Retro Round-Up is a regular feature posted
weekly monthly whenever I feel like it that takes a look at retro games and the culture that’s sprung up around them. In this article, I’ll take a look at the sad legacy of forgotten and unloved mascot platformers.
There was a time when every video game company had a mascot character that served as their flagship franchise: Nintendo has Mario, obviously, Sega has Sonic, Capcom had Mega Man, Ubisoft has Rayman, Enix stamped Dragon Quest’s iconic Slime all over their merchandise, NEC had Bonk, etc. Since Mario and Sonic both played such an integral role in the successes of their respective companies, video game companies in the 80′s and early 90′s believed that they needed some kind of platformer starring an iconic character in order to succeed.
Obviously, that’s not the case anymore: the biggest selling games nowadays all star interchangable army dudes rather than quirky cartoons, and plenty of hardware manufacturers and publishers have succeeded without any sort of key character or platformer to anchor their line-up. While some characters like Mario and Sonic have managed to remain popular and relevant despite the changes that have swept the games industry over the last two decades, a lot of the old mascots have been swept aside in favor of newer, flashier franchises with more grit and “realism.”
I grew up playing these kinds of games, and platformers are still my favorite genre to this day. So with that in mind, I thought I’d take a moment to highlight a few mascot characters and their games who have been neglected and deemed “unprofitable” by their various publishers and who have more or less been forgotten by mainstream gamers.
Mega Man turns 25 this year, though you’d never be able to tell by the way Capcom’s been neglecting the poor boy robot for the last few years.
Mega Man has been entertaining gamers since the 8-bit era, and he’s appeared on virtually every console released since the NES. Unlike a lot of franchises from the period, Mega Man has managed to remain relevant thanks to the constant evolution of the character: Mega Man games got faster and slightly more mature during the 16-bit era with Mega Man X, and the Blue Bomber managed to reinvent himself as an action-RPG with the mega successful Battle Network series for GBA. Still, despite all the changes that Mega Man went through, he proved that polished gameplay and old school challenge never go out of style with retro throwback releases like Mega Man 9 and 10. He’s certainly had his ups and downs over the years, but Mega Man proved that he could always bounce back, and a lot of fans simply assumed that he’d be a permanent fixture of the gaming industry.
Unfortunately, it seems like office politics and egos have forced Mega Man into an unwelcome hiatus: following the very public and less than amicable departure of Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune from the company, Capcom unceremoniously cancelled all future Mega Man projects, including a few that were being made specifically to coincide with the franchise’s big twenty-fifth anniversary. Capcom says they may decide to bring back Mega Man at some point in the future, but right now, the outlook is grim. Until then, fans still have plenty of old Mega Man games to play (in sharp contrast to their current hesitation to make a new Mega Man, Capcom used to churn out MM games on a yearly basis,) but there’s no denying that gaming’s favorite robot definitely deserves more respect than he’s currently getting.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen: Crash Bandicoot was once considered Sony’s mascot, and any kid that grew up in the 90′s definitely remembers the infamous ads where Crash stood outside Nintendo’s and Sega’s respective headquarters and hurled insults at Mario and Sonic. Obviously, Mario is still around and is as popular as ever, and even Sonic has managed to recover from a few rough years, but Crash has more or less fallen off the map completely.
Following the end of the PS1 era, Crash developer Naughty Dog (now best known for the Uncharted series,) decided to leave the franchise behind in order to work on the Jak and Daxter series. Crash was then handed off to a number of different developers, with mixed results: while some of the post PS1 Crash games are decent enough, they generally failed to match the polish and quality that the Naughty Dog developed originals had.
The rights to the franchise now belong to Activision, the American mega-publisher behind Call of Duty and Guitar Hero. Activision recently resurrected Spyro the Dragon with the super-popular Skylanders series, but it sounds like they aren’t going to attempt a similar comeback for Crash any time soon.
Blinx the Timesweeper
When the original Xbox launched, Microsoft was convinced that they needed a cute mascot character to sell the system to kids. After all, the original NES sold initially thanks to Super Mario Bros., and the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive arguably would’ve never been a success without Sonic the Hedgehog. So Microsoft asked Japanese developer Artoon, a company founded by Sonic co-creator Naoto Ohshima, to create a mascot for their new behemoth of a system.
Artoon ended up creating Blinx, a cat with the ability to manipulate time. Microsoft touted the game’s ability to rewind, record and fast forward through live gameplay as a feature that was “only possible on Xbox,” thanks to the system’s built in hard drive (even though this gimmick would later be used [and to better effect] on the multi-platform Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,) and for good reason: while most of the game is simply a bog-standard platformer, the time manipulation mechanics helped spice up and otherwise mediocre experience with some genuinely clever puzzles.
But in the end, one fun gimmick couldn’t save Blinx. Microsoft created him because they thought they needed a mascot on par with Mario and Sonic, and in the end, they didn’t — the Xbox ultimately succeeded because of Halo and a handful of other quality “mature” releases, and not because of Artoon’s cartoon cat with attitude. Blinx was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time: Microsoft realized that they’d do fine without a cute cartoon mascot (though it could be argued that Master Chief is the Xbox’s mascot… though he is neither cartoony nor cute.) Blinx did get one, much improved sequel for the original Xbox, but he’s been MIA for the entirety of this generation, and I doesn’t seem like Microsoft is in much of a hurry to bring this cat out of retirement.
