If one were to ask any gamer what the first image that comes to mind when the word Nintendo is used, there is a good chance that the image of a stout, overall and red shirt wearing, mustacheoed, Italian gentlemen named Mario with a plumbing profession comes to mind. From the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to the recently released Wii U, Mario has always been a part of gamers’ lives and is arguably the most iconic mascot in gaming. That kind of image is what video game companies strive for, Microsoft has its current mascot with Halo‘s Master Chief while the PlayStation has done well with its current generation branding of the captivating Sackboy. The role and evolution of mascots in the industry has changed dramatically from its beginnings in the dark and hallowed holy grounds of arcades. From Pac-Man and Mario to Kratos and the Chief. Gaming mascots have come a long way.
Eventually these cartoony mascots fell off into obscurity once systems such as PlayStation and the Xbox hit their stride. With decisively superior graphics than their previous generations and more storage for longer and intricate stories, gamers were more than glad to leave behind the furry friends of the 90s. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy shocked the gaming faithful into the realization that video games could have deep character development and cinematic storytelling. Dealing with more mature themes such as character deaths in the Final Fantasy series changed the way games were perceived. Being able to relate on a more personal and emotional level with these characters was something that the childhood mascots never did. Releases like Super Smash Bros. continued to satisfy that itch and remind people of their roots but was more of a niche than the norm during this time.
The current generation has seen a surprising resurgence of mascots. Although they are decidedly different than their 90s counterparts, they live on in marquee franchises. Sony has done an excellent job of branding mascots from both sides of the spectrum. On one side they introduced Kratos from the God of War series and on the other the exceptionally adorable Sackboy from Little Big Planet. While contradictory to one another, when combined those two characters appeal to any age group regardless of genre preference. Sony even allowed gamers to let them beat up on each other as well as other key PlayStation figures(Fat Princess still a question mark) in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Meanwhile, Microsoft proved the strength of their unlikely mascot by expanding and improving upon the story of Master Chief through the Halo series.
While currently healthy, if these times are any indication of how or where the current generation mascots will exist in the future, it is that they will need a lot of fresh ideas to stay afloat. Since the demand for complete and epic storylines grounded in reality are now considered the norm for gamers, the bold superstars currently leading the charge on their respective consoles often have finite stories. God of War has a finality to it as does Snake in Metal Gear Solid. Creating a sense of closure to a beloved mascot doesn’t create much opportunity in the future. Although they can be temporarily renewed with reboots and prequels. It is only short-lived. Master Chief is enjoying a resurgence with a new storyline in Halo 4 but consumer fatigue must be taken into account to stay viable in the foreseeable future. Now if there one exception to this progression. It is Nintendo. They have not changed, they continue to bring out their triple A titles with the same cast of lovable mascots that brought them success in the first place. Mario continues to dominate and proliferate households while Link’s rabid fans would gladly spend countless hours in the land of Hyrule questing for the Triforce with Master Sword in hand. They also reintroduce and innovate older mascots such Kirby and Kid Icarus. Epic Yarn was a brand new interpretation of his timeless struggle not to swallow everything in sight while Kid Icarus: Uprising was a well done reboot with compelling and rich gameplay. This re-imagination of gimmicky and cartoony characters of the past are the best way to reinvigorate mascots who might be on their way into permanent retirement.
It has been quite the ride so far but mascots will always have a place in video games. It doesn’t matter whether they are temporary or eternal. Or whether they are anthropomorphic animals with attitude or dark and brooding anti-hero space marines. Mascots will endure in one way or another. While the beloved design of the mascots of old pose a risky investment moving forward, there is also a tremendous upside in that they can reconnect with the large fan base who initially fell in love with them. Sonic the Hedgehog has had to endure years of mediocre or bad games but remains relevant because gamers want him to and Sonic Generations is proof of that. As long as the game is good, developers and companies should take note. Gamers love their mascots.