Playstation Mobile store for $1.99 and completed in 3 hours on a Vita. 

Written by Fred Rojas

March 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Feature: Mascots

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Mascots, you have to love them.  No, wait, you don’t.  For the most part mascots have been one of the dark spots on a game publisher’s marketing blitz.  At first there was only one iconic mascot, Mario from Super Mario Bros., and frankly he was an accidental mascot that Nintendo had never imagined would become its poster child.  After Mario other companies were consistently trying to establish mascots no matter the negative cost to the consumer.  Mario is an exception not because he’s a particularly good or mistakenly genius mascot, he’s just iconic because his game was the catalyst to the return of video games after the crash of 1983.  During the mid 80s Nintendo established a handful of strong franchises that are beloved by many fans and despite Mario being the “leader” per se, he’s definitely not alone when Nintendo wants to sell a product.  I would argue that Link (from Legend of Zelda), Kirby (from Kirby’s Dream Land), Pikachu (from Pokemon), and to certain extent Donkey Kong (from Donkey Kong/Donkey Kong Country) and Samus (from Metroid).  Much like Disney, Nintendo brings with it a cast of characters and franchises that all assist the overall brand in creating long running quality games.  Everyone wanted to have that same wonderful family in the 90s (all of the above named characters had at least one title on the NES by 1992), but they seemed to miss the point that these characters were not created to be mascots, they just happened to get popular enough to become mascots. 

Early Attempts

Sega, the leading direct competitor to Nintendo, was first on the scene to try and establish an iconic mascot.  In the Master System days it attempted to put Alex Kidd (from Alex Kidd in Miracle World), probably because Alex Kidd was in a platforming series and seemed most likely to be a cartoon character like Mario.  This failed miserably because Alex Kidd in Miracle World wasn’t a great game and few fans of Sega’s console immediately named the title as a must have.  Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone also shared a few months as Sega’s next attempted mascot, another complete failure despite its title being of the more fondly appreciated titles in retrospect.  On the NES some 3rd party publishers attempted to establish mascots as well.  Hudson attempted to make Master Higgins from Adventure Island its iconic mascot, which is hilarious considering that true fans of the Hudson library always associated the much more appropriate bee as the mascot.  The only semi-successful early attempt was probably Capcom and Mega Man, which is mostly due to the fact he had a whopping six titles on the NES and his second and third outings became beloved titles that even today make the top of gamers’ all time list.  It wasn’t until Sega decided to take its aggressive new campaign with the Genesis attempting to thwart Nintendo that a manufactured mascot finally succeeded in being the voice of an entire company.

Fast Times at Sega

Sega was desperate to find a mascot to take on Mario and with the Sega Genesis gaining speed in both Japan and America, many believed that one great mascot with its own platforming series could dethrone the giant.  Several anthropomorphic animals were designed to do the job – some that would go on to be first party titles at Sega: Mighty the Armadillo, various conceptual dogs, an old man in pajamas made to resemble Theodore Roosevelt (this design would later go on to create Dr. Robotnik), a rabbit that could extend his ears for collectibles (would later become Ristar from the self-titled game), but it was an attitude heavy teenage hedgehog named Mr. Needlemouse that was chosen. 

While Mr. Needlemouse was created by Naoto Oshima, a designer at Sega, programmers Hirokazu Yashura and Yuji Naka were responsible for turning him into Sonic.  Yashura is probably more integral in terms of the actual game Sonic the Hedgehog as he designed most of the levels and the gameplay, but Yuji Naka brought him to life.  Japan’s love for American pop culture gave his personality, which was hilariously described in design docs as Bill Clinton’s “Get it Done” attitude mixed with a teenager’s sass all wrapped in a bright blue (his original color was teal) outer fur to accompany his shoes, directly intended to match the color’s of Michael Jackson’s leather jacket in Bad.  Naka did miss some important details however, like the fact that hedgehogs can swim, which was pointed out after certain people at Sega asked why Sonic died in water.  He also integrated some quite Japanese concepts like large fangs to display power and a human girlfriend named Madonna – a commonality in Japanese fictional cartoons and manga but a taboo in America.  Enter Madeline Schroeder, the self-proclaimed “mother of Sonic” at Sega of America, who made Sonic a bit softer with larger less sharp quills (probably based on the Bart Simpson concept), a much larger head, green eyes instead of black, and a slightly more slender body.  His famous move in both advertising and games was to take his index finger, smile at you, and wave it back and forth in a “no” motion, proving that his attitude ruled his personality.  His other major trait was that he could run incredibly fast, a unique trait of mascots and game characters that fit perfectly with Sega’s claim of “blast processing”, which offered super speeds (and in fact was twice the strength of the SNES processor at 7 mhz).

