Hey, Mario and Sonic make millions!
In the world of video game mascots, very few actually survive to become recognized over time, and even fewer become “Video Game Royalty”. Some that have stood the test of the ages include Donkey Kong, Mega Man, Bomberman, Pac Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and probably the single most iconic video game character of all time, Mario. We’re here today to talk specifically about a batch of characters who arose in the early-to-mid-1990s, right in the thick of the “Hey, Mario and Sonic make millions of dollars, let’s get in on that shit while we can!” craze.
Every major developer (and many minor ones), wanted a piece of that mascot gaming pie, and many of them took a crack at creating their very own “franchise ready” mascot, typically embodied in the form of the “Mascot Based Platformer”. And much like the NFL Draft, a great majority of these attempts at successful franchises either failed outright or had initial success but fizzled out later.
Now before we embark in earnest, I want to establish a few ground rules, so as to forgo any “Hey how come you didn’t mention THIS character/game?” later on. The name of today’s game is to go over some of the now more obscure platformer mascot characters, specifically of the home console variety. There were indeed a great many of these similar characters/games on home computers, but to save time, I’m just not even going to go there.
Another stipulation is that I’m not going to bother with “2nd String” gaming mascots who may be lesser known now, but did at one point have a string of successful hits. Some of these would include the likes of Wonder Boy, Adventure Island, Bonk (who at one point was THE mascot for the Turbo Grafx 16 console), Dizzy (the Egg hero, super popular in Europe), Rayman, etc. Finally, I’m also only keeping it to characters/games that started in 2D, primarily on the 16-bit consoles, which was the era where this mascot game craze really existed in force. That means that characters who would come only a bit later, like Bug, Clockwork Knight, and Croc, just to name a few, also won’t be mentioned, because they were part of the burgeoning 3D era.
So, without further ado, away we go:
MAN, that’s one bad ass looking……..huh?
Developer: Gremlin Graphics
Number of Games: 2
Created by noted British PC developer and publisher Gremlin Graphics (later Gremlin Interactive), who were mostly known for the Monty Mole series on home computers, as well as the Top Gear racing games on Super Nintendo, Zool was one of many attempts to cash in on the success of the Mario and Sonic franchises.
Zool stars the titular hero, an odd ant-looking “gremlin” alien ninja guy, or as the subtitle of the game states, “Ninja from the Nth Dimension”. He has apparently been forced to land on Earth, and to prove his “Ninjahood”, has to traverse through a bunch of crazy (very NON-Earth seeming) levels, to prove himself.
Originally made as an Amiga computer game, even launching as a pack-in with the Amiga 1200, Gremlin obviously must have thought they were really on to something huge, because the game went on to be ported to practically everything under the sun. No joke, it was ported to: Acorn Archimedes computer, Atari ST computer, Amiga CD32, PC DOS, Game Boy, Game Gear, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.
Take THAT, Vile Jello Mold Monster!!!
In other words, this bad boy was whored out. Problem was, I’m not sure how huge of a success it really was, as most people I knew back in the early ’90s didn’t even really know about this game. It may well have been a bigger hit in its native Europe, but it certainly didn’t crack much ground here in North America. The game was enough of a success to create one sequel, 1993’s “Zool 2”, which introduced a female second character, however the second game was only released for Amiga, DOS and Atari Jaguar (of all systems). The series received no further sequels, and likely won’t, as Gremlin got bought by Infogrames and disappeared into the ether.
Animal with Attitude, Here to Smash Pollution!!
Name: Awesome Possum
Number of Games: 1
While practically every side-scrolling action/platformer game owed/owes its existence to the foundations set by Super Mario Bros. in 1985, there was a particular mascot-based gaming craze that came about in the early ’90s. After the runaway success of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog (itself Sega’s second attempt to cash in on the Mario formula, more on that later), it seemed that every developer and their second cousin on their mother’s side wanted a piece of the action. And that action’s name was “Anthropomorphic Animal with Attitude”, because obviously, that’s what the kiddies loved, right?
