The 1990s was the first full decade wherein videogames were in renaissance mode. Nintendo and Atari did heavy lifting in the 80s to bring the world newer and newer products on a steadily expanding scale beyond just arcade cabinets, and magic – actual Prestige-level magic – was the result.
In many ways, video games were the most cutting edge trend that the 90s had on offer. Evolution was everywhere you looked as experiences came in differing formats, the aforementioned arcade crowd rose then fell, and graphics found a new dimension in exhilarating fashion. The speed at which everything was changing was simply overwhelming. Magazines of the time couldn’t keep up with even the largest stories, and with mainstream internet and cell phones still a few years from household viability, there weren’t enough outlets to cover the interiors of gaming as we enjoy today.
So it was that there arose a need of a grassroots movement to get the word out about the latest Sonic or Mario game. That added to the pressure of constantly keeping everyone informed about changes in the main companies of the time: Atari, Sony, Nintendo, and Sega. How do you show your fans that change is coming, that products are being made, and that their brands are the ones to look out for when they’re at the toy store next?
For that entire decade and then some, the answer was mascots. Colorful, dancing, suit-on-a-teenager-at-a-game-store mascots.
Each of the big four traded in visual commercialism with their various mascot creations, some of which changed so often at times that brand consistency became an issue. It was a terrifying time to live through, a hilarious industry quirk to look back on, and something of a brilliant business move at a time when characters ruled the landscape.
Given this is the month of Sonic, I thought we could bash in this museum’s front window and take a walk around together unmolested by security or other patrons. Since it is his month, we’ll give Sonic’s family the floor first.
Sega (90s Consoles – Genesis, Saturn, Game Gear, Dreamcast)
The Sega game making machine was alive and modestly successful before the 1990s, but with their early consoles being mostly landlocked to Japan only, Nintendo and Atari had more widely known success in the west. During the time, Sega didn’t really have a good feel for their branding to American or European audiences. The company stuck doggedly to the audience they knew for years as a result.
During this time, Sega knocked through obscure characters like Opa-Opa (below) and Alex Kidd to try to stumbled into recognition. One of the largest blocks holding them back from being those star mascots is that neither were all that alluring visually, and the absolute largest block was the simple fact that neither characters’ series were hot sellers. And that’s exactly what Sega was asking for to compete with Nintendo: a character capable of starring in a one million unit-selling game.
At the dawn of the decade, Sega asked for submissions on a possible mascot which included several potential characters that would eventually become part of the Sonic the Hedgehog series. That includes would-be Mighty, would-be Robotnik (he almost won too), and, of course, would-be Sonic. So when Sonic the Hedgehog released everywhere in 1991, it was a tryout more than anything to see if he could take down Mario and Nintendo’s dominance.
Sonic passed the test with flying colors and carried Sega through the 1990s and several systems. His costumed self appeared everywhere he could fit including arcades, Thanksgiving parades, commercials; the list goes on. That’s not to include the comic series, the two concurrent cartoon shows, and the movie he and his troupe starred in. Sega leaned into Sonic hard and the public reacted positively as he and the publisher are nearly indistinguishable even today.
Atari (90s Consoles – Lynx, Jaguar)
The heyday for Atari’s home console ventures had, unfortunately, already passed them by when the 90s rolled around. Even reading the two console names probably sends shudders down your spine as neither of those products have ever received much love online. Atari themselves were in legal and, depending on who you ask, moral decline as well, making this a desperate decade for the classic company.
In a lot of ways, the complete lack of a mascot has little to do in the fall of Atari. For all the company got right in the early times of Pong and other arcade mainstays, they had become viciously unable to play nicely with others around this time. Unlicensed flops with Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and other calamities such as the E.T. garbage pile sadly left more of a legacy than their home consoles.
Then again, Atari never really felt the comfort of a family-friendly face to represent them to the masses. Their largest property, by far, was Pong, which despite being a phenomenon in its time didn’t exactly lend itself well to the mascot game. Atari seemed desperate for recognition beyond just their name, which lead to unscrupulous business practices.
The scheme that ended up being one of their largest failures also brought them closest to having an actual mascot in Pac-Man. Atari enlisted programmer Todd Frye to hijack the Pac-Man formula from the arcade version wholesale. Basically, their request was for Frye to illegally make an exact copy of the newest arcade hit. Due to the company’s impatience, the game was released in an incomplete state, but this did gave Atari some lovely holiday packaging opportunities with Pac-Man front and center.
Unsurprisingly, the game sold to the tune of 7 million units, making it the best selling game of all time. With the nearly unplayable state of the game, their good will tanked further with each of those millions of sales. That being said, Atari obviously had an inkling of what brand recognition could do for them with a mascot character.
Baffling as this may be, the company would never attempt to mascot a character again. Quite the contrary in the 90s with their disc-based Jaguar home console trainwreck. The Jaguar released into all sorts of nasty problems that kept it from being a success. Those problems include packaging that looks not only vague but potentially frightening to the target audience. Seriously, does this box scream “game console” in any way?
As rudderless as it seemed is how quickly it ran ashore, the company never recovering even to this day as the ignominious business practices continue.
Sony (90s Consoles – PlayStation)
With a fierce desire spawned from a collapsed business deal with Nintendo, Sony stormed onto the market with very little experience and quickly became a mainstay. Unlike 3DO or Atari, the first PlayStation launched at a reasonable price point with games to match. It was nearly immediate that Sony became players alongside Sega and Nintendo at the top.
