Some say the day of the mascot is over. Whereas once characters such as Mario, Sonic, and Crash were commonplace as the definitive icons of their systems, they still continue on to this day, their roles somewhat less defined.
In Sony’s case, it almost seems that with their move into the #1 spot in the industry, they had more or less tried without success to find their proverbial voice, often going to third-parties to try and get it. From their own Sofia of Toshinden to Crash Bandicoot to Lara Croft, Sony’s attempts to gain representation acted like a revolving door, with no one character really sticking. The latter two of those mentioned eventually made their way to other systems, and you can find Tomb Raider and Crash Bandicoot games on systems belonging to Microsoft and Nintendo, and come the PlayStation 2, Sony lacked a real face… even a pointy, purple, polygonal one.
However, this did not stop further games of the type best associated with mascots from coming out for their system. The platformer not only continued on the PlayStation 2, but some would say that it even thrived there, with the likes of Sly Cooper, although most attention was cast upon two other games, each featuring a lead character of indistinct origin paired with a charismatic, quirky sidekick.
Are you e?
Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank were perhaps the two games that came closest to being “mascots” for the PlayStation 2, featuring 3-D environments that were covered in detail and engaging storylines starring their quirky cast.
Compared to the likes of Mario or Sonic, who were simpler in nature and designed many years beforehand, the visual style of these new heroes could be described as a lot busier than the norm. Thanks to advances in technology, things had come a long way from the need to use a mustache to disguise the lack of a mouth. Jak and Ratchet came equipped with more details that didn’t seem to necessarily serve a specific form or function, other than to look cool.
And look cool they did, especially when sat alongside their predecessors.
Despite the all-ages-friendly look that the lot shared, at least at first(Jak’s look changed enough that it seems it may have been partially responsible for the sequel to be bumped to a T rating. The story probably helped, too), suddenly Mario and Sonic were looking a lot more “cartoony,” with their sparse details, flat shading, and general lack of texture.
“They Call Me ‘Sonic’…”
Looking back at this past generation and going into the next, one can see how these two icons of gaming have taken and utilized the gift of more powerful hardware.
Since the days of his origin on the SEGA Genesis, Sonic games have rarely been wanting for detail. From beautiful multi-directional parallax scrolling backgrounds with some manner of detail covering every spare inch, Sonic made the most of its hardware to give its players a true feast for the eyes. Many will cite the speed or the plucky young hedgehog’s attitude as their reasons for straying from their NES-born gaming roots, but one might be remiss if they think that the game’s graphics(against which even Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario World was lacking by comparison) had nothing to do with it.
A few games later, Sonic took an extended vacation of sorts during the 32-bit era, but made a fresh 3-D return to his home turf on the SEGA Dreamcast before venturing out onto the Nintendo GameCube and then the XBox and PlayStation 2.
In his return game, Sonic Adventure, Sonic himself sported a new, sleeker design with a few more small details added for good measure; it retained the simplicity of the original design, while advancing it ever-so-slightly.
By comparison, his surroundings took on a much more realistic look to them. Far from the old stomping grounds of the Green Hill Zone, Sonic now tread in human-populated cities and ventured through jungles and ruins inspired by real-world locations such as Canc?n and San Francisco, in some cases even using textures made from photographs.
And while the world felt a lot more realistic, it didn’t seem too realistic; places and characters such as humans retained a simplistic quality to them, not unlike an instructional diagram. It was a pleasant mix which worked well for the series.
Eventually, Sonic all but abandoned his old-fashioned look of pen-and-ink representation, almost solely seen as a computer-rendered model, featuring a slight bit of texturing over his blue regions to represent his quills and cloth gloves.
Now, nearing the dawn of the PlayStation 3, Sonic is about to be reborn again, and the reaction has been largely mixed.
The world Sonic now inhabits is virtually photorealistic… except for that springboard stuck on the side of the skyscraper. The humans carry a more realistic look as well, even Sonic’s lifetime rival Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik, who appears eerily human… or perhaps eerily not. The overall reaction has been mixed, with the more realistic elements appearing as somewhat jarring to some longtime fans. Some feel Sonic and his friends appear somewhat odd when placed next to the likes of Princess Elise, not unlike when the cartoon-mitted Shadow the Hedgehog was first seen handling a realistic firearm in his own self-titled game.
On the other side of the coin, we have Sonic’s other longtime rival, Mario. Sometimes referred to as “the hardest working character in video gaming,” Mario has followed each generation of Nintendo’s hardware, his appearance seemingly changing accordingly. Or has it?
“It’s-a me, Mario!”
Perhaps the kindest way to put it is that Mario has no set appearance, that his art exists in a constant state of flux, changing as the game warrants it.
