This month’s reboot of Ratchet and Clank harkens back to a bygone era, when character-based platformers ruled supreme. Beginning with 1985’s Super Mario Bros., which went on to sell over 40 million copies — due in no small part to the fact that it came bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System — companies began to view platform games as vital to the success of consoles. Sega soon followed suit with games like Alex Kidd and Wonder Boy, and by the 16-bit era, not only was there a console war well underway, there was an all-out mascot war.
Enter a little blue hedgehog named Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog was Sega’s answer to the launch of the Super NES and its pack-in title Super Mario World. Sonic introduced many platforming firsts, but perhaps his biggest contribution to the genre was the title character’s personality. Sonic had attitude and a rebellious nature that played better to the early ’90s audience than the much more traditional Mario, who in many ways had not changed since the ’80s.
The Sonic character inspired many copycats (some of which were actually cats), and in the early ’90s, it seemed like a new character platformer was being launched every other week as companies were scrambling to capitalize on the popularity of these characters. Mascots such as Rocky Rodent and Awesome Possum came and went, overshadowed by their competition. Some, such as Boogerman, confused childish gross-out humor with the edginess and attitude that had made Sonic so successful, and soon many of these characters faded into obscurity.
In the mid-’90s, Mario and Sonic had firmly established themselves as the de facto mascots of Nintendo and Sega’s gaming systems. However, the Sony PlayStation, a relative newcomer to the market, was in the need for a strong character to serve as the face of their platform. For a time, Crash Bandicoot filled this role, and PlayStation commercials were known more for the gags featuring the character than they were for showcasing the new system.
By the sixth console generation, character platformers were no longer the system sellers and hot commodities they once were, and overall market share for the genre was way down. Even with the jump to 3D and open-ended level design established by Super Mario 64 in 1996, players expected more than just platform jumping or simple combat, and wanted richer experiences that were just starting to be offered by RPGs and FPS games at the time. Games like the original Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy combined traditional 3D platforming staples such as exploration and item collection with shooting and character progression to produce some of the most memorable platforming hybrids of all time.
It’s nice to see Ratchet and Clank back with a new game which can hopefully win over an entirely new generation of gamers. Let’s take a look back at some of the other platforming mascots of the era to see what they are up to these days.
The Banjo-Kazooie games helped solidify developer Rare’s distinct, cartoony visual style. The games feature a honey bear and his large bird companion, who are both controlled by the player. Following the success of the original Banjo-Kazooie, the characters went on to star in four more games of their own.
Banjo actually made his debut as a playable racer in 1997’s Nintendo 64 kart racer, Diddy Kong Racing. The characters also make cameo appearances in several other Rare games, including Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Conker: Live & Reloaded, and Grabbed by the Ghoulies. They also make an appearance in the Xbox 360 version of 2010’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Banjo-Kazooie fans can also download several character skins based on the series in the Xbox 360 version of Minecraft, and there are accessories inspired by the characters that can be equipped on Rash in Killer Instinct: Season Three.
The original game and its sequel, Banjo-Tooie saw HD re-releases on the Xbox 360, and all three console games were included in last year’s Rare Replay compilation.
Those looking for an all-new Banjo-Kazooie-style adventure need only wait until this October. A group of Rare alums is working on a spiritual successor titled Yooka-Laylee, which is set to be released on PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U.
Conker the Squirrel can be thought of as Banjo-Kazooie’s older, meaner, ruder sibling. The character was introduced at E3 1997 as the star of his own kid-friendly N64 game, then — like Banjo — debuted as a playable character in Diddy Kong Racing. His first game, a family-friendly title for the Game Boy Color, experienced a lukewarm reception at launch, and Rare was forced to rethink its approach for its N64 debut.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day was geared towards a more mature audience, and featured crude humor, violence, and references to alcohol and drug use, all very unusual for a Nintendo 64 release. The game had enough of a following to warrant a sequel for the Xbox 360 with 2005’s Conker: Live & Reloaded. The series went quiet until last year, which saw the release of the Conker’s Big Reunion pack for Project Spark, and inclusion of Conker’s Bad Fur Day as part of the Rare Replay compilation.onker was
Conker was recently in a Microsoft Hololens promotional video, where he appears to have gone back to his family-friendly origins.
