Video games are more popular than they've ever been, but somewhere along the way we lost something: mascots, to be specific. Once upon a time, every franchise worth its salt had an anthropomorphic rodent or high-jumping plumber on the box, a far cry from today's landscape of grim men with scars and swords and guns.
The video game mascots many of us grew up with were intrinsically tied to platformers, and it's been nearly 20 years since that genre was dominant, though several of the best-selling games of all time, like Super Mario Bros. 3, are from that 1985–1996 period. Back then, children were the biggest market in gaming, so it only made sense to develop characters that aped Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. Developers searching for their piece of the pie looked to Super Mario Bros. as a replicable template, which led to the explosion of the platform genre and the accompanying mascots.
Platformers are defined by the gameplay mechanics of precision-based jumping and navigating obstacles between point A and point B, as well as a cartoonish aesthetic. When the industry began trending away from 2-D sprite-based graphics toward realistic 3-D polygonal models around '96, side-scrolling platformers became essentially irrelevant.
The platform mascots' jump to 3-D, as it turned out, was perilous. Many that flourished in the eight- and 16-bit eras didn't quite make it. Some faded away, some made sidesteps and found success elsewhere, and others died of humiliation. Now that it's been nearly 20 years since that fateful transitional period, I thought it'd be a good idea to take a look at the most notable platformer mascots to see how they fared.
Peak game: Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii, 2010)
Mario is the undisputed platform alpha. The Super Mario franchise invented the platformer, then reinvented the platformer in 3-D with the crucial, clutch Super Mario 64 in 1996. His level of consistency and success is sometimes overlooked, but it's clear that the character and series is unparalleled and peerless. There's never been any real misstep in the series, and most of the games are all-time classics. He's also the consummate brand mascot and acts as the head of an empire. His protégés, Yoshi, Wario, and Luigi, have each had successful platform series of their own, and when Mario headlines a non-platform series—Mario Kart, Paper Mario, Mario Party, etc.—it's an indication that it will be reliably solid.
The only downside to Mario is his stupid voice, his insufferable face, and his complete lack of appealing personality traits. Maybe someday he can relax the Mickey Mouse schtick and be his true self: a self-medicating maintenance man who knows how to get some air on his jumps.
Mario, like rock 'n' roll, Saturday Night Live, or action movie stars, has had his fade from glory prematurely predicted many times, and each time he seems to come back as youthful and powerful as ever. Although fewer people pay attention to Mario than during the platform genre's heyday, the high-pitched toilet technician continues to raise the bar with each entry.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Peak game: Sonic & Knuckles (Sega Genesis, 1994)
The 'tude, the 'tude! My God, but what will we possibly do with all this 'tude? Sonic the Hedgehog may be the Poochie of video game mascots, but goddamnit if kids didn't love him for it.
The genius of Sega's approach was to change the paradigm of how you evaluated the worth of a game: The way they framed the question, it wasn't about which games were better, but which were "cooler." Sonic directly challenged Mario's "coolness" as a character by being, essentially, an adventurous Mickey Mouse with a family-friendly amount of 90s irreverence. He was edgier (literally so, with those spikes on his back), he was faster, and his games used something called " blast processing" (not an actual thing).
The last of the 16-bit Sonic games, 1994's Sonic & Knuckles, remains the series high point, blending standard hop-and-bop platforming with the thrill of building momentum. On its own, the game's levels stand about equal to the other Genesis classics, but Sonic & Knuckles truly shines when "locked-on" with Sonic 3 to reveal the full experience the developers originally intended. After the 16-bit era closed, Sonic disappeared for the entire 32-bit generation, resurfacing five years later with the first proper 3-D Sonic game on the Sega Dreamcast, the uneven Sonic Adventure, and the franchise has remained messy and inconsistent since then with several very low points along the way.
Peak game: Mega Man X (Super Nintendo, 1993)
This franchise always struck me as an almost blue-collar series, with a very workman-like attitude toward producing sequels. The original Mega Man series began in 1987 and spawned eight games in nine years, all of which were good and about the same level of quality, give or take. The games don't vary much, which is why the high points tend to be cited as Mega Man 2 and Mega Man X, two instances where substantial change did happen.
In addition to consistency, the series also was known for frequently frustrating difficulty ( as kids these days have learned), and the best video game music of the generation. Although the series found rejuvenation with 2008's retro-themed Mega Man 9 (and then 10 in 2010), creator Keiji Inafune's departure from Capcom in 2010 has left the character stranded, with no games releases since or any in development.