Back when Mario redefined 3-D gaming in Super Mario 64, he appeared alongside the game in a new 3-D rendered form that was, for all intents and purposes, a perfect 3-D carryover from his 2-D imagery. And at the time, the consoles couldn’t handle much more than that; truth be told, they couldn’t even really handle that, as Mario’s hand seemingly morphed from a ball-like shape to sprout a pair of white prongs as he gave his signature victory pose upon clearing a level. If anything, the renderings left some wishing that the Nintendo 64 had just a bit more power so as to try and approach less-blocky graphics.
Of course, for awhile, it was a moot point, as Mario’s appearances on the system were rather limited until the advent of Paper Mario, Super Smash Bros., and the Mario sports titles. It was when the GameCube appeared on the horizon that it felt like Mario may graphically be reborn into a character visually on-par with how the rest of gaming’s icons were appearing.
And we were half-right.
Enter Super Smash Bros. Melee. Nintendo’s best-selling franchise and one of the GameCube’s premiere titles, Melee was chock-full of graphical splendor. Though some characters remained true to their simpler looks(such as Kirby and Pikachu), Mario and his friends looked ready to take advantage of what this new generation had to offer.
The game’s opening movie seemed purposeful in showing the evolution of the character, from a flat-shaded trophy into a living, breathing character. As the camera zoomed in for a closer look, players got to see shiny plastic change into a realistically-detailed yet cartoon-shaped iris, denim overalls with stitches and brass buttons, gloves with seamed fingers, and a shirt that wrinkled in accordance to how its wearer moved. Everything familiar about Mario remained, and he was a cartoon character with real-world textures bringing him to life, not unlike characters seen in a Dreamworks or Pixar production.
Perhaps the greatest change came in Bowser. Essentially Nintendo’s answer to Disney’s Black Pete, Bowser’s inner-monster was truly unleashed to show the wicked King of the Turtle Tribe some fans felt they’d known since their earliest days of gaming on the NES. Yellowish-orange stumps of arms and legs gave way to leaner appendages of a more dull bronze. Bright green skin was replaced by darker colored scales befitting a draconic-turtle. Claws and spikes on his shell were lengthened, now looking as though they’d been worn by many a battle, but no less deadly than their first. And large, semi-flat spikes adorning his arms and neck became piercing, sharpened points that would warn away anyone foolhardy enough to get near this savage beast.
Oh, and don’t forget the eyes. Large, bulbous orbs that would conspire to steal candy from children are replaced by a beadier, more sinister gaze that looks as though they would leave their victims huddled in the parking lot, broken and sobbing. Mario’s Adventure stage of the game received fairly similar treatment as well, with grassy fields, blocks that looked like genuine bricks, and bridges made of split logs, while the enemies retained their traditional cartoony charm, all leaving fans wanting more.
And when the time for more came with Super Mario Sunshine… well, it might not have been what some were expecting. The successor to Super Mario 64 featured lovely environments that were not undetailed, but still carried a more animation-styled aesthetic than what we had seen in Melee. And while that wasn’t necessarily bad at all, it also introduced us to what could perhaps be described as the “new” Mario, perhaps disappointing some who adored the more detailed form they’d been introduced to just a short time before.
Bearing a closer resemblance to the Mario of Super Mario 64‘s promotional art than his lightning-charged Melee counterpart, he returned to flat colors, the only real hint of new detail being the addition of a basic framework of seams across his clothing.
And in most Mario games since, this is the version that people have been exposed to, from the Mario Karts to the Mario Party titles to New Super Mario Bros. itself. And likewise, Princess Peach and Bowser(and Luigi, of course) also returned to their older-styled looks. Naturally, this works better on the lower-resolution screens of the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance, where the details of Melee would be lost, save for perhaps promotional artwork.
But, while the majority of games featuring Mario and friends feature these models, it should be noted that it is not the sole style seen. Mario and his friends have actually taken up a different sort of approach to design, depending on the game and medium.
Paper Mario, New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Strikers, and Mario vs. Donkey Kong each feature strikingly different looks for their art; odds are that to those with a fair amount of familiarity with the titles, it is easy to determine what game or branch of the Mario brand that the art came from, even though the latter two contrast the promo art by continuing to use the renders most common to the franchise. And in the case of Paper Mario, there would definitely be something lost if its “paper” style were lost in favor of the common or even Melee-styled renders.
On a related note, Nintendo’s other major franchise player, Link, has seen quite a few changes in recent years as well. After first taking a great loss of detail in Wind Waker, he then gave in to the demands of fans the world over, thus thoroughly compensating for it in the upcoming Twilight Princess.
Overall, the broad scope leaves certain questions of preference. What’s the best way? Is less detail more? Is more better? Or does it matter at all if you have enough different styles spread across the board?
Is there one answer which can satisfy the majority? Or is it best as it is, with each game taking things as they come?