Well, one of the more obscure and less successful attempts, but also arguably the single most blatant attempt to directly rip off Sonic, was a game by Tengen called “Awesome Possum”. Now Tengen was an Atari-spawned company mostly known for their home ports of arcade games (and legal scuffles with Nintendo over licensing issues.), on the other hand not so well known for creating original franchises. But create they did, and the end product was a game in which you play a sassy “Animal with Attitude”, ala Sonic, and you fought an evil mad scientist called Dr. Machino and his robot minions, ala Dr. Robotnic (the American name for Dr. Eggman).
HOLY SHIT, HOW’D JASON GET IN THE GAME?
The “original gimmick”, to differentiate it from Sonic, as you can see by the icon in the upper right of the screen above, is that this game was about Recycling and saving the planet. NOT just running and smashing robots like Sonic does. Of course, Awesome also had his own arsenal of muffled 16-bit-voice-synth snappy one liners he would spit out at a near constant rate, which also gave him a “one up” over the blue “Needlemouse”. Or so Tengen probably thought.
In all honesty, it’s not a horrible game, but it wasn’t a terribly great one either, and even though kids my age in ’93 knew about it and played it, it ultimately wasn’t a huge success, and never saw any sequels. Not so surprisingly, Tengen itself wound up going defunct in 1994.
Name: Bubsy the Bobcat
Number of Games: 4
Speaking of “Animal with Attitude” Sonic ripoffs, another, more infamous offender was Bubsy. Created by Accolade, a prolific developer believe it or not, outside of their long-running Test Drive series, otherwise most known for the Bubsy franchise.
The game’s designer, Michael Berlyn, literally drew inspiration directly from Sonic the Hedgehog, claiming to play the game for 14-hour days for an entire week, trying to find inspiration to make a similar game of his own. The end result became “Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind” (GET IT?), which released concurrently for both SNES and Genesis.
And that’s…..pretty much it.
The basis of the game is that the world is being invaded by an alien race called “Woolies”, who are intent on stealing the world’s entire supply of…..wait for it…yarn balls. Yes. Yarn balls. And Bubsy, being a cat, is naturally disinclined to let that happen, as we all know cats go batshit for yarn balls. Never mind that Bubsy is, as indicated by his very name, a Bobcat, a wild cat, who is not known for playing with anything outside of, I dunno, dead prey? HOUSE cats, on the other hand? Sure, yarn balls “ftw”. But let it never be said that practical common sense or logic entered the equation when it came to the Bubsy series.
In fact, the very basis of the gameplay defies explanation, as your hero’s main method of attack is….jumping and floating around. Because bobcats are well known for flying. It wouldn’t make sense to have Bubsy use his claws to attack enemies, oh no. So floating it is.
Logic or not, the first game somehow managed to be popular enough to spawn not one, but three sequels: Bubsy 2, Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales (an Atari Jaguar exclusive), and the semi-infamous (for being terrible) Bubsy 3D: Furrbitten Planet.
As you might have noticed, from the titles of these games, the game developers obviously thought they were rather clever. Unfortunately, their cleverness seemed limited to Bubsy’s in-game “sassy” one-liners and pun-based game titles, because the gameplay in this series was rather “meh”. Ever wonder what happened to Bubsy? Don’t. He’s actually happier now, as he left the series in embarrassment after Bubsy 3D. I hear he became a car salesman.
2017 Note: As it turns out, Bubsy decided the sales life wasn’t for him, as he expectantly got a shot at resurrection! Developed by Black Forest Games, a German development team previously responsible for resurrecting the obscure Giana Sisters, and published by UFO Entertainment, Halloween Day 2017 actually saw the release of a brand NEW Bubsy game, entitled “Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back”. Perhaps learning a lesson from Bubsy 3D, this game is a side-scroller once more, though it features 3D graphics, and it seems to be a throwback to the original (and most successful) Bubsy game, as he is once again fighting those nasty yarn-stealing aliens, the Woolies. Who knew that there was redemption for a forgotten mascot? You can try the new Bubsy for yourself, out now on PC and Playstation 4!
