Welcome to GameCritics.com’s Thought Processing. The goal of this series is to raise issues, spark discussion and get you thinking in new ways about topics relevant to today’s gamers. It will also give you, the reader, a glimpse of insight into the inner workings of the mysterious animal known as the "Game Critic." If you have an opinion or comment on our discussion, join the conversation. This month's subject:
Are Game Mascots a Thing of the Past?
In the world of videogames, there are a number of virtual celebrities that have just as much fame and recognition as those on the silver screen or MTV. In fact, some are so famous that they’ve reached the exalted "single-word name" plateau, eclipsing countless other real-life personalities. Mario. Sonic. Lara. You know them on sight, you’ve played their games, and the odds are that you love at least a few of them.
Game mascots have been around nearly as long as videogames themselves. Their catchy designs, hip attitudes, and iconic status have sold countless units and determined the fortunes of not only individual consoles, but entire companies. The power these figures had over gameplaying audiences in the past cannot be understated. However, in recent years the brightness of these stars and mascot concept itself seems on the wane. Without any new rising stars and a few disappointing perfomances from old standbys, we asked four Critics for their opinions on the nature of mascots and their future in videogames.
In the history of videogames, who or what has been your favorite mascot?
Brad Gallaway: Hmm. Tough question. I don’t think I really have one mascot that stands head and shoulders above the rest. I enjoy mascots as a concept, but the big ones don’t really do it for me. Mario has always seemed too vanilla and Sonic’s pre-equipped ‘tude felt corporate and fake. If I had to pick, I’d have to say that I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for a few of the smaller ones, Rare’s Banjo and Kazooie in particular.
Mike Doolittle: Well, definitely Mario. He’s representative of an era of gaming that’s bigger than just Nintendo. I think Mario represents a major evolution in games by bringing them to the masses and evolving them into an art. Many of the Mario games have been significant benchmarks in game design, but now mascots are an endangered species. Companies are always pumping them out, but there are so many mascots for such a diverse audience of gamers that it’s almost impossible to have another Mario.
Jonathan Cadoche: I’ll agree that Mario did contribute in a major way to the world of videogames. He broke the ice for three Nintendo launches with his flagship titles, all of which are considered must-own classics. However, even though his games were excellent, my favorite mascot was not Miyamoto’s little plumber. Instead that honor went to Capcom’s blue bomber, Mega Man (back in the days when he was still their #1 star.) Nowadays I don’t think I have what I would consider to be a favorite mascot. Mike’s entirely right in referring to mascots as "endangered species." Many of those who once held that title are now either gone or washed out.
Thom Moyles: Solid Snake. I know that he’s not traditionally considered a ‘mascot’ per se, but he’s a readily identifiable character who appears in a series of games with a consistent manner and behavior. In other words, he is a definable personality who ‘exists’ outside of the context of any single game. We can see that his character was important to the game through analysis of the public’s reaction to Metal Gear Solid 2. If it had been all about the gameplay, then replacing Snake with Raiden wouldn’t have been such a big deal. I prefer to keep a broader definition of ‘mascot’ characters because I think that companies are using characters like Solid Snake and Lara Croft the way that Mario and Sonic were used—the only difference being a style of presentation.
In particular, what characteristics or qualities made that mascot memorable or stand out from the rest?
Brad: Well, with Banjo & Kazooie the things that really clicked with me was their tit-for-tat chemistry and the "we know we’re only game characters" references in the writing. In fact, I think it was the amount of dialogue they had that really made the game extra special. I never felt like I was them at any point, but I had a good grasp on who they were supposed to be as characters. Nine times out of ten, I’ll pick a character that displays a clear personality through communication over one that remains silent.
Mike: I think it’s the quality of the game as well as the game’s context as a whole. Take the fact that Mario never uttered a word until Super Mario 64. He could have been a Spanish pastry chef and still would have been hugely popular. As another example, people talk about Master Chief from Halo as a mascot for Microsoft. I mean come on, he’s got the charisma of a trout. But when people get drawn into a game, they form some attachment to the characters regardless of their qualities.