Jak and Daxter
If you were to get the Jak and Daxter games confused with Ratchet and Clank, I wouldn’t blame you. Both games feature two player-controlled heroes (you’re welcome, Banjo-Kazooie), tons of shooting, outrageous weapons, and vehicle sequences. The easiest way to tell them apart is that Clank is a robot, while Daxster is a… what the heck IS Daxter? (He’s actually an ottsel. Don’t ask.)
Naughty Dog transitioned from Crash Bandicoot to the Jak and Daxter games in 2001, and their previous platforming chops resulted one of the most lauded platforming series of all time. Following the release of the fourth game in 2009, the characters have appeared in two spin-offs, and have made numerous cameos, such as this Easter Egg in last year’s The Order 1886.
Jak and Daxter were last playable in the 2012 fighting game mash-up PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and the Jak and Daxter Collection, an HD remaster of the first three games in the series. Naughty Dog has since teased the idea of going back to Jak and Daxster, but in an interview with Game Informer, co-president Evan Wells detailed why that wasn’t going to happen for now. Here’s hoping that next month’s release of Uncharted 4 frees up some resources at the studio keen on returning to the franchise.
The original Rayman was like any other sprite-based platformer of the mid-’90s. It wasn’t until 1999’s Rayman 2: The Great Escape that the series really began to shine, with its unique sense of humor, character progression, and beautiful environments. The series spawned several sequels and spin-offs, including the Raving Rabbids franchise.
In 2011, series creator Michel Ancel decided to take the series back to its roots with Rayman Origins, which left behind many of its 3D trappings in exchange for an all-new 2D engine featuring a unique graphical style and tight 2D platforming sequences. Fortunately, the series’ quirky sense of humor remained, and was actually enhanced by the style of the new game and its follow-up, Rayman Legends. The series has since adapted this new style to mobile platforms with the games Rayman Fiesta Run and Rayman Adventures.
The Sly Cooper series is known for its stylish mix of film noir and comic book motif, layered on top of a unique mix of stealth and platforming. The first three games were developed by Sucker Punch, who went on to produce the inFamous series. After an eight-year hiatus, the series was relaunched in 2013 with a fourth game, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, which was released to mixed reviews.
The original trilogy of games was re-released for the PlayStation 3 and Vita as The Sly Collection, and Sly and his buddies make appearances in 2011’s PlayStation Move Heroes and 2012’s PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale.
Despite a secret ending in the fourth game hinting at a continuation of the series, no known Sly Cooper game is currently in the works. Interestingly enough, despite it being several years since an official game, there is a CGI animated movie slated for release sometime in 2016.
Spyro the Dragon
The Spyro series may be the most prolific on this list, as the original franchise included no less than 13 games. The first three games were created by Insomniac Games, the developers of Ratchet and Clank and the Resistance series. After Insomniac left the series, it struggled a bit until the a series reboot in 2006 that kicked off The Legend of Spyro trilogy.
After the rights to the series were acquired by Activision, Spyro reemerged as part of the hugely successful Skylanders series of toys-to-life games, which still see annual releases. In 2014 reps from both the original publisher, Sony Computer Entertainment, and Insomniac Games discussed the possibility of a return to the franchise, but while Activision still owns the rights, that seems highly unlikely.
Gone But Not Forgotten
The following characters have not been heard from in quite some time. It is probably safe to assume we have heard the last of them– that is until someone scoops up the rights and puts out a mobile game to capitalize on whatever feelings of nostalgia are left for these characters.
Aero the Acro-Bat
Aero the Acro-Bat exemplifies the era of edgy mascots. This red anthropomorphic bat must defend his home circus from an evil industrialist and ex-clown (naturally), Edgar Ektor, and his sidekick, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel. The games themselves received decent reviews, and had a good pedigree: The Aero character was created by David Siller, co-creator of Crash Bandicoot and Maximo: Ghosts to Glory. Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel even got his own well-received spin-off.
At the height of his fame, Aero served as the mascot for publisher Sunsoft, but after that company was heavily restructured in 1995, and all of their pending projects were sold to other companies or canceled, Aero ceased to exist. The 2010 re-releases of the Aero games on the Wii’s Virtual Console are most likely the last we will ever see of Aero and Zero.