Crappy box-art, decent game.
Name: Aero the Acro-Bat
Developer: Iguana Entertainment
Number of Games: 2 (Technically 3)
Developed by none other than Iguana Entertainment, who would go on to fame as the creators of the original (see: good) Turok the Dinosaur Hunter games on Nintendo 64, and later still whose key figures would go on to form Retro Studios, now known for Nintendo’s own Metroid Prime series. Aero the Acro-Bat was once again an “Animal with Attitude” type of affair, but unlike Awesome and Bubsy, this series actually wasn’t half bad. Turns out, being good developers seems to have a direct correlation with making good games. I’ll get back to you on that, as scientific study is ongoing.
So story, in a nutshell, involves Aero, a red bat who lives and performs with a traveling circus. This circus is under attack by an evil clown named Edgar Ektor, who used to work for the circus, probably injured himself on the job, didn’t get workman’s comp, and now wants to put them out of business as revenge. We’ve all been there, right?
Assisting Ektor in his egomaniacal schemes, is Zero, a squirrel (with an attitude no less), who happens to be a ninja or something, and is also intended to be Aero’s arch-rival. In this game, much like Bubsy, your main method of attacking (And getting around), is jumping and floating. However, unlike Bubsy, this makes sense because Aero is a Bat, who…you know…have wings. Also, the game mechanics just work a hell of a lot better, where the floating feels far less “floaty”.
Squirrel + Headband + Throwing Stars = Sold.
The game was successful enough to spawn not one, but two sequels: Aero the Acro-Bat 2, and as seen above, a spin-off game starring his nemesis Zero, aptly titled “Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel”. This game seems to actually be a sort-of concurrent companion (story-wise) to Aero 2, as the game’s plot seems to happen somewhat alongside that game.
Zero’s home island is being attacked by an evil lumber-jack named Le Sheets (yes I’m serious), and he leaves the evil Ektor’s service to go back and save the island and his girlfriend. He does this by throwing an enormous amount of ninja throwing stars that you collect throughout the game (they’re just hanging in the air all over the place, that’s some island). Bottom line, all three games are pretty solid, and while they may not be well-remembered now, they stand the test of time pretty well.
He’s so cool, he wears shades at night.
Name: Gex the Gecko
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Number of Games: 3
Originally created by developer Crystal Dynamics, known for the Legacy of Kain series, Gex was intended to be the “mascot game” for the launch of the Panasonic 3DO console. The problem there, was that the 3DO was the first dedicated CD-based home console, and while it was a decent system, it was grossly overpriced and thus didn’t sell well. But Gex got lucky, and found second life, being ported over to the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, and even Microsoft Windows on PC. In these ports, he found popularity, and became a success.
|Yes, that is a Gecko-Frankenstein’s Monster.|
Now the thing about Gex is, even on its native 3DO, it was and is actually a really awesome game.
The premise of the series is that you are Gex, a Hawaiian Gecko lizard, who lives with his family while his father works for NASA (no, I’m not making this up). His father died in a shuttle accident, which causes Gex to shut down, and become a TV addict. His mother moves then to California and takes his TV away in an attempt to snap him out of it, but instead he runs away and lives on the streets, until he somehow magically inherits (from who knows where) a huge sum of cash, which he promptly uses to move back to Hawaii, buy a huge mansion, and the world’s largest TV to veg out in front of.
While watching TV, he swallows some sort of techno-fly without thinking, and is then grabbed by a giant hand and pulled straight into the tube. And so there you go. He has to fight Rez, the evil Media overlord who brought him into TVland, to try and get home. The game’s worlds are based on TV and movies, at least in general, though there are some specific send-ups, such as a boss of the Japan-type level, which is pretty much exactly the monster Gamera from that series of movies.