Jonathan: For a gaming company to have a mascot is one thing. However, for it to be a successful mascot is quite another. Personally, I believe the game makes the mascot, not the other way around. Mega Man probably wouldn’t have made it as my favorite mascot were it not for his games. They were among the first titles to offer players the chance to choose what level they would take as the game progressed instead of just guiding them along a linear adventure. Each of the sequels added something new to the series and always had me coming back for more. The series was fun at first, but now "extra features" are the only thing present in these games.
Thom: I think the reason that Solid Snake is popular is because he typifies the attractive stereotype of the American male, like John Wayne used to be (and in some ways still is). He’s not only strong and smart, he’s also a rebel who doesn’t play by the rules and doesn’t care about what other people think. Personally, I like the character because he’s a neat parallel to the overtly intertextual nature of the modern Metal Gear series. It’s pretty obvious that Snake is based on the Snake Plisken character from the Escape From New York and Escape From Los Angelos. movies with Solid Snake being a reflection of the base character in Kojima’s universe.
Why is it that mascot-type characters always seem to be in platform-style games? Do you think it’s possible to have a popular mascot starring in a different genre?
Brad: My guess would be that the platform genre (whether in 2- or 3D) is one that a majority of people are familiar with, so logically I’d assume that by presenting something instantly accessible, developers will have a much larger audience to sell a character to. I don’t think that platformers are a key element to a mascot’s popularity, though. For example, Sony promoted PaRappa The Rapper in a music game, and both the character and the title saw a good amount of success. However it’s important to note that PaRappa was an extremely simple game to get into with almost no learning curve—a good formula for mass appeal.
Mike: I think it just makes sense because the character is visible throughout the game. You can see their expressions and actions clearly. When you put a mascot in different clothes, like Nintendo is doing with the new Metroid, you need to give players the opportunity to connect with the character, be it through select shots in the game or through cutscenes.
Jonathan: It’s not the only genre in which a mascot might become popular but it’s the most mainstream one. Mascots and platformers have gone hand in hand since the days of the NES. It’s a winning formula and developers have, more often than not, stuck to it. It can be possible for a mascot to be successful in another genre, but the task will probably be harder.
Thom: I don’t feel that mascot characters are linked to platformers purely for gameplay reasons, but rather that it’s an artifact of the limitations of older games. The 2D nature of older systems meant that making a platformer was a comparatively straightforward process. Since it became a major category, there was a feedback loop that reinforced the popularity of the genre. The other major limitation of older systems was graphic resolution. You only had so many pixels available, so your main character had to be eye-catching and recognizable. Therefore you had a lot of games that featured an iconic, easily recognizable character. Over time, those platformer mascots retained their simplistic, iconic looks. As games moved to 3D and more genres emerged, mascots like Lara Croft, Fox McCloud and Master Chief are being created, only now the characters have far more detail and span the width of the new videogame genres.
Despite the constant attempts on all sides to generate new mascots, it seems as though there hasn’t a breakout star in quite a while. Why do you think this is?
Brad: Personally, I think it’s because of two reasons. The first is that most of the games with "mascot" type characters have been pretty derivative lately, so it’s hard to sell a boring game on the strength of a character alone. Second, as some of the other critics mentioned above, the audience for videogames has become more diverse and has many more niches to be filled. It’s hard to find one "star" game that can meet the needs of the majority of players out there.
Mike: I couldn’t have said it better myself. Mascots are something that people attach themselves to over years, and you can’t just whip up some arbitrary cartoon character and call him a mascot. For example, the buzz for Metroid Prime is huge despite the fact that many young gamers have never even played the older Metroid games. But when the buzz surrounds something attached to a lineage with impeccable quality, even the rookies start to listen. Samus isn’t any more charismatic than the Master Chief, but she’s had some serious history behind her, and gamers are pumped about stepping into her shoes again. That’s what a real mascot does—it reminds gamers about the fun they’ve had and promises them another round.