Peak game: Kirby's Adventure (NES, 1993)
Easily the cutest of the platform mascots, Kirby has mostly been resting on his good looks for most of his career. He started strong with two solid platformers in a row in 1992 and 1993, and then almost immediately went into coasting mode with remixes, spin-off games, and cameo appearances. In terms of gameplay, Kirby is sort of a cuter Mega Man; most of the games involve copying an enemy's weapon and adopting it as his own. Mega Man accomplishes this by defeating a boss and taking his weapon; Kirby swallows them and downloads them into his body. It's the most adorable eating disorder in gaming.
Kirby's Adventure remains the definitive Kirby experience, although a relatively recent revival, Kirby's Epic Yarn, received the most positive reviews for any Kirby game thus far.
Peak game: Donkey Kong Country 2 (Super Nintendo, 1995)
As a character, Donkey Kong is pretty boring. He had more charisma in his original incarnation as a King Kong ripoff who threw barrels down construction sites. His rebooted personality featured such personality traits as "wears a tie" and "enjoys bananas." I don't even want to hear about Donkey Kong's weekend, much less go on an adventure with him, but when Donkey Kong Country debuted in 1994, the real star of the game was the then-impressive CG graphics.
Donkey Kong was such a boring guy that he was sidelined for the superior sequel in favor of his more personable sidekick Diddy Kong. In that game he gets kidnapped and Diddy, along with new sidekick, Dixie, heads off to rescue him. This became a trope, and in the third entry, Diddy is also kidnapped and unplayable along with Donkey. Donkey Kong Country remains the only platform series that insisted on benching the headliner for rookies.
Peak game: Crash Bandicoot: Warped (PlayStation, 1998)
Crash Bandicoot was like the Denis Leary of 90s platformer mascots: a shameless ripoff who relied on marketing. His character was a carbon copy of Sonic—an obscure mammal with an action-y name with cool accessories (jean shorts! skater shoes!) who fought an evil bald scientist. (The Crash gameplay, meanwhile, mostly consisted of watered-down versions of Nintendo concepts.) Still, Crash had an effective career, contributing to Sony's ascent to dominance with the original Playstation in the 32-bit era, but never broke any new ground.
The final effort from the original creative team at Naughty Dog was also Crash's best game. The four main series entries that have followed since have been various degrees of disappointing. After a few sequels and an obligatory kart racing game, Crash hasn't been seen since the Bush administration.
Peak game: The conception meeting, during which this probably seemed like a good idea (1992)
Bubsy was a schmuck. He was all 90s attitude, but too obnoxious, and with nothing else to offer beyond that. His first game came with a lot of pre-launch hype from an aggressive marketing blitz, but the game was, at best, "not the worst thing in the world." It would go downhill from there, as Bubsy's lasting legacy will be his hilariously failed jump to next gen with Bubsy 3D for the PlayStation in 1996. It has been widely panned as one of the worst games of all time, featuring atrocious visuals, completely broken mechanics, and absurdly torturous music.
Peak game: Earthworm Jim (Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo, 1994)
Basically an outright parody of platform mascots, creator Doug TenNapel's Earthworm Jim is an ordinary earthworm who gained powers by having a super sci-fi space suit land on his head, then went on to battle his villains like Professor Monkey-for-a-head (he had a monkey for a head) and Queen Slug-for-a-butt (she had a slug for a butt). As far as video game humor goes, there's admittedly a low bar, Earthworm Jim was about as good as it got, on par with an average episode of Ren & Stimpy.
The game was an instant hit. The follow-up was equally well-received, but the next-gen attempt, Earthworm Jim 3D, was an unmitigated disaster that should've never seen the light of day.
Peak game: Rocket Knight Adventures (Sega Genesis, 1993)
"Who the fuck was Sparkster?"
Developed by Konami with some of the same development team behind the Contra series, Sparkster was an opossum knight with a sword and a jetpack who fought an army of robots and pigs, and as stupid as that sounds, his series of platformers were among the better ones of the 16-bit era. He was the only platformer mascot with a jetpack, which is a bit surprising considering this was the 90s, when dreams of jetpacks were rampant.
Like a lot of these mascots, he made an attempt to capitalize on nostalgia and return to gaming in 2010, but nobody cared.
BANJO & KAZOOIE
Peak game: Banjo-Kazooie (Nintendo 64, 1998)
Banjo, like Donkey Kong, is a boring mascot. He's a bear and he goes on adventures. The bear mascots for toilet paper have more personality. What is notable about Banjo and his bird friend, Kazooie, is how they impacted the platform genre.
