The history of the video game mascot
Pacman; Crash Bandicoot; Donkey Kong; Mario; Sonic. Mention the name and a rapid flicker of recognition spreads across faces. More so than the studios which designed them, certainly in the early days. But the characters? They are enduring icons, a reflection of the cultural changes across societies around the world.
For the gaming companies, the success is gauged in dollars and cents; the number of licences for toys and other markets across which the mascots can be exploited. That's not always a pre-requisite; it isn't a line drawn in the sand. Mario is testament to that; Hollywood looked to cash in on his popularity but the silence was deafening when it came to a sequel.
The same can't be said of Lara Croft. Her creators knew that the sex appeal was a key selling point, feeding the dreams of a million teenagers. The male leads do the same; Drake or Max Payne opens a different set of fantasies with their machismo - the anti-hero feeding teenage angst.
For the film studios, it was manna from heaven. Step forward Angeline Jolie before the madness and botox set in; her unique selling points dovetailed with the character rather better than Bob Hoskins as Mario. Hoskins, a fine actor, wasn't helped by a plastic plot.
That highlights the secondary nature of the licenses; sales revenues are the primary concern. The sixty-four million question is what makes the characters enduring? Is there a single factor which drives them toward video stardom?
If the studios knew that answer, they would be replicating the formula over and again. The formula is the key; ground-breaking games are the ones from where, typically, mascots with longevity emerge. not always; sometimes they tap into the zeitgeist. Sonic the Hedgehog was the embodiment of the 1990s attitude; he clicked with the era.
Pivotal in all this is having a marketing department which is alive to the moment, constructing memorable promotional campaigns for the game which pushes the
character front and centre in the public psyche. Connecting with that is a critical
condition for durability. It allows other electronic platforms to invest in the character.
While the Lego Batman alarm clock or Pikachu backpack are key revenue streams, the electronic platforms look for something different in a character. Role Playing Games (RPG) offer an interesting market for the adventurers, such as Croft.
In the much the same way
Disney's Captain Jack Sparrow
transitioned from the big screen to the computer monitor, dragging with it the possibility of actually being the pirate and embarking on his missions, R&D departments look to capitalise on the 'action' aspect of these stories and their characters.
Rovio's Angry Birds'
madcap appeal crosses many platforms and age groups as we somehow relate to, and wish to reenact, the furious tempers displayed by these mighty strange creatures. What about the Pokemon craze? Middle aged men run around town trying to capture a virtual reality monster, or whatever they are. Another example is the adventurous
Gonzalo Pizarro in Betway's
slot machine Gonzo's Quest where the Latino adventurer reels players into the story with his dogged pursuit of the City of 'El Dorado'.
Crash, Bang and Walloped!
This exploitation of the character works in the studio's favour. A mascot which transcends age groupings is worth their weight in gold; quite literally. They become the totem of quality in the same way Hollywood cashes in on a director or producers of a new movie: "From the makers of....comes..."; you know how it works.
It's a delicate balance though; in the pursuit of
an adrenalin-fuelled evening on the laptop
or smartphonethe mascot can overshadow all else if not managed carefully. There's a long history of mascots who disappear when the next generation of gaming consoles is developed. Mario is one of the rare breed which transcends those boundaries.
Even when they are cast to the digital scrapheap, the career of the digital mascot is not over. In the past decade, the retro markets are becoming rich pickings as a new generation becomes nostalgic. Asteroids and Space Invaders clambered from the video grave to re-launch themselves while the public's appetite for Pacman became as voracious as his own.
In decades to come, the same fate will befall the likes of Lara Croft, Jill Valentine and Sweet Tooth. As the gamers grown older and more sophisticated in their tastes, a new generation of icons emerged. The cuddliness of Mario, the cartoon mischief of Crash and Sonic - a digital version of Bugs Bunny's 'sass' - appealed to youngsters; Ray-man upgraded to the Wii-U. As the taboos lifted on the age when gaming became the preserve of kids and adults grew up, the mascots needed to embrace both worlds.