Jonathan: My views on this question concern Microsoft and Sony more than Nintendo. The way I see it, these two companies aren’t aiming at creating one perfect mascot that will propel their console sales beyond all expectations. Instead, they’re trying to recreate the only element over which Nintendo has had undisputed bragging rights since the days of the NES: an entire lineup of easily recognizable, memorable characters whose names go hand in hand with quality.
People are familiar with names such as Mario, Link, and Samus. This is why every newly released Nintendo mascot title becomes an instant success. The problem with Sony and Microsoft is that they’re trying to recreate the success Nintendo gradually acquired over a number of years. As Mike pointed out, you can’t just take some random character from the streets and hope people will praise him overnight. Recently, both Sony and Microsoft have released a number of mascot games. Some of them might be gems, while others could be garbage. Either way, will any of these ever be remembered as well as any of the Nintendo mascot characters? Not a chance.
Thom: I think what’s happening is that marketing departments at videogame companies decide that a ‘mascot’ has to meet certain requirements: they have to be iconic, they have to have a certain ‘wiseass’ attitude, they have to be in a platformer, and so on. This leads to an incredible amount of derivative characters. They don't have any significant impact because of their lack of personality and players don't imprint on them because they don't stand out from the crowd. However, there are plenty of characters that share a continuous personality between games, and these have become pretty popular. Solid Snake, Master Chief, Ryo from Shenmue—if a company creates a solid, unique design and personality for their leads, there still is the desire to see the ‘further adventures’ of that character. These faces just tend to be a lot more diverse than the original group of platforming mascots.
Do you think it’s possible that a mascot can rise to dominant superstardom much the way Mario and Sonic did in the 90’s, or will future mascot games have to be content with a much smaller segment of the videogame spotlight?
Brad: Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No. For that kind of situation to happen again, there are some challenging conditions that would need to be satisfied. For example, the game would have to be an absolutely stellar must-play, and have a character with incredible appeal. With audiences already spread out between a wide range of genres on three separate consoles, even the geniuses of game design are only capturing a small portion of the audiences they once had. I think we’ll still see some good mascot games in the future, but I don’t think they’ll ever be as huge as they once were.
Mike: I think that mascots are often a cheap way to rake in the dough on derivative titles. With everyone trying to create the next Mario, we’ve got a sure-fire guarantee that it’s not going to happen. Look at Crash Bandicoot, who was a pseudo-mascot for Sony until recently. Did he ever bring the charm to the PlayStation that Zelda, Mario, and Samus have brought to Nintendo consoles? No. Crash couldn’t even approach Sonic’s appeal as Sega’s mascot, probably because the games were not that spectacular. For a mascot to stand out, the games need to be really special. I think even Mario might have lost some of his clout after Super Mario Sunshine failed to make waves the way Super Mario 64 did. Gaming’s just getting too big for a few characters to lead the way.
Jonathan: For a mascot to really break through in the gaming industry, the game itself needs to set new standards for the platformer genre. I may be wrong, but I don’t see how the bar can be raised any further. To quote the Barenaked Ladies, It’s all been done. Normal platformers, high speed platformers, platformers with hidden levels and special secrets, you name it-- there’s at least one game out there that’s got it. Although this may be extreme, the only way a character could recreate the success Mario once had would be if it either resurrected the industry or took videogames into an entirely new direction. Since the business is currently flourishing and virtual reality is still a concept that people associate with science fiction, I don’t think we’ll see a new mascot rising high above the rest anytime soon.
Thom: I think companies will still have flagship characters, and that we’ll continue to see games where the characters will appear across multiple titles. But, we’ll never see the same domination of the market by a just a few characters. The game market has seriously grown since those days, and although Sony is dominating the market they haven’t managed to create first-party brandings that dominate mindshare. Instead, you’ve got a big collection of studios all vying against each other. Characters are going to become prominent and inspire a certain amount of loyalty, but you’ll never see something like Mario or Pac-Man again.
We hope you’ve read a few things to think about, and perhaps your opinion is different now than it was before you read this article.