The original Banjo-Kazooie represents when the Rare-Nintendo partnership was one of the best gaming had seen. After Super Mario 64 invented the 3-D platformer and demonstrated how it's done, Rare's Banjo-Kazooie came along two years later in 1998 to take it to another level: The graphics, level concepts, art direction, puzzles—everything was a significant step up.
Rare had been responsible for a great number of exclusive hits on Nintendo systems in the mid-to-late 90s, starting with the Donkey Kong Country series on Super Nintendo, and including Goldeneye 007, Conker's Bad Fur Day, and others.
The Banjo sequel that followed was mostly good but, like Rare-developed games, suffered from bloat. There were too many side-quests, the stages were too large; it was a case of sometimes bigger is not necessarily better. By the time Rare released Donkey Kong 64 in 2000, it appeared the creativity had all but dried up for Rare. A few years later, Microsoft, which had just entered the video game hardware business, spent big money to snag Rare away from Nintendo, and like what happens when a desperate sports franchise overpaying for an aging free agent, the partnership was mostly fruitless.
Peak game: Rayman 2: The Great Escape (1999, multiplatform)
Rayman is like the quiet kid of the platformer mascot class who could perhaps secretly have been the best of them all but, due to timing or circumstance, never quite found the attention he deserved. Part of the reason is that he looks stupid. He has a dumb, stupid face, and he doesn't have limbs. When I see Rayman, I think, I hate this thing, whatever it is.
But his games have always been critically acclaimed. Debuting in the 32-bit era, Ubisoft's Rayman series wisely stuck to platforming in 2-D rather than trying to make the concept work in 3-D. As a result, the series was massively underrated since gamers were more interested in 3-D games. 1999's Rayman 2: The Great Escape was regarded at the time as the finest sidescrolling platformer the genre had seen, with inventive direction and gorgeously clean graphics.
Humiliatingly, Rayman ended up taking a backseat to a spin-off, the Raving Rabbids party minigames, which have been far more commercially successful.
Peak game: Cool Spot (Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis, 1993)
Branded content, baby! This is what we play for. The Academy may have ignored The Lego Movie, but on this list, corporate-sponsored mascots will get their due recognition.
The 7UP logo was here to not only have fun, but also to remind you to stay hydrated with refreshing, sugary beverages. His basketball high-tops and sunglasses seemed to say, "Oh yeah, this is one cool soft drink company!" Accordingly, Cool Spot's legacy as a platformer mascot remains the chillest asterisk.
In fact, there were many "adver-games" beyond 7UP's Spot games. Cheeto's had two Chester the Cheetah games; Domino's had two platformer games for their Noid mascot; McDonald's had a few platformer games, too, including Treasure Land Adventure, which at one point featured Ronald McDonald fighting an apple. If that's not art, then I don't know what is.
THE REST OF THEM
There were so many more platformer mascots in the 90s, and quite a lot of them were simply poor imitations of Sonic the Hedgehog. There's not much to say about characters like Rocky Rodent, Awesome Possum, Gex, and Aero the Acrobat, beyond the fact that they existed.
There was Boogerman and Conker in the category of "self-consciously edgy and humorous." Boogerman's joke was "lol boogers and farts." It was like the uncle who thinks he's a hit at the kids' table because he farts a lot. Similarly, the crux of Conker's Bad Fur Day was that he was a Rare-developed cute animal mascot who said "damn" and "shit" and "hookers"; in other words, a longer version of the movie Ted.
There were the underrated ones, like Ristar and Klonoa. Ristar was a cool game on Sega Genesis, but it never became a series. Klonoa was late to the party, debuting with a solid 2-D platformer on the PlayStation in 1997, and nobody really cared outside of Japan.
Recent additions to the category, like Sackboy from the Little Big Planet series on PlayStation, Ratchet and Clank, and Jak, are all fine platformer mascots, but they're part of a different generation. They're revivalists or throwbacks, like a young band trying to be the Rolling Stones.
Though mainstream gaming has moved away from platformers, developers—mostly on the indie side of things—are still making new ones, with titles like Super Meat Boy, Fez, Braid, and Spelunky leading the genre.
The old platformer mascots live on, though, in our nostalgia-soaked pop culture landscape, fan art, and, of course, the Super Smash Bros. franchise. Like bands that were once rivals teaming up to tour together, or The Expendables for old action stars, sometimes the best option is to stick together after the glory years are gone.
Illustration by Ashlyn Anstee.
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