As Gex, you run, jump, and climb surfaces (a la Spider-Man), stomping bad guys and collecting enough remote controls to move on to the next area. All in all, a pretty fun game, and it was successful enough to spawn two sequels: Gex: Enter the Gecko and Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko. Both of these games, however, featured 3D graphics and gameplay, unlike the first, which had 2D pre-rendered sprites (similar to Donkey Kong Country). The series hasn’t seen an entry since 1999, but is still by and large fondly remembered by gamers.
Worm in a spacesuit with a laser-blaster. What more is there to say?
Name: Earthworm Jim
Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Number of Games: 4
Created by artist Doug TenNapel and designed by David Perry (of Virgin Games fame and founder of Shiny), Earthworm Jim was a different sort of mascot. He wasn’t quite the “Animal with Attitude” that so many others were. Instead, he was was a rather goofy mutant earthworm, who gets around by controlling a humanoid space-suit.
Another big difference with this character, is that while I’m sure the other developers who tried to cash in with mascot games hoped for the same, Jim actually spawned a line of toys and an animated series. Although to be fair, Bubsy did have an animated pilot episode….it just never got picked up.
Catapulting cows is a key point in the gameplay.
The setting is rather bizarre, as fits the character himself.
Jim is an average, everyday earthworm, until a special spacesuit randomly falls out of the sky. Crawling inside, he is able to use the suit to talk around and act like a human, which I would imagine vastly expands an earthworm’s typical daily activities. Well, some aliens, whom the suit belongs to, come looking for it to get it back. So Jim has to use his suit, his natural worminess, and a cool laser-gun, to escape baddies and defend the aptly titled “Princess Whats-her-name”. And that, in a nutshell, along with an assload of cow catapulting, is Earthworm Jim.
Fondly regarded, and initially successful, the game was ported to everything under the sun, originally Super NES and Genesis, but also Sega Master System, Game Gear, Sega CD, Game Boy, and even DOS. It also spawned 3 sequels: Earthworm Jim 2, Earthwork Jim 3D (which only released on N64 and PC), and the Game Boy Color exclusive Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy. The last two were not as well received, as with the last entry being released in 1999, the series has not seen a sequel since.
In 2010 we did receive an HD remake, downloadable on various platforms, and allegedly, an Earthworm Jim 4 is in development. But otherwise, Jim’s day in the sun has long since passed. On one final note, however, he did receive a cameo appearance as a playable fighter in Interplay’s “Clayfighter 63 1/3” on N64.
Name: Alex Kidd
Number of Games: 5 (+1 Japan-only spinoff)
As many people might not be aware, Sonic the Hedgehog was not Sega’s first crack at trying to duplicate the platforming success of Super Mario Bros. That distinction goes to a character that is by now probably rather obscure, except to hardcore Sega fans, and long-time video game enthusiasts. His name was Alex Kidd (because two d’s makes it cooler). And just by looking at that artwork above, you can tell that if nothing else, Mr. Kidd was certainly “80s cool”.
Alex himself, was a big-eared kid with martial arts skills, who seemed to be inspired by both Bruce Lee and Chinese mythological figure Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Now the reason I’m listing this series, despite it at one point being a long-running and successful series, is that unlike its Sega counterpart Wonder Boy, for example, Alex Kidd holds the distinction of being a rare case where a company mascot is totally replaced and then forgotten, in favor of another. In this case, the “90s cool” Sonic.
Punching things in the face is a full-time job.
The first game to feature him, was 1986’s “Alex Kidd in Miracle World”. As that original game’s booklet describes, Alex is a 14 year old boy from the planet Aries, aka “Miracle World”, who happens to be an orphan, who lives alone on Mount Eternal, mastering the art of “Shellcore”, which makes ones fists so powerful that they can break rocks with a punch.
Well, after sufficiently mastering the art of increasing the size and power of one’s fists through sheer force of will, Kidd wanders down the mountain, discovering from a dying old man that the land of Radaxian has been overrun by an evil alien named Janken the Great, who has defeated King Thunder, and kidnapped Prince Egle and his fiance Princess Lora. As it would later turn out (SPOILERS), Prince Egle is actually Alex’s long-lost brother, meaning that King Thunder is in fact his father. After whupping some ass with Gigantor-fists, Alex saves the day, Egle becomes king, and Alex sets out on a quest to find his missing father.