What’s interesting in regards to their mascots is that they clearly didn’t have one in mind for the launch. Their original idea was to run with Polygon Man in all his demonic terror, but that was thankfully swapped out quickly for Parappa the Rapper. Meanwhile, a young, hip team called Naughty Dog were intentionally concocting a mascot for the newest console race that could go the distance with Mario and Sonic.
Thus, Crash Bandicoot took the remainder of the 1990s mascot duties for Sony. He featured prominently in advertising with a goofier aesthetic than his rivals that played very well in advertisements. Sony would put him into demeaning situations in print or on television to grab younger eyes, thus luring in others that see the then-modern graphics at play. This is where Sony’s graphics married wonderfully with their mascot to create years of a perfect advertising storm that bled into the PlayStation 2 and helped to sink Sega as a console maker.
Nintendo (90s Consoles – NES, SNES, Game Boy, Nintendo 64, Virtual Boy, Various Game Boy Versions)
Not a single day of the 90s went by without a Nintendo console on the market. The massive company stands alone with that marker, and by then was already touted as the video game god that had revitalized the whole kit and kaboodle.
The original Nintendo Entertainment System was obviously a huge success, so the Super Nintendo had the world to live up to in 1991. Sega was their main competitor early and came out swinging with Sonic on everything. Mario, then, was called in to go toe-to-toe with the hedgehog in one of the most famous faceoffs in gaming history.
To say that Nintendo understood the power of their red and blue mascot would be a vast understatement. The 90s would see only 5 main Mario entries, but a staggering 71 where he appears in some way with an additional couple dozen for side characters or unnamed cameos. Compare that to the next decade, where he only appeared in about 75 games in total from 2000 to 2010. Nintendo knew the power of a mascot when they needed it most.
Once Sony came storming onto the scene, Mario had to utilize his supporting cast a little more in order to keep up. The trends of the late 90s had Nintendo move to a more “life like” aesthetic for their ads in order to show consumers that the Nintendo 64 still had meaty experiences on its cartridges, which lead to hilariously dumb commercials like this one:
While Mario was the main star, there was no question that Nintendo had the most mascots to pull from at any given time and subsequently had the most flexibility with their utilization. Even with flops like the Virtual Boy ending the VR dream for a few decades, Nintendo still gave it Mario and the power behind his likeness. The Philips CD-i felt this as well with Mario and Link, for better or worse.
Nintendo continues to stand behind Mario as he easily carries them now 30 years later. Meanwhile, their cavalcade of other mascots continues to grow and be celebrated by games such as Super Smash Brothers – literally a game about mascot wars. No other company has ever quite gotten this aspect like Nintendo.
Navigating the Seas of Quarters
The last major stage where most of these players resided was in every arcade midway across the world. Through the first half of the decade, the quarters were still flowing like silver wine. From movie theaters to back rooms in barbershops, the allure of the arcade was still tantalizing.
One of the greatest novelties of the time was seeing a video game that had previously been in cabinets on your home television. This is where Sega found their own perfect storm, bringing everything needed for a grassroots explosion in hedgehog popularity.
In 1993, Sonic the Hedgehog and the sequel came to the arcades in full cabinet form. Before that, only a few separate Sonic off-shoots had come to Japan and in selective amounts. By now, the secret was out about Sega having the answer to Mario so an uptick in popularity was to be expected, but the mania that surrounded Sonic around this time bludgeoned every wandering eye.
In that year, anyone going to the arcades was reminded of Sonic, anyone watching Nickelodeon Arcade was reminded of Sonic, and both of those reminders and more continued to drill into you that the Genesis was available with these games, not the Super Nintendo. The power of the mascot showed a word-of-mouth will that Nintendo could never really tap into and Sony was too late to try.
This effect seemed to take further root in North America where the first two Sonic games sold a combined 7 million units, comprising an amazing 70 percent of their total combined sales. By time arcades began to wither, Sega had their following fully leveraged with Sonic’s recognizability and portability between screens. Theirs was the best possible of all timing for all of us that loved Sonic.
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It’s not equitable to say that this moved Sonic to dominate Mario, but it did move Sega into a very respectable place within gaming culture as the WCW to Nintendo’s WWF. It wouldn’t be long before Sega was putting out their last console and tipping their cap to Nintendo on the way out, but even then they seemed to find an unexpected comfort of having such a recognizable mascot at your beck and call.
When you give so much character and life, artificial or not, to a mascot, you create the perfect spokesperson for your brand. When Sega was down for years after the Dreamcast fell, Sonic was still smiling and looking sideways, still running and beating down the robot evils of the world. One of the reasons people of all ages didn’t give up on Sega games is because Sonic was there being himself beyond the changes in the business behind him.
Now, you can see Sonic’s twitter account or see fan art that expresses another layer of consistency that game makers don’t really have. Again, that’s part of the reason that Atari felt the full force of its own avarice in the 90s or EA and Activision-Blizzard feel those effects so hard today: there’s just nothing else to look at. There’s no other picture to feature at the top of the article, there’s no other character to absorb the brunt of the force. Just a brand logo.
Those logos have plenty of recognition but usually for all the terrible, unsettling reasons people turn away from the gaming industry. Meanwhile, you see a picture of Mario and you immediately feel your deepest attachments towards him as a character or player avatar, not the fact that Nintendo did this or that. It’s a stupid sliver of innocence to have these mascot characters be so affecting given they’re nothing but ink and imagination.
But you know what? Video games are ink and imagination too and I love them. Immersion helps a customer believe in your world and company, not just the products you put out. So yeah, I’ll take a mascot being themselves over a suit and a logo telling me “Everything’s going to be fine.” Literally because video games.