Evolution in pixels
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Traditional wisdom suggests that fictional superstars never change. Bugs Bunny, Homer Simpson and Superman, for example, have endured for decades with more or less the same appearance. They never age, never look incredibly dated (save for a few misguided revamps that die off) and consistently appeal to a new generation. The same cant be said for videogame characters, though.
As a technology-based medium, game heroes and villains cannot remain the same. They must constantly evolve, or risk looking last gen. That doesnt mean the new or old designs take precedence, it just means no developer will ever, ever leave its creation alone. Now, with decades of console history to pull from, lets take a look at the old designs and see how they stack up against their modern equivalents.
Then: A brutish ape who threw barrels down at Jumpman (thatd be Mario, actually) and loved to hold women hostage. Not too bright.
Now: Allegedly, the Kong from the original game is now Cranky Kong, a wrinkled old ape who does little more than sit in a rocking chair and whine about the old days. Todays Donkey Kong (the guy on the right) is said to be the former Donkey Kong Jr, though its never specifically stated that way. Other than a red DK tie, hes physically the same, but has taken a page from Marios book and gone on to become a platforming star instead of a stubborn antagonist. Diddy Kong is in there because he didnt come in PSD format and refused to move.
Then: A stumpy carpenter and plumber who first harassed Donkey Kong, then took to the sewers to handle turtle/crab/fireball infestation. A humble everyman with no overt sense of whimsy.
Now: The global figurehead of Nintendo, whose exploits have sent him into the mystical Mushroom Kingdom and beyond. No power-up is too silly, no sport too challenging, no merchandise too sketchy for ol Mario. Pictured in his most recent incarnation found in Mario Galaxy--still a bit portly and wearing his 80s attire, but infinitely more expressive and adventuresome than that sad plumber could ever have imagined.
Then: Marios brother was nothing more than a palette swap with strangely darker skin. He was functionally identical to Mario, and other than the one-off Super Mario Bros 2, he would continue to be that way until the 16-bit Super Mario All-Stars re-drew him as a different person. Oh, plus Mario Kart made some distinction as well.
Now: Still very much Marios brother, but now with distinct physical and gameplay characteristics. Hes taller, slimmer and handles like one of those creepy gas station tube toys that you can never hold onto. Luigis had some starring roles and even played a large part in the various RPGs, but hes still no Mario.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Then: Segas 16-bit answer to Mario, a speedy hedgehog who exuded personality and attitude instead of Nintendos lets all play together mantra. The sprite actually changed completely one year later in Sonic 2, though it was merely a re-drawing--all the same aspects were kept.
Now: Sonic Colors marks Segas latest entry in the long-churning series, and this official art looks damn near the same, doesnt it? Sonics seen a lot of games come and go, but other than his green eyes and improved rendering and sprite tech, little has changed. Maybe animal mascots get a free pass?
Then: A pointy assemblage of polygons that looked a bit crap even back in 1997. From the Popeye arms to the rectangle legs, this was an appearance that had no choice but to be drastically re-imagined.
Now: The basic getup is similar, as is the Super Saiyan haircut, but its done with such detail now that you can accept the quirks as simple videogame silliness. The version, taken from Advent Children, isnt even the final word--Cloud is more or less re-thought each time he pops up, from Kingdom Hearts to Crisis Core to Dissidia. All are similar but none are identical.
Then: Oddly considered an attractive representation of a polygonal woman, but is now seen to be an atrocious patchwork of various geometric shapes.
Now: Cleaner, smoother and without a doubt sexier (even if youre one of those games cant be hot people). This image is from, fittingly, the modern remake of the original Tomb Raider, so thats why the clothes are dead-on. Normally shes donned in whatever grab the environment calls for, be it short shorts, skin tight swimsuit or chest-hugging t-shirt. Just like real archeologists!
Then: A camo-covered soldier with no discernible features. Hes a dude in camo on a mission to stop a walking nuclear tank. Thats about it.
Now: OK other than the fact hes gray and old, hes also got a special sneaking suit with high-tech OctoCamo that blends in to any given surroundings. Plus hes got enhanced strength and about 100 hours' worth of baffling exposition and character development. Not to be confused with Big Boss, who, in Portable Ops and Peace Walker, kinda looks like that 80s Snake (with good reason!!!!).
Then: An adept ninja out for revenge. His father was killed by baddies and he wants to make em pay. Even though he looks rather plain in his blue outfit, Ryu ends up battling demons, monsters, robots and everything in between.
Now: Hm, actually not too different, if only because the image of ninjas has survived untouched for hundreds of years. In this case Ryu has gone all black, gained an ornamental headpiece and taken up violently dismembering foes with his weapons. Its also not even supposed to be the same Ryu. A bit of same but different here.
Ryu (the Street Fighter guy)
Then: A red-haired scrapper who could, with great effort, toss a fireball out of his hands. Otherwise pretty bland.
Now: Hes still the yawn-iest of the Street Fighter characters (I have to be the best!) but has since beefed up considerably and gone for a dark-haired appearance. Still got the headband and belt, though the hand guards tend change from red to brown.