Since the introduction of Pac-Man in 1981, video game mascots have transformed giant software conglomerates into recognizable friends. Over 30 years later, the likes of Nathan Drake, Master Chief, Mario, and Sackboy continue transcend their individual franchises to represent the public philosophy of a particular brand. With enough popularity, T-shirts, animated series, books, and movie deals jettison these once humble pixels and polygons into full-fledged pop culture icons.
But for every Sonic The Hedgehog, there are dozens of failed experiments. From the 1980’s friendly human heroes to the 90’s animals with attitude, most left little to any impression with their prospective audiences. Today we celebrate the stalled marketing machines that are obscure mascots. Whether through limited appearances, quick replacements, or legal intervention, these would be icons never achieved the international attention their creators intended. Here are the video game mascots the world forgot.
Polygon Man (Sony PlayStation)
In 1994, the video game console wars were often summarized by magazine covers with a simple but striking image; Mario versus Sonic. Without a character platformer to call their own, Sony Computer of America quickly created a symbol to represent their upcoming console, the Sony PlayStation. The result was unique to say the least. A floating, spikey, purple head beckoned players to embrace the future that was 3D games. In a small series of print ads, Polygon Man warned players about reckless valet drivers and even threatened to treat PlayStation owners like a piñata. For a moment it appeared the dead-eyed, decapitated smart aleck would become the official salesman of Sony’s new console.
That was until the boss of the PlayStation brand, Ken Kutaragi, encountered the heliotrope head at the 1995 Electronic Entertainment Expo. According Phil Harrison (former head of PlayStation Europe) Kutaragi “went absolutely insane” not only by the repulsive look of the 3D model, but also for its dated flat-shaded rendering. Sony would turn to Crash Bandicoot, Lara Croft, and Sweet Tooth for the majority of their 90’s television and print campaigns. But Polygon Man’s haunting floating head would return once again as the final boss of 2012’s PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. His only video game appearance in his 20 years existence.
Gex (3DO / Crystal Dynamics)
Despite being named ‘Product of the Year’ by Time Magazine, the 3DO console failed to find a general audience two years after its 1993 release. In an effort to match the mascot fad of the 90’s, The 3DO Company would turn to their first licensed developer, Crystal Dynamics. Gex, a snarky TV obsessed gecko, would become the fledgling console’s mascot with his first title serving as a pack in game. The relationship wouldn’t last long as the bouncing reptile would jump ship to the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn less than 8 months after the game’s release. While it would only received modest reviews, Gex did managed to sell nearly a million copies on the PlayStation, a respectable achievement for the recently launched console.
While the 3DO would end production by 1996, Gex lived on in two successful sequels, Gex: Enter The Gecko and Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko. Children loved his sarcastic and topical one-liners, though it’s doubtful most kids fully appreciated his Hannibal Lecter impersonation. For most of the late 1990’s, Gex would become the official mascot of Crystal Dynamics with a small run of memorabilia and novelizations before quietly leaving the public consciousness in the early 2000’s. Crystal Dynamics’ publisher and owner, Square Enix, recently expressed interest in Kickstarting yet another Gex adventure. Though there’s no word if comedian Dana Gould would return to write and voice titular character.
Captain Commando (CAPCOM)
Mega Man, Ryu, Jill Valentine, and Dante. It would appear that world famous Japanese developer and publisher CAPCOM has no shortage of video game icons. But there was a time in the 1980’s where CAPCOM struggled to transition their arcade success into the console market. Enter Captain Commando, a long haired interstellar traveler reminiscence of Flash Gordon that greeted NES players on every CAPCOM instruction manual. After 3 years and a more realistic redesign, the Captain was seemingly lost in space as he vanished just when CAPCOM would reach its most prolific period.
In 1995, Captain Commando finally crash landed in arcades with his first (and only) self titled game. The 4 Player beat-em-up remains divisive to this day, with some praising the game’s fast paced nature, while others detest it’s lackluster SNES port. The Captain would return to action in the first two entries of the Marvel vs CAPCOM fighting series, as well as the SNK vs CAPCOM: Card Fighters franchise. Since then Captain Commando has been referenced in multiple crossover titles, though he’s been absent from battle since 2006. Perhaps his space military pension finally kicked in.
K.C. Munchkin (Magnavox Odyssey²)
By 1981, Namco’s Pac-Man had become international success thanks in large part to its recognizable protagonist. While other games revolved around ships, lines, and tanks, Pac-Man was an actual character. Before long, the hungry yellow sphere could be spotted on t-shirts, alarm clocks, bedsheets, and even his very own cereal. The video game giant Atari quickly snatched up the exclusive console rights to Pac-Man in 1981 with a planned release date of spring 1982 on their flagship console, the Atari 2600. Little did they know they would be beaten to the pellet over a year before a longtime rival.
The Magnavox Odyssey² had barely made an impact in the home console space since its 1979 release. Desperate for attention, Magnavox would publish their own version of Pac-Man under the name K.C. Munchkin. Though Munchkin was a blue circle and the maze layout didn’t feature as many avenues and pellets, the basic chase and eat gameplay remained largely intact. Atari took note of this wholesale rip off and immediately filed a lawsuit to cease production and distribution of Munchkin. The courts agreed and the game was removed from store shelves. Munchkin would return for one last time in Crazy Chase, this time eating a long centipede, perhaps a reference to the then popular Atari game, Centipede. While the Odyssey² only sold 2 million units compared to the 2600’s 30 million, Magnavox may have had the last laugh as Atari’s Pac-Man is widely cited as a major contributing factor to the video game crash of 1983.
Alex Kidd (SEGA Master System)
Long before Sonic supercharged SEGA’s notoriety, there was Alex Kidd. Though never officially the mascot for the console developer, his name became forever synonymous with the SEGA Master System. In his first title, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Alex would punch, swim, and fly in an effort to save the land of Radaxian. Rather than fighting stage bosses, Kidd would be challenged to a match of Rock, Paper, Scissors, requiring players to memorize the patterns after multiple playthoughs. Fans and critics celebrated the game’s diversity and unique sense of humor, and SEGA quickly commissioned a number of sequels.
The Lost Stars, BMX Trail, and High-Tech World would all be released on the Master System less than 3 years after Alex Kidd’s debut, each with radically different play styles. In 1989, Kidd made the leap to 16-bit with The Enchanted Castle but failed to garner enthusiasm from the Genesis’ teenage demographic. Kidd would then return to the Master System for his final title, Shinobi World. Since then, Kidd has made appearances in SEGA’s All-Stars series including 2008’s SEGA Superstars Tennis and 2012’s SEGA All-Stars Racing Transformed. Kidd most likely won’t return as a protagonist any time soon, but for long time SEGA fans, Alex symbolizes the ambition of the company’s early console development.
What Did You Think?
Did you remember any of these forgotten mascots? Or have we obscured the facts? Let us know in the comments below!