We’ve all read articles about iconic video game characters bursting onto the scene and defining a generation, but what about the characters that influenced the industry and changed the trajectory of gaming forever? Each console started with a bang and the ones that remain successful today are because of a few heroes fighting against their rivals on the frontline. But who had the biggest say in setting the gaming bar higher?
Sure, you’ll be able to guess who holds the crown, that’s no secret. And if tasked with jotting down the top 10, you’d likely get 5 or so correct, but ask yourself this: do you know WHY they influenced the industry? Some were created as a direct response to Mario, others were formed to re-defined the gaming demographic, and some paved the way even before that overalls-wearing plumber was dreamed up by a Japanese man in his laboratory. They led the way for their gender, their console, and in some cases, a whole new style of gaming. Sega, in the early 90s drew level with Nintendo in America, but do you know the character that shot him down and made Nintendo king again? It may not be who you think. Questions like this are only the beginning of things that you are going to learn about, so be prepared to expand your mind and enjoy!
10. Crash Bandicoot
Nintendo had Mario. Sega had Sonic. PlayStation needed an icon, and they chose Crash Bandicoot. And he was a success. He wasn’t as cool as the hedgehog, or structured as the plumber, instead he was like a wild animal let loose to cause havoc on the environment. Crash didn’t eat mushrooms; he chased masks that turned him into this wrecking ball. Sony needed children on their team, and Crash was the symbol of hope. His gaming life followed Mario’s, as sequels were launched and he found himself in a cart game, but there remained a likability to Crash: little blue shorts, an incredible spin and a level of courage not expected from his source material. He narrowly edged out Snake and Spyro to register at 10 on the list, let’s just hope we haven’t seen the last of him!
The first Nintendo entry on the list, Link remains one of the most popular characters in the gaming roster. But it was the earlier games in the franchise that made video games more than just a linear battle to a boss. Link could explore Hyrule, solve puzzles and utilise weapons that Mario could only dream of. There was violence, revenge, and power to be chased. Sure, Link was saving a damsel in distress just like his plumber friend, but he proved it could be done with a sword, shield, and bow. One of the keys to the immersion was the soundtrack that helped motivate us along as we felt like Link was our hero, and we needed to push him through to the final battle with Ganon. Zelda games are few and far between, but they carry something mystical about them with every entry. They did for the video game industry what Lord of the Rings did for the film industry, proving that fantasy has a place on the big stage.
That little yellow ball with its chomping action made a name for himself before even Mario. Fixed onto arcade screens across the world, he chewed whatever stood in his way and avoided the monsters like the plague. It didn’t matter that there was no story or exciting graphics, it was the simplicity of Pac-Man made the game worth playing. Beating that high score meant everything to the players as we all debated how far you could get into the game before you were chomped by some colourful bastards. There have been countless spawns of the game and Pac-Man now comes complete with a wife, red shoes and a cheeky-ass grin. Are those boxing gloves? Either way, the evolution was expected. You can only remain a poor-bit globe for a generation or so. But it is well known that people continue to play Pac-Man in arcades, remembering a time gone by where graphics meant nothing and scores were everything.
7. Master Chief
When Microsoft released the Xbox, they needed a title (and some sort of face) to draw them deep into the battle, and luckily for them, the Master Chief helmet became their Mario. It didn’t matter that the character wasn’t fleshed out or cute because it symbolised what Microsoft were all about. They weren’t going to copy Nintendo, Sega and PlayStation by releasing a cute little creature jumping and spinning through lush environments, they wanted a guy that said this is the new generation, and we don’t bow to the children. The more advanced teenager will lead this battle wearing the helmet made popular through Halo. It was the best-selling game on the Xbox and led the battle for the industry on the frontline with very little competition. The XBOX was a very new concept Microsoft drew on and Halo was there to demonstrate its power. It is no wonder it is still one of the most popular franchises in gaming.
