Mascots are important to brand value, even today. But back in the 1990s, if you didn’t have a mascot, you were totally boned. This held especially true with video games, with every publisher (and sometimes even developers) scrambling to get some of that Sonic the Hedgehog money. While some efforts were thoroughly successful, nobody quite got to the same level of permanence of the Blue Blur or the true white whale of gaming brands, Super Mario. Even when a mascot did find success, most of the time it was fleeting, full of gaps, or settled into a much smaller niche. Some of my favorite gaming characters are obscure at best today, and there are also some strange characters who had some real heat for a while, and are basically dead. Let’s check in on some of the more notable ones and see how they’re doing.
Namco was always a house of franchises. Nearly everything that company made landed well enough to produce sequels, with a few titles thriving with Bandai Namco today like Tekken. But while everyone loves Pac-Man as a historical landmark, Namco had its eyes on a more modern mascot in Klonoa. A cute animal boy with classy fashion sense and a magical ring, Klonoa was poised to be Namco’s new hotness (at least in Japan). Unfortunately that effort fizzled, and while games continued to release into the 2000s, they fell from PlayStation to Game Boy. A remake of the first game did show up on Wii, but things have been quiet since. A movie was planned, but canceled earlier in 2019, and a mysterious trademark from “Bamco” suggests something new could be on the way.
How the mighty have fallen… and made a massive comeback? Back when it was in the hands of an adolescent Naughty Dog, Crash Bandicoot was more or less the official PlayStation mascot. This guy was the direct competition of Mario and Sonic, and while it’s hard to say how successful he was, he was certainly hanging. But Naughty Dog moved on, and other publishers tried to keep that bandicoot spinning and collecting apples. It didn’t work out well, as the rights landed with Activision and that’s a story we've heard several times. That said, somehow things fell back into place, and Sony got involved with Activision to bring the bandicoot back. This resulted in a series of remakes that gussied up the originals, and they sold like crazy. Crash Bandicoot is basically a household name again, if GameStop merchandise is any indication.
Conker seemed poised to be Rare’s crass, adult-oriented superstar. Following the success of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare took what was planned to be a cutesy mascot and turned him into a drunk, violent, potty-mouthed son of a gun. But also Rare made a weird Game Boy game that was just about scampering around and collecting acorns. Mixed messages, my dudes. Anyway, while the game everyone cared about got a remake on the original Xbox, we haven’t really seen Conker again in meaningful fashion. We sort of got a sequel to Bad Fur Day in a Project Spark campaign, but it was cancelled after only one of several planned episodes. There was also that HoloLens thing, but the less said about that, the better. RIP, you goofy little alcoholic bastard.
We know Crystal Dynamics as the house of Tomb Raider, but despite that the company’s mascot had to be a talking animal, because that’s what everyone else did. This is where Gex comes in. Wisecracking animal mascots were a dime a dozen, so by this point the gimmick well had run pretty dry. So… Gex, a cool lizard, really liked TV? I don’t really get it, but basically the Gex series was a vehicle for TV and movie parodies with gecko-oriented platforming moving it all along. These games, yes there are three of them, sold millions of copies. People like geckos. Unfortunately for all the Gex fans out there, after the third game Crystal Dynamics just stopped and Gex was never seen again. However, Square Enix opened up the door for more Gex in 2015, when it put some older Eidos IP up for grabs via its Square Enix Collective indie platform. We got more Fear Effect out of that deal, but the Gex offer is still sitting on the table.
Here’s another tale of hope in the wake of tragedy. Hudson Soft, the progenitors of the TurboGrafx, had been plucking along well enough over the years. Most of that livelihood was thanks to Bomberman, one of the great kings of multiplayer in the 16 and 32-bit eras. Unfortunately, as many classic IP do, Bomberman fell further into niche territory as quirky, little games fell out of favor. Some bad financial luck led to Hudson Soft scrambling to survive, which led to a merger with Konami. Konami proceeded to do almost nothing with the IP for several years, but in 2017 the Nintendo Switch launched with the first new Super Bomberman game since the Super Famicom. It was pretty good too, especially after some updates, and the post-launch support was bizarrely exciting for a Konami game in Current Year. It’s hard to tell what’s next for our little destructive friend, but he got a heck of a return to the spotlight this generation.