The gaming industry of today is a race to see who can score the biggest shooter or open-world franchise. Year on year, Sony, Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft compete with their AAA IPs, hoping to find the next Call of Duty, Halo or Mass Effect, but back in the 1990s and early 2000s, things were different. The race was still on, and just as fervent, but the goal wasn't to top Battlefield or Assassin's Creed. Everyone was looking for next cartoon hero, a new, colourful, family-friendly "face of the brand" to usurp Mario.
During the days of the original PlayStation and N64, the biggest games weren't shooters but platformers, and everyone wanted in. Parappa the Rapper, Croc, Bubsy, Banjo Kazooie, Conker, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Rayman – these were gaming's biggest series. Characters were mascots, not just for their own franchises, but for consoles too.
Today, however, few of them survive. Ubisoft still rolls out a Rayman game every now and then, and Sony just released a rebooted Ratchet and Clank, but the era of the console mascot, the Saturday morning, kid-friendly cartoon hero, is largely over.
Gaming has changed. Had Knack made his debut back on the PS1, he would have been received more warmly than in 2013.
So what happened? Why did the cartoon hero die off? Partly, one might imagine, it was because game-makers simply got bored. Naughty Dog abandoned Crash and later Jak and Daxter so they could start work on Uncharted and The Last of Us. Insomniac dropped Spyro for the Resistance series, Ubisoft side-lined Rayman to work on Assassin's Creed. It's only natural. After creating three, four, five games based around the same character, why not take some of that money and try something new?
The successful cartoon heroes were a license to print money. By the mid-2000s any developer that owned one would have enough capital to risk a new IP. Perhaps, combined with game-makers' creative fatigue, the death of the cartoon hero came down to simple business.
Personally, I prefer to think it was because gaming matured, or at least started to move in more mature directions. Today, games still have a reputation, a (self-perpetuated I might add) public image of belonging to children. They're escapism. Even to adults, they promise a return if not explicitly to childhood then to simple, pleasant experiences. But slowly, reluctantly, they are growing up. Game-makers themselves are getting older and the average age of players is 30 or above.
The cartoon hero had its time but is out of step with gaming's present. And it's happened naturally. In fact, it's happened in spite of the one thing Big Gaming worships: commercial promise. Despite an explosion of movies like Despicable Me, Minions and Frozen, all of which might have convinced game studios to establish or re-establish the cartoon hero, games, in their mitigated, rickety way, have stayed their course.
I hold out hope that major studios have grown bored of making explicitly childish games, at least to the extent they did in the 1990s. Nintendo will always do its thing and games for kids will continue to be made because, of course, kids still play games. Gaming should never become a uniform culture, whereby the only games produced are ones suitable to a particular kind of consumer.
But the race to find a new cartoon mascot is over – the greatest challenge facing developers now is learning how to intelligently and gracefully handle more adult subject matter. To, in very general terms, "tell stories." To cast a very sweeping opinion. I think that's a more noble goal than trying to create a marketable character.
However, the cartoon hero may be about to experience a revival. The re-imagined Ratchet and Clank for PS4, and Yooka Laylee due in October and created by several of the designers behind Banjo Kazooie, perhaps mark a slight return to the game-making efforts of the 90s and early 2000s.
Yooka Laylee's Kickstarter page promises a "huge cast of memorable characters...destined to endure in future games". It'll also feature an "N64 Shader Mode" which will alter Yooka Laylee's graphics so they more closely resemble the games they spiritually succeed. It's endearing, and there are plenty of people who, determined that games remain escapist and fun, would welcome the return of cartoon mascots
But is it also regression? I enjoyed Ratchet and Clank and Yooka Laylee seems like a loving tribute, but I'd rather games not re-enter the race to find merchantable cartoons - Croc, Parappa, Banjo et al all died of natural causes. Games like theirs will thankfully always exist, but if gaming as a whole needs a unifying challenge, the revival of the cartoon mascot is not it.