By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Mario vs Sonic and the birth of mascots as consoles
It’s safe to say that the biggest two-party rivalry in video game history will always be the battle of Nintendo and Sega’s respective 16-bit systems. Never before–or since–had two consoles had a fiercer rivalry than the one that existed between the Super NES and the Genesis, at least in North America; the Mega Drive (as the Genesis was called outside of North America) floundered in Japan while it handily beat the SNES in Europe and Brazil. Of course, there was another concurrent fight taking place that distilled a battle between two video game mega-corporations into a much purer, more relatable fight: Mario vs Sonic. Each character had become the official “mascot” of both the platform(s) they called home and their parent companies themselves.
It was almost irrelevant how you actually felt about Mario’s or Sonic’s games–if you were a Nintendo fan, you were Team Mario, and if you were a Sega fan, you were Team Sonic. That’s just how it was. While the quality of the two heroes’ games were definitely compared and debated directly, the “Mario or Sonic?” discussion was largely just another way to phrase “SNES or Genesis/MD?” or “Nintendo or Sega?” The fact that the far more powerful consoles were released during the SNES and Genesis’ lifespan–3DO, CD-i, and Jaguar–and failed to make a significant dent in the industry didn’t have a defined mascot to anchor themselves to certainly didn’t do them any favors (3DO tried to make a mascot out of Gex, but the system was already struggling by then and his game was only a 3DO exclusive for eight months before jumping ship to PlayStation). As Sega and Nintendo began to promote the Saturn and “Ultra 64,” respectively, big things were promised for their mascots’ presence on those systems. There was no reason not to assume that the battle between the two consoles was going to be “Mario vs Sonic: Round 2.” Sony was to enter the console race for the first time with its PlayStation, but most of the initial focus was on Sega and Nintendo, especially since Sony didn’t seem to have a “mascot” of any kind. Mario vs Sonic vs…Ridge Racer? It just didn’t have a nice ring to it.
PlayStation and Saturn begin to spar while Nintendo 64 keeps training
Fast forward to the summer of 1996. The Saturn and PlayStation were gearing up for their second fall/winter season, which is always a pivotal time for a new console: The stresses and iffiness of the launch are a distant memory and developers have had plenty of time to get used to the console’s hardware. The second holiday season is typically when the big guns come out and the first wave of truly great software hits a platform. The Nintendo 64, on the other hand, had only just hit in Japan and was getting ready to launch in North America that September. So Nintendo was going to have to come extra strong with its launch lineup to compete with Saturn and PlayStation’s second wave. But that lineup was going to include the 3D debut of a little character named Mario, so Nintendo wasn’t too worried.
Despite Sonic’s position as Sega’s mascot and being the only character to even be considered a worthy challenger to Mario’s throne, the pudgy blue hedgehog had yet to make any appearance on the Sega Saturn. What was to be his breakthrough 3D game, Sonic X-treme, hadn’t even begun development in earnest in its intended Saturn form until the fall of 1995. The project originally began life as the fourth Sonic game for Genesis, and then spent some time as a planned 32X game before a third and final reboot as a Saturn title. Unfortunately, Sonic X-treme would never recover from that development hell and went on to be one of gaming history’s most notorious unreleased titles, but in 1996 we didn’t know that yet. All we knew was Sega insisting that the game had merely been delayed beyond its Christmas ’96 release target. As Sonic fans waited impatiently for him to make his debut on the Saturn, Sega had another colorful hero lined up to hopefully win over the hearts of its disgruntled followers. As a matter of fact, NiGHTs…Intro Dreams was developed by Sonic Team and headed up by the two main creative forces responsible for creating Sonic: Naoto Oshima and Yuji Naka. It wasn’t Sonic, and it wasn’t even a traditional platform game really, but at that point in the Saturn’s life–and with what was coming from its two competitors–NiGHTs had no choice but to be positioned as the de facto “mascot game” for the Saturn that fall.
As for the PlayStation, it had no intention of letting Nintendo and Sega have a two-man battle for mascot supremacy. By the summer of 96, PS1 had a lot of character-driven first-party games, but none that spawned a “mascot” for the young platform. Most of the iconic Sony-owned characters that had mascot qualities were still a ways off–Parappa, Ape Escape‘s Spike, and even further out, Sackboy. Sony seemed to actively reject having a cute, cuddly character to serve as the face of the PlayStation brand, setting itself apart by focusing on the games themselves–and the full ensembles within said games–than singular, marketable characters. Still, gamers had grown accustomed to having a character to match with a console brand, and because of this, the world was eager to dub Crash Bandicoot as the PlayStation’s mascot. Sony specifically denied that the marsupial was its mascot, and in fact, while the company published Crash‘s first five games, it never owned the character or the IP. A character who is only “under contract” probably isn’t the best choice to be an official mascot.
