Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

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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