Bonk was a bald caveman that attacked enemies with his comically large head. He was the mascot for the NEC TurboGrafx-16 console, starring in three games for that platform, as well as several other games across a variety of consoles, handhelds, and mobile. At the height of his popularity, Bonk even starred in his own Manga.
A revival of the franchise was planned, and a new game, Bonk: Brink of Extinction, was announced as a downloadable game for PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and WiiWare. That title was subsequently canceled, and the series’ publisher, Hudson Soft was fully absorbed by Konami. Given recent news and events concerning Konami, I would say a Bonk sequel is fairly low on their list of priorities.
Bubsy the Bobcat
While the first few 2D Bubsy the Bobcat games may have been also-rans that borrowed liberally from the Mario and Sonic formulas, they received decent reviews and sold fairly well. Bubsy even starred in a pilot for his own television series which was entitled “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” He soon learned the answer to that question, as the series was never picked up. The fourth game, Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet, was a disaster, and holds a place on several worst game of all time lists. That game was all it took to bring the entire franchise to its knees.
For some reason, interest in Bubsy still exists, and it frequently comes up when people talk of reviving defunct franchises. In 2015, a re-release collection of the first two Bubsy games made it through Steam Greenlight, and the game, titled Bubsy Two-Fur was released on Dec. 17 that year.
As previously mentioned, at one point Crash Bandicoot was popular enough to be the unofficial Sony PlayStation mascot. Therefore, it is a bit surprising that the character has remained completely dormant since 2010. In a 2011 interview with Kotaku, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg said he would love to find a way to bring the character back, but so far, nothing has materialzed.
Gex the Gecko
The Gex series features a wise-cracking, TV-addicted gecko quick to make a pop culture reference when the situation calls for it. The series helped establish development studio Crystal Dynamics, which would go on to produce the Legacy of Kain series and several Tomb Raider games, including the 2013 reboot and last year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. At one point Gex was even the studio’s mascot.
The last Gex game was released in 1999, and the character made a cameo appearance in 2000’s Hot Shots Golf 2. Since then, Crystal Dynamics appears to have moved on. However, there may be hope yet for Gex fans, as last year Square Enix announced that it will allow developers to create games based on some of their old Eidos IPs — including Gex — via the Square Enix Collective project.
James Pond: Underwater Agent
The James Pond series is notable mostly for its extensive use of puns. Other than the main character’s name, which is an obvious play on — you guessed it — James Bond, the series is full of classics such as “Doctor Maybe” (Dr. No), “A View to a Spill” (A View to a Kill), and “Leak and Let Die” (Live and Let Die). One of the sequels was even going to be named Splash Gordon until someone realized that may be a bridge too far. Not that we should expect too much from a series featured an intelligent, mutated mudskipper hired by the SAS.
The James Pond series included three main games, and even inspired a spin-off called The Aquatic Games. The character was also featured in comic books and made a cameo appearance in another forgotten game, Rolo to the Rescue. The iOS game James Pond in the Deathly Shallows (get it?) was released in 2011. A September 2013 Kickstarter to revive the franchise was canceled due to lack of funding, and the character hasn’t been heard from since.
One alarming trend of the ’80s and ’90s was the creation of “advergames” featuring mascots of consumer brands, such as Yo! Noid starring the ill-fated Domino’s Pizza mascot, and the McDonald’s product placement-fest, M.C. Kids. The 7-Up mascot of the time, Spot, was featured in a series of games in the early ’90s. The first was a branded version of the board game Reversi. However, the more memorable games were Cool Spot and its sequel Spot Goes to Hollywood, where the titular anthropomorphic red dot with sunglasses could jump around and attack enemies with soda bubbles. There was also a Game Boy title featuring the character that was actually a reskinned version of M.C. Kids.
Once 7-Up dropped Spot as its mascot, the writing was on the wall for the game series. Some notable trivia about Cool Spot: It was programmed by David Perry, who went on to program Earthworm Jim, and was composed by Tommy Tallarico, another member of the Earthworm Jim team and one of the co-founders of Video Games Live, the touring show featuring orchestral video game music.