Following the release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, pretty much every third party game developer in existence released their own “animal with attitude” platformer in an attempt to cash in on Sonic’s meteoric rise in popularity. Unfortunately, most of these games — like the originally titled Awesome Possum and Punky Skunk — were half-assed shovelware, but there was one good franchise to emerge from the flood of Sonic clones: Konami’s Rocket Knight series.
Produced by the same team that created the Contra games, Rocket Knight was just as fast, challenging, and frantic as Konami’s more famous run-and-gun, albeit wrapped up in a more cartoony, whimsical shell. Like Contra, Rocket Knight is constantly tossing you new challenges, from auto scrolling shoot-em-up sections to giant mecha battles. While the game does have some tricky platforming sections, Rocket Knight’s focus is definitely on action and big set-pieces, and that helped the game stand out from the millions of Sonic clones that were flooding the market at the time. Rocket Knight was enough of a success that Konami produced another sequel for the Mega Drive and a sort of pseudo-sequel/spin-off for the SNES, entitled Sparkster.
Konami mostly forgot about Rocket Knight’s existence during the next two generations, and gamers wouldn’t see Sparkster’s return until a new Rocket Knight adventure. simply titled “Rocket Knight,” showed up on the PS3 and Xbox 360 as a downloadable title.
As most of the original game’s staff had moved on to other companies in the fifteen years between the latest Rocket Knight and the last 16-bit title in the series, this new game was developed by British studio Climax Entertainment, who had previously worked with Konami on Silent Hill Shattered Memories and Silent Hill Origins (a.k.a. two of the less popular entries in the series.) Within minutes of booting up the new Rocket Knight, you’ll likely start miss the original developers, as it quickly becomes apparent that the team at Climax didn’t understand what made the old Rocket Knight games great — the new game opts for an ugly, polygonal “2.5″ style instead of the original game’s charming and well animated sprite-based graphics, and the game’s level designs are just bland, missing the finely tuned challenge that characterized the original game. The new Rocket Knight isn’t a terrible game per se, but it’s definitely missing a lot of the polish and charm that made the original titles memorable. I’m not sure how well the new game sold, but Konami seems to have once again put Sparkster into hibernation, as we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Rocket Knight franchise since 2010.
Earthworm Jim was a pretty big deal in the 90′s: while the bizarre character started out as a shallow ploy by toy manufacturer Playmates to cash in on the popularity of video games, development studio Shiny and artist Doug TenNapel ultimately ended up creating a pretty good game with a very memorable cast of characters. You wouldn’t think a game starring an earthworm in a spacesuit would be a mainstream success, but the game was so successful that it managed to prop up Playmates’ action figure business for a few years, and even spawned a popular Saturday morning cartoon.
Earthworm Jim’s most unique aspect was how unpredictable it was: in addition to the bizarre setting and characters, the game wasn’t afraid to experiment with different styles of gameplay. In Earthworm Jim 2, for instance, the game randomly switches genres in almost every level, ranging from everything from a platformer to a game show game to a isometric, scrolling shooter. None of the Earthworm Jim games had the polish or thoughtful design of say, Mario or Sonic, but they more than made up for it with their insane humor and willingness to experiment. It was fun just to see what the game would throw at you next.
Unfortunately, the franchise was more or less killed by publisher Interplay’s inept attempt at bringing Earthworm Jim into the third dimension: developed without the input of the original staff, Earthworm Jim 3D was released for the Nintendo 64 and PC in 1999, and was almost unanimously panned by critics for it’s bland level design and inept camera system. Understandably poor sales of the game put Jim into early retirement, and while Interplay mentioned the possibility of an Earthworm Jim comeback in 2008, there hasn’t been any news or info concerning a possible new entry in the series since.
The games in this article are mostly games that I liked, so I thought I might as well throw in one series that I hate. Bubsy the Bobcat was one of the “me too” characters that popped up in the wake of Sonic the Hedgehog’s success. Unlike say, Awesome Possum or Punky Skunk, Bubsy’s games weren’t exactly terrible, but they weren’t all that great either: everything that Bubsy required you to do were all things that were done before in a dozen (better) platformers. Bubsy’s biggest gimmick were the digitized voice samples that he uttered from time to time (voice overs in video games were still an exciting, new feature back then,) but due to the limitations of the Genesis and SNES sound chips, it was actually pretty hard to understand what Bubsy was saying (on the Genesis especially.) There’s nothing quite wrong with Bubsy, but there’s nothing really great about him or his games either, yet I always seem to meet new people who look back on the original game fondly.
Like Earthworm Jim, Bubsy’s short career came to an end when the series tried to make the jump to 3D. Earthworm Jim 3D was pretty bad, but Bubsy 3D was outright terrible and nigh unplayable: the game is often cited as one of the worst games ever made. Bubsy was never as huge as Mario or Sonic, and his terrible transition to 3D pretty much guaranteed that he’d never become an icon on par with those characters. Bubsy’s publisher, Accolade, went out of business in 1999, so I think it’s safe to assume that this bobcat is extinct.