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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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, let’s 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 (that’d 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.” Today’s Donkey Kong (the guy on the right) is said to be the former Donkey Kong Jr, though it’s never specifically stated that way. Other than a red “DK” tie, he’s physically the same, but has taken a page from Mario’s book and gone on to become a platforming star instead of a stubborn antagonist. Diddy Kong is in there because he didn’t 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: Mario’s 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 “Mario’s brother,” but now with distinct physical and gameplay characteristics. He’s taller, slimmer and handles like one of those creepy gas station tube toys that you can never hold onto. Luigi’s had some starring roles and even played a large part in the various RPGs, but he’s still no Mario.
Then: Sega’s 16-bit answer to Mario, a speedy hedgehog who exuded personality and attitude instead of Nintendo’s “let’s 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 Sega’s latest entry in the long-churning series, and this official art looks damn near the same, doesn’t it? Sonic’s 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 it’s done with such detail now that you can accept the quirks as simple videogame silliness. The version, taken from Advent Children, isn’t 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 you’re one of those “games can’t be hot” people). This image is from, fittingly, the modern remake of the original Tomb Raider, so that’s why the clothes are dead-on. Normally she’s donned in whatever grab the environment calls for, be it short shorts, skin tight swimsuit or chest-hugging t-shirt. Just like real archeologists!
Next up: Link, Snake, two Ryus and more