Sunday, October 6, 2013

Does the Mascot Era Hold What Gaming Has Been Missing? (op/ed)

Not the face I expected to think of when
considering the king of modern platformers*
So who called Rayman being the character to star in the two of the best side scrolling platformers ever made? If you raise your hand you're a goddamn liar. The Rabbids had more exposure than him.

Then, lo and behold, Rayman Origins released and suddenly Rayman was cool, possibly for the first time. Bright, clean, colorful graphics, responsive control, excellent co-op, tons of secrets, bitchin' level design, challenge factor, especially if you made it all the way to Land of the Livid Dead. The game had it all. Then Legends came along and somehow took it even further.

Rayman is kind of an anamoly these days. At some point early in the previous decade, the idea of the video game mascot just sort of died off. It wouldn't be a stretch to say the jump to 3D models and environments is what did it; even Sonic, a king of the 2D era, took years to finally get it right. Several saw their franchises die with a bad 3D entry.

Times change, of course. We finally got out heads out of our collective asses on the whole 3D thing. So isn't it about time for a comeback?

Seriously, gaming's missing something these days. Nowadays it's all about guns and war. Drab, dull soldiers running around drab, dull, brown landscapes shooting drab, dull enemies. I've never been against those type of games and have enjoyed my fair share but it makes for most of the industries modern output. Not helping matters is the fact that the shooter has become a safe bet; video game companies got the idea in their heads that anything that isn't a First Person Shooter is a tough sell and adjusted accordingly.

Lately, I find I've drifted away from that. What catches my eye these days is the colorful, the crazy, the out there idea, even in modern genres. It's no secret that I'm not a huge fan of GTA IV, a game that, in its quest to tell a serious, heavy story about the nature of the American Dream, kind of forgot it was supposed to be fun. Then I discovered Saints Row the Third, an entry in a franchise I had previously dismissed. It was off the chain. Any and everything could happen. The laws of physics might not apply, zombies might show up, you might hang out with a luchador or a pimp that speaks in autotune. It was bombastic, crazy and unafraid to throw the rules out the window if it might make for a good time. But more than that, it was fun. It was everything Grand Theft Auto used to be.

It's not an isolated incident. I've retained my love for Sonic the Hedgehog, a franchise that's finally embraced what it used to be and stopped trying to be so damn serious. Rayman has obviously won my heart. I wasn't thrilled with how far back it threw, but Mega Man 9 was decent and 10 was godly. The Katamari games never innovate, but they're consistently wacky and always a good time. Bionic Commando: ReArmed was excellent. Then we have Ducktales and Castle of Illusion finding themselves remade for modern day.

You'll notice a pattern here. Truth is, a lot of the things I love about these games were the norm back in the 90's. You know, back when family friendly mascots ruled the game systems.

Lest you think I'm just being nostalgic, I assure you I'm not viewing this with rose tinted glasses. I remember the duds. Seemed like everyone was in a rush to rip Sonic the Hedgehog off wholesale in the hopes of getting a fraction of his sales, leading to abominations like Bubsy. I don't forget the blatant advertising, either; people bitch about it in modern games, but back then they'd make entire games centered around the mascots for soda or cheese crunchies. Most of them sucked**.

But then... how often did we get a winner out of the deal? Guys like Sonic, Mario and Mega Man go without saying***. But what about Sparkster (or Rocket Knight if you prefer)? Or guys like Earthworm Jim, whose world had all the wacky hijinks and off the wall humor you could handle? He's fallen far since then, but everyone loves the first three Crash Bandicoot games. Spyro had a great trilogy, too. They've never been my thing, but many swore by the Banjo Kazooie games. Vectorman? Bomberman? The modern age had a few great ones too, with fare like Sly Cooper and Jak picking up the slack.

I recognize there's a sound argument to be made that if I got my way, we'd be trading one set of samey crap for another. But think about it. Even the duds rarely resembled each other in look, style or design. Take your modern shooters, on the other hand; at times, it's difficult to tell them apart. Do we really need another Tom Clancy? Call of Duty? Generic Shooter #476? Is there anything substantial enough to set each of them apart?

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a crapload of colorful mascots traversing diverse, out there world, even if half of them were crap, as opposed to a crapload of drab, boring shooters that look and play the exact same. Doesn't it get depressing, looking at all that brown? All those dark colors? I'm tired of depressing. I want fun.

* Yes, I'm going to far as to say Rayman's dethroned Mario, at least for the time being. Think about it. When's the last time a Mario game felt particularly inspired? Or even fresh? The first Galaxy? Maybe the second, which refined and polished everything that made the first one great. Since then, it's mostly been a revival of sub-brands like Land and World. Even Mario's recent return to 2D - New Super Mario Brothers - simply cannot hold a candle to Rayman's recent offerings. Nintendo needs to step it up.

** Cool Spot's one of the few exceptions, but his games are remembered better than they actually were. There's a difference between being a good game and a great one, a distinction few make when it comes to Cool Spot. But that's splitting hairs; they're better than you'd expect a blatant product advertisement to be, which we can probably thank David Perry and Tommy Tallarico for.

*** Even if Mega Man's all but dropped off the map thanks to a hissy fit Capcom threw when Keji Inafune left the company.