Three Great Discarded SEGA Mascots
As soon as video games reached even the most basic level of competency, game makers realized that they needed faces to sell their products. Sports titles naturally gravitated to whatever sportspeople were within the advertising budget, movie tie-ins used superstars on the box (but rarely in the game) and serious strategy titles were even brave enough to build their reputations on the names of mega geeks like Sid Meier and Will Wright.
Action and Arcade games had to scratch their heads and create something iconic. With little to work with, this was deceptively easy: Mario’s mustache was a necessity, if he didn’t have it, he would essentially be featureless.
In this time, there was an explosion of new mascots. Some of them stuck for decades to come. Then there were the product tie-ins (Cool Spot), and the BOLD ITALIC UNDERLINE ALLCAPS (the hideous Bubsy the Bobcat), who thankfully, drifted into obscurity. SEGA were probably the worst offenders, especially as their creation, Sonic the Hedgehog, created a trend towards ‘cool’ mascot characters specifically designed to appeal to kids already ‘radicalized’ by Vanilla Ice and the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.
And then there were those characters that drifted into obscurity for no good reason, or those that started out well and declined. Even those that had the misfortune to be created by developers that had no interest in exploiting a great character further. This list is for those fallen heroes, those mascots that didn’t quite become as legendary as perhaps they could have.
If Mario is most recognizable for his mustache. Alex Kidd is most recognizable for his gigantic ears. Neither are facial features that most would associate with heroism perhaps, but both were among the few characteristics you could accurately model on the 8-bit consoles. Alex Kidd is mostly remembered as the character brought out to be SEGA’s answer to Mario and well, things never went his way.
There were plenty of contributing factors: you can’t recount a story of the SEGA Master System years without pointing out how much the love it received in Europe (and Brazil) contrasts with the disinterest in North America and Japan. And it also has to be acknowledged that the quick succession of unrelated, disparate games in which he starred (Lost Stars, BMX Trial, Enchanted Castle, High Tech World) weren’t just inconsistent in form, they were often unplayably bad.
But debut game Alex Kidd in Miracle World isn’t just a classic platformer, it really set out to feel different to Mario at a time when everyone was rushing to emulating it. Rather than the psychedelic Mushroom Kingdom, Alex is a martial artist in a relatively believable eastern-medieval fantasy world. The story isn’t Shakespeare, but at least the game takes time out to tell you what’s going on.
If only SEGA had stuck with its template, perhaps they wouldn’t have ditched him altogether when Sonic was focus grouped into existence. The poor little guy has been MIA since 1990’s Alex Kidd in Shinobi World.
SEGA didn’t limit themselves to one mascot. Alex Kidd was the hero of the home-console, but cute winged spaceship Opa-Opa was their hero in the arcades, thanks to the Fantasy Zone series of arena shoot-em-ups.
These games and their hero were colorful, fun and abstractly cute in a way that shooting games usually weren’t. And whilst the games didn’t have any dialogue in them, the way Opa-Opa walked along on little yellow legs when you got to the bottom of the screen was simply charming.
Appearing in two SEGA Master System titles, and separate games on the Game Gear and Mega Drive, Opa Opa is primarily missed for the games he took with him into obscurity. Shoot-em-ups are a dying breed, though they still have a hardcore following. And if any one character could make that world of unappealing, hard as nails shooting more appealing, it would have to be Opa-Opa.
Tokyo-based and of a modest size, Treasure aren’t exactly a household name, but they’ve made some absolutely spectacular games over the years. Run and gun shooter Gunstar Heroes was their first, it took the Contra formula and created an intense, fast-paced game in a classic anime style.
The oddly named Radiant Silvergun added several revolutionary ways of shooting things into a classic shoot-em-up: a few years later, Ikaruga revisited the genre and revolutionized it by only giving you two ways. In short, they’re a developer that goes into creatively crowded spaces to make something new and exciting.
So at the height of the mascot craze, Treasure created a one-size fits all solution. Dynamite Headdy, a puppet who can swap his head out for various effects: spiked heads, bomb heads, triple heads, hammer heads, vacuum heads. It’s an incredibly versatile design that takes you to many crazy worlds to fight some really wild bosses – my favorite being ‘baby face’, a gigantic baby’s head on a stick that breaks apart to reveal a young boy, then a middle-aged man and finally the tiny grey face of an Old Age Pensioner.
Mascot characters are only as cool as the games in which they appear in, and Dynamite Headdy was a damned cool game. So why did he never return? Treasure rarely do sequels, and that’s about the extent of it.