With the character created as well as a game to accompany it, Sonic the Hedgehog hit stores and became the pack-in game for the Genesis in the summer of 1991, just before the release of the SNES in holiday season 1991.  Sonic was all over the place, taking up 4 pages in your copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly (because he was THAT fast), and you couldn’t say “Sega’ without also mentioning “Sonic”.  It was a pretty easy sell, too, with the Genesis retailing at $99.99 (half of the upcoming SNES) and the graphics quite similar to the early screens of Super Mario World.  Sonic had the same personality in game as he did on television, impatiently tapping his foot and giving you a dirty look on screen if you left him in idle too long, whereas Mario has always ignored the fourth wall and stared blankly while he waits.  Each level composed of various routes to the end, allowing both speed and non-speed players to enjoy the game equally – I’ve taken nearly five minutes exploring all that Green Hill 1 zone has to offer and also flew through it in a perfect run of 33 seconds.  He was equally different and similar to Mario enough that a large number of fans flocked to Sega’s console, myself included, to encompass an impressive 55 percent market share over Nintendo’s 45 percent in 1992.  Unfortunately time would prove not to be as nice to Sonic as it was to Mario due in most part because Sega couldn’t find a proper way to move him to 3D polygonal gameplay, but for the early 90s, Sonic temporarily dethroned Nintendo and became a pivotal mascot to Sega that still survives today.  As a result, everyone started jumping on board.

Quantity over Quality

Immediately following Sonic, the concept of the mascot exploded in the mainstream hoping to be the next big partner to take on Mario.  It was a horrid mess of anthropomorphic game characters that ended up in completely inappropriate places.  The examples are too many to name but a few examples include Sparkster, an opossum, from Rocket Knight Adventures becoming a temporary mascot for Konami and appeared in the game and manual for Snatcher.  A bunch of games that received a franchise and never should have like Gex, Bubsy, Conquer, Aero the Acrobat, Zero the Kamikazee Squirrel, and oh so many more.  While a lot of these games showed some success, in a more competitive world or time they would have pathetically fallen to the wayside.  Still, the anthropomorphic animal can garner some praise with certain companies, like Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot becoming the temporary mascot for the Playstation – Naughty Dog later admitted that they came up with the character as they attempted to make a Sonic-like character that worked in 3D.  Longtime mascots like Taito’s Bub and Bob from Bubble Bobble received updated looks for various Playstation-era games and Pac-Man is now synonymous with Namco. 

Mascot use Today

Nowadays the mascot is still a clever marketing ploy best utilized by Nintendo and Sony.  As the Playstation consoles continued, Sony was able to acquire a family of mascots much like Nintendo has including Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, Jak & Daxter, and even Sackboy, while also retaining more mature mascots like Kratos from God of War and Cole from inFamous.  Microsoft is a bit of an anomaly with only a few recycled Rare characters from the N64 era, including Banjo and Kazooie, and Master Chief from Halo.  It’s not that important these days, though, as mascots are now extensions from brands instead of replacements. 

As we look back over time many people wonder why certain mascots did or didn’t work.  I personally have a simple answer: the games.  Mario wasn’t intended to be a mascot and Sonic was manufactured as a mascot from scratch, but both of them have solid games that back the character they represent.  When we go to the game store or read the preview, just the mention of some characters, like any Ratchet & Clank game for me, will immediately drive us to that game.  As marketing professionals and brand managers struggle through a world of high budget titles and large risks that cost tens, even hundreds, their jobs with every failure it’s important to focus on the game.  Mario, Pac-Man, and even Rayman caught on because they had amazing games that were referenced along with the company.  Both Sonic and Sackboy may have been used as mascots prior to their release and thus reveal an underlying plan, but they would be nothing if the games they starred in weren’t great.  This can directly correlate with the fact that as Sonic’s games, and many other mascot games, diminish in quality, so does the strength of the mascot.  In honor of these hits and misses we will be featuring reviews for various mascot games on various platforms all month.  If you’re not into mascots, don’t worry, we’ll be doing plenty with non-mascot games as well.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm

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