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 Graphx 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 adieu, 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 it's 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
Now while practically every side-scrolling action/platformer game owed/owes it's 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?|
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.|
|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.
|Squirrel + Headband + Throwing Stars = Sold.|
|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 it's native 3DO, it was and is actually a really awesome game. The premise of the series, is that you are Gex, a Hawiaan 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 (ala 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 prerendered 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.|
Number of Games: 5 (+1 Japan-only spinoff)
So, 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 it's 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.|
|In 16-bits, Alex decides to add kicks to his repertoire.|
|Not content to smash rocks with fists, Kidd took up Ninja-ing.|
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!