Today it might be a concept lost in time, but the gaming mascot was a hugely important feature for many publishers and game developers in the 80s and 90s. Not because the success of a console depended strictly on a mascot, but rather because having one meant having a sort of all-access pass to media well beyond games. In the 90s, it seemed like everyone and their mothers wanted to net a successful mascot, and most of them had to go through that well known grind, the side scrolling 2D platformer.
While the idea of the gaming mascot originates from the 80s, with many examples now completely forgotten, such as Rockford from Boulder Dash and Hunchback from the series. If you’ve played with any of them, well congratulations, it might be time to schedule that doctor’s appointment. The classic mainstream example would be Mario, the first character to transcend gaming since, already in 1986, Nintendo had made him the protagonist of his very own anime (Super Mario: Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach). But considering how, in the 90s, the idea would go out of control, it’d be way too easy to blame Sonic for bringing back the mascot fashion, with a vengeance.
In fact, most of those classic mascots would be an actual anthropomorphic animal. Human mascots would arrive at the end of the 90s with the Lara Crofts and Duke Nukems and what have you. And speaking of Nukem, one of the major elements of a mascot is indeed attitude. They gotta be in your face, cool and rad and, of course, they have to speak incessantly. But since we’re talking about failed mascots, it is better to clear the air: we’re not talking necessarily about bad games here, but rather at failed attempts at creating memorable characters that, instead, would burn up and disappear like falling stars.
The first to come to mind, especially since it is still around for some reason, it’s Bubsy. From the original idea of creating a comic sidekick, those that never shut up for a second, Bubsy the lynx is one of the best examples of the classic mascot. From his shirt with an exclamation point to continuous unfunny comments during gameplay, our dear friend really has them all. Accolade apparently wanted to design games around Bubsy’s personality, an idea that might have worked, if the character wasn’t insufferable. Honestly, as much as they are remembered today to be horrible, the original two 16-bit Bubsy platformers weren’t even that bad.
Still, the success of Bubsy would push Accolade to leap towards a cartoon series, carried by the ever-prophetic tag line “what could possibly go wrong?”. Naturally, the answer is “a lot” and the cartoon series never went beyond a single pilot episode. But unfortunately, that’s not where Bubsy’s adventures end, as he went on to star in an early 3D platform. And yes, Bubsy 3D is justly and universally remembered as one of the worst games of the decade. But still, that would not be the end. Bubsy somehow came back with another two recent 2D platformers which, as predicted, ended up quickly forgotten. Are we through with Bubsy yet? Most definitely not, that damn thing has more than nine lives.
Speaking of nicer characters, Shiny Entertainment with Earthworm Jim seemed to have successfully hit the target. Jim is still remembered today to be one of the best mascots, also I’d say because he is silent for most of his fondly remembered, 2D side scrolling platformers. With their surreal humour and some interesting gameplay ideas, the games complemented Jim’s personality quite well. I mean, he is a worm in a spacesuit who launches cows into hyperspace and digs through levels with a pistol. What could you even expect?
So why is he a failed mascot? Because no one leaves the 90s alive; hell, I’m not even sure I did. After two great platformers, converted for every platform under the sun, Super Mario 64 would kill off any chances of Jim coming back. Despite not being as bad as Bubsy’s foray in three dimensions, Earthworm Jim 3D was still the death knell for the character. But still, there’s hope of seeing the nice worm again, especially with Interplay still going around in an undead state.
In 1993, SunSoft also had a go with Aero the Acrobat, an anthropomorphic bat with its own 2D platformer, as Aero will go against his enemy Zero and try to save the circus. While the original game is not really that memorable, it somehow not only got a sequel but even a spin-off of its main evil villain, years before Shadow the Hedgehog, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel would grace our screens. Interestingly, Aero got a chance to make a huge comeback, since David Siller pitched the idea of a 3D platformer to Universal in 1995. The company preferred Naughty Dog’s own Crash to Aero in 3D, so unfortunately, that timeline never came true. I’d have liked to see the PSX having a circus acro-bat as a mascot rather than a crazed bandicoot.
Now tell me, what is cuter than a small gecko spouting one-liners from shows and movies? Probably a lot of things, but for Crystal Dynamics that was the perfect idea for a mascot. Despite his debut in a mildly interesting 2D platformer, the Gex series showed off the team’s capabilities in 3D since the series did take off after Enter the Gecko for PlayStation and even got back for Gex 3. While they were pretty decent 3D platformers, Crystal Dynamics would abandon the poor gecko at the end of the 90s.
While no one remembers Awesome Possum, only living on in the classic YouTube lists of worst games ever, it is a classic history of a failed mascot. Not only that, the Possum was born in order to teach children about the environment, but he comments on every pick-ups and thing that he does with “SO COOL” and “I’M AWESOME!”. Also, rest assured someday he will kick Dr Machino’s Butt, it’s right in the title. Captain Planet can eat Greta Thunberg’s green ass.
Naturally Awesome Possum recycles (only he can do it) Sonic’s 2D gameplay, adding your very own guilt trips for throwing away that can in 1996 on the ground like the animal you are. And not the cute possum kind, shame on you. I can definitely see Fridays for Future repurposing Awesome Possum back as a mascot, but for now, he will stay mostly dead.
This feature could go on forever, even just by looking at mascots from food and beverages. The Noid, which in Europe we’d have mostly no clue about (especially in Italy where Domino’s was considered a nicer version of hell), or Cool Spot from 7-up, which got a series of four different games including a PlayStation version. Must have been his sunglasses. Or let’s consider that at one point a fishy version of 007, James Pond, was actually Electronic Arts’ very own mascot. Nowadays, we would guess a soul sucking octopus would work much better. Or even Chester Cheetah, really one too cool for school Cheetah with its liver-failing fried snacks and more than decent 2D platformers from back in the day.
While we can be pretty sure the age of the gaming mascots is dead and we’ll never see anything as Awesome as the Possum gracing our screens telling us to recycle, I think it’s still too soon to consider them out of the picture. We have seen much more unexpected things coming out of the woodwork because of that terrible nuclear weapon called "nostalgiabaiting". Just you wait, Fido Dido will be soon over to get you while you sleep.