Mario joins a very unlikely battle
When the Nintendo 64 launched in North America in 1996 alongside Super Mario 64, the stage was set for gaming’s next great mascot showdown–even though Sega’s contestant wasn’t their actual mascot and Sony’s contestant wasn’t even their character at all. Of course, it wasn’t the actual companies that were pitting these three characters and their games against each other in a three-way battle–that was largely the doing of the media at the time, eager to have big, recognizable characters squaring off on their covers and in multi-page features to represent the machine each character called home. At first glance, Mario 64 and Crash seemed to the more direct match-up, both being traditional platformers in a 3D space. However, Crash and NiGHTs had in common that they were both games that gave the impression of moving through a 3D world but were typically confined to predetermined paths through those worlds rather than featuring full, unfettered exploration of the 3D space. And finally, NiGHTs and Mario 64 had reasons for comparison beyond selling magazines, as they were both Sega’s and Nintendo’s first real foray into 3D action/platform games, and at least saw the longtime developers of Mario and Sonic going head-to-head as they had been for the previous half-decade. So there was merit to having the titles square off, even though the battle may have seemed merely superficial.
The digital dust settles
Just as the battle had complicated reasons for existing, the outcome is equally complex to parse out. NiGHTs was a bit misunderstood at the time, and in the absence of a Sonic game it was judged under a much harsher light than it deserved. Still, most Sega fans have fond memories of the game, and it is often considered that rare game that was actually better-received in retrospect than at the time. That said, going into 1997, whatever market share the Saturn had earned in the U.S. was quickly diminishing next to the ever-increasing dominance of the PlayStation and the blockbuster launch of the N64. It held on in other parts of the world a bit longer than in the States, but ultimately, the system is generally considered to be a commercial failure on a global scale, selling less than 10 million units worldwide in its entire lifespan. By contrast, the Wii U, which is often also called a commercial failure, has sold nearly 13 million so far in its four years in existence. That isn’t to say that NiGHTs is to blame for Saturn’s failure, nor should it be forced to carry all of the weight from the Sonic game that never materialized, but in an era when a single game could still effectively sell millions of consoles, it wasn’t the game that game for the Saturn.
Crash Bandicoot was a huge critical and commercial hit, spawning two more platformers, a kart racing game, and a multiplayer party game for the PS1. The console would go on to have other successful platform series and stars, most notably Spyro the Dragon, but Crash remained the most popular and best-selling platform franchise on the system. Unfortunately, Sony’s reluctance to call Crash the PlayStation’s mascot turned out to be a smart call, as the franchise went multiplatform when it made the jump to the next round of consoles. As far as Crash’s impact on the PS1’s legacy, it is certainly a franchise that a lot of PS1 players include in their nostalgia for the system, but it shares that space with a lot of other equally-beloved games and franchises. It might not be fair to say that the PS1 would’ve been just as successful without it, as the PS1 Crash games sold over 20 million copies combined. But since there are multiple franchises for the PS1 that have similar–if not better–numbers, it’s not a big leap to say Crash wasn’t quite the “Mario” or “Sonic” of the PS1 in terms of its legacy.
Which brings us to Super Mario 64, the only game that truly held up its end of the bargain of bringing the tradition of a mascot-led platform game being a console’s most powerful weapon. It should be noted that the N64 only launched with one other game in North America–Pilotwings 64–but that wasn’t the only reason that millions of gamers bought an N64 specifically to play Mario 64. It seems superfluous to spend an entire paragraph extolling the virtues of Mario 64, as everyone knows the impact it had for not only Nintendo but gaming as a whole. Want to know what 3D action games would’ve probably been like without having Mario 64 as a guide for how to do them properly? Play Bubsy 3D.
Video gaming after the “mascot era”
That was the last time that a single character–or even a single game–was being touted as the reason to buy a console. The PlayStation 2 continued Sony’s tradition of not needing or wanting a single mascot to sell itself on, and the system is currently the best-selling console of all-time at 155 million units shipped worldwide. When Sega launched the Dreamcast, it definitely used Sonic Adventure as one of its selling points, but it certainly wasn’t touting the system as merely the place to get the newest Sonic game. Microsoft joined the console race with the Xbox, following Sony’s lead of not having a bright, colorful mascot at the fore. And when Nintendo launched the Gamecube, they didn’t even bother having a Mario game or a traditional platformer available to go with it. In fact, the Super Mario series followed Mario 64 with the longest hiatus the series has ever taken. And when the Wii launched, its signature game was Wii Sports, not a Mario game or a character-driven game at all.
It’s debatable whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that consoles now have their own identity beyond a single, bankable character. Some might argue that the eventual side effect of losing mascot-driven console brands is that consoles as a whole have lost the personality that they once had. Either way, one thing is for certain: “Xbox One vs PlayStation 4 vs Wii U” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Mario vs Sonic,” or even “Mario vs NiGHTs vs Crash.”