Now for a fun article.
Gallery: The Age of Mascot Hell
The '90s gave us lots of great games, but it also created tons of annoying cutesy characters that we hate. A lot.
By: Jeremy Parish March 30, 2012
In the beginning was a circle. And Toru Iwatani removed a wedge from the circle; and the solipsism of the human mind transferred upon the circle the properties of a mouth and an appetite. And Pac-Man was created; and Iwatani saw that it was good; and the people rejoiced and demanded the likeness of Pac-Man upon every conceivable form of merchandise. And so did Pac-Man become the first game character to transcend the medium in which he was conceived; and his name and face (such as it was) appeared on television and on toys and on kitchenware and on clothing. And rival game creators saw the opportunity for profit; and they crafted countless imitations, from false graven images in Pac-Man's own likeness to Ladybugs and Jumpmen. And so dawned the video game mascot.
That's the Old Testament origin story; now let's jump ahead to the New Testament -- that is, the 16-bit era. Pac-Man created the world of mascots, and Mario led gamers to a promised land in which a mascot would star in a game whose creators' primary motivation was to create a great game rather than sell character goods. Many followed in Mario's footsteps, from Asmik's Boomer to Sega's Alex Kidd to Hudson's Bonk; yet none transcended Nintendo's leading man until 1991, when Sonic the Hedgehog changed everything.
Data East | Super NES | 1993
If the measure of an old game's popularity is the ease with which you can find images pertaining to it with a Google search, Rocky Rodent ranks among the lowest percentile of games ever made. Search for Sparkster or Jazz Jackrabbit and you'll find huge box scans, fan art, and alarmingly copious homemade porn of the characters. Search for Rocky Rocket and you'll get a handful of low-rez box images of the Super NES game and a lot of photos of nutria rats. Nutrias have a reputation for being vile, ill-tempered, foul-smelling, violent little monsters. They're still more charismatic than Rocky, though.
1998: Gaming's Greatest Year
Take a look at five monumental titles that shaped the industry for years to come.
By: Bob Mackey March 30, 2012
As the nineties slowly rolled to a stop, something magical happened; in just twelve months, a handful of developers completely changed the industry with five fantastic games that redefined genres and inspired constant imitation for years to come. And, strangely enough, these bursts of innovation weren't limited to the release of some overpriced, bleeding edge piece of hardware; they happened across a variety of platforms that came into being years prior.
For some developers, 1998 marked the first year gaming had finally overcome its polygonal growing pains, allowing designers to fill their worlds with interesting ideas, now that they no longer had to concentrate on preventing their works from breaking apart at the seams. For others, graphical prowess didn't change matters much; some world-changing productions amounted to a collection of time-tested concepts presented in a highly polished and appealing package. Though each of the following games took their own approach to legendary status, they all saw release in 1998, making it the most memorable year in gaming history.
Valve didn't stand alone in trying to add something more substantial to the typically testosterone-driven first-person shooter; years earlier, both Ultima Underworld and System Shock added RPG elements to the traditional FPS framework, but didn't quite set the world on fire. Half-Life didn't deviate too far from the demon-blasting action of Quake and Doom, at least in play style, but its setting presented an environment and atmosphere that genre vets had never seen before. Unlike its competitors, Half-Life didn't open with blistering guitar solos and explosions en masse, but rather, a quiet and ominous tram ride meant to introduce players to the enormity of their new playground. And the first living beings the protagonist meets can't be killed (not that Hal-Life gives you anything to kill them with); in fact, the nebbish scientists of the prologue spout brief bits of dialogue when prompted -- a startling idea for a genre where players most often shoot first and ask questions later.
The Black Mesa Research Facility still offered a variety of weaponry for dispatching its many threats, though the run-and-gun tactics of previous FPSes wouldn't always work here; the leather-clad assassins in particular gave gamers a far greater challenge than the brain-dead imps and pig cops of the past. Above all, Half-Life's setting felt like one big, interconnected world -- even with occasional breaks for loading -- a far cry from the distinct maps that acted as the FPS standard for quite some time. By the the Gordon Freeman reached the last leg of his journey, the path carved through Black Mesa's dangerous corridors definitely made his surroundings seem far more grounded than game environments of the past. Today, most FPSes can't help but borrow from Half-Life -- just try and find a modern example that doesn't contain at least trace amounts of this game's DNA.
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time presented many challenges for Nintendo; they certainly showed the world how 3D action games should be done with Mario 64, but moving the Zelda series to a new generation of hardware posed much bigger problems. Instead of drastically rethinking the Zelda formula -- which hadn't been fully established yet -- Shigeru Miyamoto's team started with A Link to the Past's sturdy skeleton, and focused on bringing its elements to the world of 3D. Those who played Link's amazing 16-bit adventure might have been surprised to see a large chunk of this game transition to the N64, but Ocarina wasn't the first time Nintendo took this approach; months earlier, Star Fox 64 came into being as a highly refurbished and expanded take on the SNES original. Though Nintendo would come to rely on this method a bit too often, re-using old ideas at this stage made for a brilliant game plan, as it allowed the development team to concentrate on making Hyrule's huge world work properly -- an ambitious goal that simply hadn't been pulled off at that point in time.
The game might feel a little sparse and sluggish these days, but it's impossible to find a third-person action/adventure game that doesn't borrow from Ocarina in some way. Z-targeting alone absolutely changed the way we play games, as it finally allowed players to combat enemies without the guesswork pushed on them by that tricky z-axis. Ocarina also let players switch between first and third-person modes on the fly (for aiming and viewing), allowed them to customize their button layout through context-sensitive input, and presented a game world that could be manipulated at will through the use of a single tool -- something later Zeldas dropped entirely. Even those who find the game a bit overrated can't deny its influence on the gaming world at large; Ocarina alone made the rest of the industry step up their game, which eventually caused bold and ambitious 3D adventures to posture themselves as "Zelda killers." This bravado never really paid off, but it sent a very clear message: Ocarina of Time was the yardstick by which to measure every game.
Pokemon Red and Blue
Pokemon may have existed before 1998, but not for Americans; before it hit the states, we largely knew this Nintendo property as "that weird Japanese seizure cartoon," which must have posed a monumental challenge for Nintendo's PR department. But the benefit of the two years between Japanese and American releases allowed the various Pokemon incarnations to accumulate into an all-out media storm featuring a cartoon, collectable card game, and endless waves of merchandise alongside the games themselves. A bit cynical, maybe, but Nintendo's parent-angering sales strategy made the Pokemon world one that could exist around players long after they turned off their Game Boys. It's doubtful that Pokemon would have become such a social phenomenon if not for the various ways to connect with the series outside of sitting alone and squinting at a tiny, green screen.The games facilitated this highly social subculture by making it necessary for gamers to cooperate for the ultimate goal of "catching them all," something that definitely hasn't changed throughout the series' umpteen iterations. And it certainly helped that both red and blue gently eased the player into monster combat with a very simple set of mechanics; as console RPGs grew more and more baroque, Pokemon didn't aspire to be more complicated than your average 8-bit Dragon Quest. JRPG addicts may have been shocked by Pokemon's utter simplicity, but the series' bare bones approach allowed millions of curious folks to pick up and play the game, even if they didn't know what the letters in "RPG" stood for. And while anyonecould blaze through the game without exploring its many hidden corners, hardcore gamers have long obsessed about building the "perfect" team via methods that would make any research statistician drop to their knees out of utter respect. As games were quickly growing too complicated for a mass market to understand -- for better or worse -- Pokemon reaffirmed the value of accessibility for an industry slowly losing its relevance to a casueal audience.