Who the hell is this: why we can't stop loving Mario
Looking back at the mascots of the early 90’s is a funny thing. No one could have guessed that now, twenty years later, Sonic would be puttering around in the dark releasing vaguely hopeful attempts to restore its franchise to retro glory while Mario would be releasing cash grab after cash grab for Nintendo. There have been ten fucking Mario Parties, while Sonic’s most successful title in the past ten years has been Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, which, yeah, features a certain plumber. Sonic Generations could change that, but I’m past him: I’ve been done with Sonic for years.
So why does Mario print cash while Sonic cries in a corner? Some would say it boils down to the quality of the games, but that’s not even particularly true. Mario Party 8 has sold 7.6 million copies, yet has a metacritc score similar to that of Sonic Unleashed. How did this happen?
There are a couple reasons, some of which Jordan touched on his post on Sonic. For one, Mario has been eternally consistent. Unlike his blue frenemy, Mario has been the same character since his inception. Sonic, as we all know, has changed appearance and setting more than a pop star in concert. Sonic changes, while Mario has always been Mario. He appeals to that wholesome core of our beings, the kind that believes in true love and a happy world; Sonic, on the other hand, appealed to our sense of the “cool”, and that’s changed a lot since the early 90’s.
Sonic is grunge, and Mario is classic rock. Everyone loves the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but it’s hard to find people who, after twenty years, really love Soundgarden and flannel shirts. They grew out of it, and they grew into other things. We’ll never grow out of Mario, though, because he appeals to the optimist inside of us, the part of us that envisions a better, fantastic world, where everything is classic. Mario feels classic, while Sonic feels like a trend that’s desperately hanging on.
The other problem, of course, is what they are. Mario jumps. Jumping is a very simple action to make feel satisfying in any dimension, 2-D or 3-D. You can create a lot of levels, puzzles, and ideas that can be solved by a character whose only ability is to jump well. He can jump up, he can jump down, he can jump across. It encourages exploration, finding collectibles, and fits him perfectly into the modern compulsive platformer filled with collectibles and things to find.
Sonic, on the other hand, runs fast. There aren’t a lot of situations that require speed. Sonic’s best modern levels are the ones where he’s running from something, running after something. These levels are great. His speed can create great moments, like City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2. That’s a fantastic level that stacks up against anything the competition can throw at him. The problem is that this design doesn’t fit the modern platformer well. If going fast is your thing, there’s only one way you can go: forward. If you’re going forward, you’re not really exploring, you’re not finding collectibles. Further, it’s hard to make going forward fast satisfying. It can only be slick, instead of chunky like Mario’s jumps. Slick is not compulsive. Forward is not compulsive. Sideways, and chunky, are actions we want to do over and over again until we’ve been playing for hours longer than we admit.
This explains Sonic’s difficulty. The core mechanic doesn’t work well. It’s why Sonic Team tries things like making him a Werehog and makes games like Sonic and the Secret Rings, why they keep trying to change the central formula: the main idea of Sonic doesn’t conform to the modern platformer. They try to think outside the box, but in the end they go back and they make generic retro platformers like Sonic Generations because what else can they do? Sonic only works in a time capsule, so they build him one and appeal to our sense of nostalgia.
Mario, on the other hand, follows his smooth trajectory into tomorrow. Mario games give the impression they develop themselves, and despite our bitching they’re always enjoyable. They’re straightforward and addictive and self-generating. Every Mario game is The Same Game Again, and yet we’ll play them forever because the central action is so complete, so compelling, the protagonist so reminiscent of the good things in life. It’s like listening to a Beatles record, like listening to Rubber Soul again after not having done it for a year*. And sure, Mario can try new things. Mario Sunshine featured Fludd, perhaps the most ill-conceived character in video game history, but it still worked because Mario can make everything feel classic. Mario Galaxy 2 was a game filled with new ideas and creative concepts and yet every single review cited it as a retro wonderland because Mario makes everything feel old and homey.
That’s the central difference between the two: Mario is like pot roast, while Sonic is sushi. Sonic’s “cool”, but cool fades before the lovely scent of home cooking, the pleasures of, finally, being home.
*Substitute your favorite Beatles record here.