In 16-bits, Alex decides to add kicks to his repertoire.
The first game was popular enough to spawn several sequels. The first game being a Sega Master System exclusive, the next game, “Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars”, appeared in both arcades and Master System. The series would return to Master System exclusivity with further entries, such as the Japan-only “Alex Kidd BMX Trial”, which is essentially a rip-off of Nintendo’s “Excitebike”, as well as “Alex Kidd in High-Tech World”, which not unlike Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros. 2”, began life in Japan as a game based on an anime series, in this case “Anmitsu Hime”, and was refitted for the West into an Alex Kidd game.
Then the Sega Genesis came out in 1989, and as one of the first titles for the series, their mascot took center stage (next to Michael Jackson), in “Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle”, where-in he finally gets around to following up on that whole “find my missing dad” thing. He hears that King Thunder (now for some reason called King Thor), is residing on Planet Paperock, so named because its denizens are masters of the game “Paper, Rock, Scissors”. He goes looking for him and adventure, as usual, ensues.
Not content to smash rocks with fists, Kidd took up Ninja-ing.
Though a moderate success, Alex had never rivaled Mario in any meaningful way, except perhaps in Europe where the Master System was apparently rather popular, and Sega finally decided they needed a newer, “cooler” mascot. With that, they set about creating “Project Needlemouse”, which would later become Sonic the Hedgehog, and the rest is history.
Alex would get one last send-off game, being relegated back to the Master System, in 1990’s “Alex Kidd in Shinobi World”. In many respects, this was the best game since the original, and many regard it as the best in the series. The game is, not surprisingly, largely inspired by the namesake “Shinobi” series, also made by Sega, and as such, Kidd gains many ninja-like abilities, including a cool katana sword, and throwing weapons. He could also wall-jump, and even gained the ability to turn into a flying fireball after swinging from hanging bars.
The game was somewhat of a parody of Shinobi (mostly the Master System version), and as such has many enemies and bosses that are caricatures of their normal, more intimidating selves. A moderate success itself, it still wasn’t enough to convince Sega to keep him around, and they pretty much abandoned the poor guy, with Sonic debuting in 1991 to huge acclaim, more or less being single-handedly responsible for Sega finally competing head-to-head with Nintendo in the American marketplace.
Alex Kidd would receive a couple of very minor cameos in later Sega games like Altered Beast, but he would remain on hiatus for a couple of decades, until Sega finally brought him back as a playable character in games like Sega All-Star Tennis and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Who knows if he’ll ever get another new game, but while he is certainly the saddest case of “forgotten mascots”, he does still have a cult following, and his games have lived on through download services like the Nintendo Wii’s “Virtual Console”.
That about wraps it up.
And that about wraps it up folks. There were others that I didn’t get into, such as Rocket Knight Adventures, Vectorman, etc., but I think I touched on all the major “2nd Stringer” examples. Some of these characters went into obscurity for good reason, because their games simply weren’t that good. Others had great games, but just didn’t remain popular or successful enough to remain relevant or continue getting new games.
But much like the “Island of Misfit Toys” for which this article was named, in the end many of these games have recieved a second life and new younger audiences, through the advent of things like Youtube playthrough videos, Virtual Console and other download services, and even things like ahem…emulation. 😉
And that’s what is important when it comes to anything “Retro” worth mentioning, is that it is remembered, and that memory is carried on to new generations, keeping it, in essence, Alive. Thanks for reading, till next time!
This brilliant look at retro game mascots comes from guest blogger Jesse Moak and was originally published on his site, Retro Revelations. Jesse has been scribbling through the retro blogosphere for several years and has a love for the classic, the strange, and smelly socks. Actually, I’m just guessing at that last one. Anyway, enjoy!