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What Are Mascots Good For Anymore?
It’s hard to tread the game world without seeing the ever present face of the mascot character. Emblazoning our game cases like Tony the Tiger on cereal boxes, their cartoonish charm or fist-pumping awe speaks volumes to consumer confidence as it does our own addiction. From every Mario to Master Chief laced fan fest, we are seemingly joined to our favorite champions at the hip, emptying out our wallets as much as our hearts. We’ve grown so devoted to our beloved character rosters, it’s hard not to question whether it’s a nostalgia fueled love affair for the better or for the worse of our increasingly stubborn fandom.
The simplest answer is mascots sell and they always have. They were born in a time when such a thing as “video-games” were an oddity that demanded the flashiest, most inviting means of attracting your wide-eyed child’s attention. It wasn’t long before the anthropomorphic hedgehogs in sneakers and chubby Italian plumbers of the gaming world became the hottest thing on the playground and the stuff of household names. The former’s carried over 80 million copies to his speedy name and the latter’s brought over 200 games onto our shelves with roughly 285 million copies to date. Likewise, smaller mascots have been able to shell out lesser yet similar success, Nintendo’s favorite elf boy in green tights netting a cool 52 million games sold under his Hylian belt while the UNSC’s Master Chief has over 50 million in his arsenal and Sony’s Uncharted series has been able to land a comfortable 17 million. Mascot characters aren’t just appealing, they’re financial safety nets for the ever uncertain times of game development.
Enter 2014 and mascots remain undeniable icons, even if not with the same reverence they once possessed. You’ll still be likely to see Sonic’s face zip by your gaze on a store shelf and you’d be hard-pressed not to still see Mario’s mug dominating the rated E section. Truth be told, they’ve seen more than their fair share of competition and the last console generation alone told us just how much mascots have to gain as much as they have to lose. While Mario was able to trudge on with the happier days of the original Wii, saving a galaxy (twice) and playing nearly every sport known to man, Sonic saw darker days in lieu of finding his Secret Rings and that thing ending with “The Black Knight.”
Though Halo was able to churn out a stable amount of success with Halos 3, 4, and Reach combined, Sony’s juggled their lovable cast of characters with a greater amount of uncertainty. It’s Crash and Spyro days were never able to throw sizable punch to the company’s first party support with somewhere under 6 million a piece. While its triumvirate of Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper secured a loyal family following, the first went tragically comatose while the latter two have gone only gone frustratingly under the radar compared to their past heyday. It’s further hard to deny the Wii U’s stilted success after two hard years, even with New Super Mario Bros. U carrying it more than any other game. Mascots are still on our game shelves, but they’re not alone.
Add to mix the rise of the mega franchises. Cash cows were no longer dedicated to a single figure, or even a cast of them per say, but worlds and adrenaline pumping competition. It’s no less staggering to see Call of Duty light up the charts annually at a freakishly enormous 139 million to date and Grand Theft Auto not far behind at a whopping 114 million to it’s lucrative name. With other like-minded series like Battlefield and Assassin’s Creed, it’s apparent that brand name carries them far more than any one character, though Ubisoft’s open-world history thrillers came the closest with the flamboyant Ezio de Auditore to a degree. It seems that we have just as many mascot series as we do characters, maybe more so than ever, but is it at an equal cost to creativity?
Either cases bring to light their similar strengths and qualms. Familiarity breeds comfort as much as it does contempt. Fans’ pocket books may say one thing to a company, and their righteous indignation another. Our undying loyalty is worth it to enough of us to shell out the money we need to the treasured memories we fight to maintain, but that very obsession leaves us all the while somewhat empty inside. The result is an industry over-saturated with the so-called stereotyped faces like Mario, Kratos, or a Kojima invented Snake. “Nintendo’s nothing but Mario clones,” and Microsoft can’t get passed its “armored, gun-toting bad-asses.”
Gamers hunger for icons as much as they still seem to care about innovation, urgently clinging to the idea of tired licenses dying an inglorious death. Perhaps its the fault of too many gamers unwilling to buy much else. Sonic deserves a real game you might say, and Final Fantasy deserves to change. Serious fans crave it the most when they bemoan every Call of Duty, and maybe rightly so. All the while, a hypocrisy seems to follow every “Changes I want to see from said company” Santa Claus style list with “HD remakes I want to see from said company.” Diversity is the spice of life as they say, but it’s hard to eat only spice in your life without a standard main course. That doesn’t mean we forfeit quality for quantity. We can argue for both.
Thought not all to that extreme, maybe we most often mistake revolution from evolution. Even with the tired flavors of mascot characters lingering in our mouths, most of us wouldn’t ever wish to see them thrown out for long, but constantly have them on our minds more than the too few of us gossip over the latest indie craze. Some of them deserve spice, a clever garnish, a new side-order to bring us back to a property beloved that feels fresh without becoming offensive.
That’s also not to say that mascots haven’t benefited innovation in themselves. Nintendo never does anything new they say, but all the while it gets little recognition for quietly championing such eccentric titles as Mad World and Bayonetta 2 that stray far from their kiddy paths. Mascots’ profits inherently fund smaller, riskier offerings as a part of symbiosis. For every Child of Light, there must be an Assassin’s Creed to help develop it, and for every Pikmin there has to be a Mario Kart there ready and waiting for pre-order. It’s not wrong to simply say skip the mascots you’re over with. It’s better for players’ time and hard-earned money to not linger behind an icon they’ve lost faith in. It is, however, nonsensical to demand all of their deaths when they’d quite easily take their more curious cousins with them.
Amidst the noise, gaming mascots aren’t immune to change. They’ve grown with their audiences and times to offer more than just furry critters in sporting good fashion. Naughty Dog’s own history embodies a timeline of mascots in themselves lending itself to a sharp curve from the narrower, child-oriented market to the floodgates of the gritty, blood-ridden adult genre that’s always been so much more finicky and prone to be a harder sell. From Sackboy to Dante, mascots have created more options than ever for any member of the family. Better yet, they help form relationships between producers and consumers, giving an identity to otherwise faceless entities all equally made of money. There’s a mascot for everyone, and that’s what companies have made sure of.
And mascots are nowhere near retirement, either. New Donkey Kongs and Zeldas are forever around the corner and the latest among them like that of Link Between Worlds show that reinvention coupled with the retro isn’t impossible within old frameworks. What’s most remarkable is the fact that, no matter how poor the company or cynical the audience, some mascots crumble while others endure. It hardly matters how many years SEGA’s left the console biz it seems. Sonic is forever chugging along and those damn, dirty apes keep swinging across the 2D plane. Maybe it’s fate that every mascot franchise and character poster will always be met with predictable buzz and ridicule. No matter the love or hate, it’s safe to say gaming wouldn’t be the same without them.