Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Lara Croft, Mario – these characters defined gaming in culture for so long. So what happened to them?
An orange bandicoot, a purple dragon, a long ponytailed archaelogist, an electric rat, a male green lizard that could lay eggs, a terrifying yellow circle. These were the representatives of gaming for so long; these were the mascots.
First, what is a mascot, at least in this context? The way I define it, and this is subjective, is that a mascot is a character whose popularity transcends the game that they’re in, and the culture around that game, and escapes into the wider cultural consciousness. Things like Lara Croft being in a Lucozade ad, a Seat Auto ad and even a Visa ad, videos of which I’ll scatter through this piece.
Make sense? Not really? Okay, if you walk up to someone on the street and for some absolutely socially unacceptable reason ask them to name a video game character. Chances are it’ll be Mario, Lara Croft, maybe Crash Bandicoot, or Pac-Man if they are three hundred years old. That’s what a mascot is, at least to me.
We don’t see a lot of them now. I think the last iconic – and I mean iconic in the general sense that it becomes representative of the culture it comes from – video game mascot would be robot-and-marsupial Ratchet and Clank (mascots can also be duos, I don’t make the rules m’am, I just work here).
So why the hell have they fallen out of favour?
The answer is, surprise, complicated! I also think it is twofold. Come with me on this journey.
The reason the first is that the kinds of game that have easy marketing and merchandise aren’t the games that sell on their tone and genre. To a large extent, marketing requires character; merchandise definitely does. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of novelty t-shirts, hats and the other crap that is designed for you to spend all your money on and then fill up the shelf when you move onto the next thing. If you really want to get the most merchandising bang out of your video game buck, you need a character. And you need a character that can slide into almost any context: plushie, t-shirt, television ad, potential crossovers.
You know what grimdark, post-apocalyptic zombie-killing games don’t have? Iconic, easily marketable characters, characters you can buy for your kid (or yourself, no judgment here) to cuddle up to. Popular games used to be kiddy, they used to be cute, and they used to look that way – Lara Croft had square breasts, Mario is a character who was just as recognisable back when he was 8-bit as he is now in full glorious HD.
As graphics hew closer to realism, and especially as technology gets us closer to that uncanny valley of photorealism, the image of a cute and marketable characters gets further away. Nintendo is always going to fly the flag of cute, marketable characters – see Mario, Yoshi, Link, Pikachu and many of the characters that populate Super Smash Bros. – but getting a brand new series with a cute, cartoony and marketable character that breaks out of gaming culture into mainstream culture is… unlikely.
Which brings me to the second reason mascots are less common, which is that gaming culture has completely changed. Twenty years ago, the idea of playing games online on the kind of mass scale – with full-on televised competitions – was still a fantasy; certainly nobody expected it to be the double-edged thorny backbone of the industry. Now we’ve got e-sports competitions, we’ve got the idea of games as a service rather than games as a product, and we’ve got a wide-ranging multi-faceted industry that doesn’t need a cute electric rat to help market it. (Not that it’s ever going to stop the continued shilling of Pikachu for those Pokemon games.)
We’ve made stars out of streamers; we don’t need to make stars out of characters now. Developers like Kojima, Yoko Taro and Cliffy B are the stars of the gaming industries, and gamers are the creators of their own stories. Gaming is a huge enough industry that it doesn’t need Mario knocking the walls down to get people inside – games aren’t for kids, they’re mainstream now. These aren’t red bottoms, these is bloody shoes, etc etc.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily! I’m not going to be the guy out here arguing that we need more mascots to make it easier for studios to market games. It’s probably not a bad thing that studios can’t sell more merchandise that will continue to fill up our dying planet long after we’re all dead and much, much longer after we’ve lost interest in the particular thing that is being sold to us.
And it’s not exactly the worst thing that we can’t reduce all games to these inevitably cartoonish figures, because some (uninformed, likely deeply villainous) people still reduce all gaming to Mario or Pokemon. There was a hugeness and a cultural ubiquity to these mascots that I don’t think we’ll ever get back though. The days of using them as something to point to when you were exasperatedly trying to explain games to your older relatives are over for good, I suspect.
If you were sitting in front of the TV, making a red plumber eat mushrooms and slowly genocide his way through a kingdom of sentient brown lumps, they knew you were playing Mario. Nowadays, if you’re sitting in front of the TV playing something like Detroit: Become Human or even The Last of Us II, they’d just think you were playing a strangely shot movie. They don’t recognise the characters, they don’t know what it is.
To bastardize a Sunset Boulevard quote: The mascots were big, it’s the games that got small*.
*This is categorically untrue, games are bigger than ever, by literally every measure you can measure games by.
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