6. Nathan Drake
Run. Jump. Shoot. Kill. Next level. This was the sequence of video games. The industry was crying out for a title that actually had an immersive story, and then came Uncharted led by Mr. Drake. Once this hit the shelves, games started to increase their story immersion, leading to an example such as The Last of Us. It’s unfair to say that stories were terrible until Drake came along, but they did lack movie-quality moments that were more than just cut-scenes between gameplay. Each play was like a movie set-piece…ducking for cover as bullets whizzed by, saving women, killing terrorists and all the while feeling like Indiana Jones on speed. The games weren’t known for length or exploration, they provided a very specific experience that resonated with the gaming industry. The 4th game in the franchise was released earlier this month.
No list would be complete without the Pokémon that was the face of one of the biggest gaming movements you will ever see. Handheld gaming, specifically the Gameboy, needed a title that made the purchase more than just a travel-buddy for when the console was out of place. Pikachu’s Pokémon not only delivered, it kick-started a fad that stretched across the world. TV shows, movies, toys, and the cards are just scraping the barrel at the amount of merchandise that is available. It was crazy, and it proved that the handheld industry had a future in gaming. Many titles attempted to remove the crown, but it still sits on that furry creature’s little yellow head. He ticked all the boxes: cute for the girls, powerful for the boys, and with a personality that transcended the screen. While Pokémon was at its most powerful in the mid 90s, we’re still seeing titles released today.
4. Lara Croft
Female characters were damsels in distress until Lara Croft burst onto the PlayStation wielding her dual guns and tight shorts. Not to mention that Polygon boobs became a thing. She was the poster-girl for women entering the gaming industry, and a poster-girl for men because…well let’s just leave that to the imagination. Her exploration was deep, her courage clear and the difficulty ramped up to high. She proved that Zelda, Peach, and Samus (who had to hide her true self) were a thing of the past, and women had a voice in the world once dominated by men. PlayStation played on this, and now we’re seeking countless examples of a female hero taking down the system, and not just in the gaming industry. She spawned movies, she continues to have titles released on her story and she remains the best example of a female video game character sticking it up to the men. Even if a lot of men are just happy that her polygon boobs have also gotten graphically improved!
3. Sonic The Hedgehog
The hedgehog that challenged Nintendo at a time when the gaming industry bowed to the emperor. Sega couldn’t get a foothold into the market because Nintendo, led by their master plumber, had too much to offer. But then the team thought up a character that was cool, edgy and fast. It took audiences by surprise, why play a slow game when I can whizz by on-screen? The blue mascot’s gaming sequel launched what we now know as a global release date, originally called Sonic 2sday. This has become a norm, but at the time, it was a bold move that focused on defeating the monster that was Nintendo. Sega was all too happy to parade Sonic around alongside Mario, because they were starting to understand that the industry wasn’t as reliant on young gamers as was first thought. So, when Sonic became king for a day, who stopped him?
2. Donkey Kong
Here is the beast that killed Sega. Donkey Kong started as a villain of Mario, capturing the princess and tossing barrels down to the protagonist, but soon Bowser stole that role. Donkey Kong remained in the periphery as Sega drew level with Nintendo in America, but then Donkey Kong Country came out. It was the answer to Sega’s Sonic as he was now a cool, powerful, red tie-wearing gorilla that chased the bananas like the gold coins of Mario. He had a hot girlfriend, an awesome sidekick named Diddy and an array of other Kongs each crazier than the last. He was the cool that kicked the stuffing out of a rival franchise and made Nintendo reign supreme once again, and the sequels flowed to ram home the point. The Mushroom Kingdom is where dreams began, but exploring the lands of Donkey Kong is where gamers found their calling. Like many entries on this list, he is still incredibly relevant today.
By this point, the number one entry should really come as no surprise. Mario revolutionised the gaming world and turned it into an industry. He gave Nintendo their face, their marquee man and a launching pad into success. But he wasn’t just the catalyst for the big N, as he also sparked Sonic, Crash and every other cartoon hero that has defined generations since his first motion on the screen. His heroics were so profound that they gave him a brother (Luigi), a pet (Yoshi), a damsel in distress (Peach) and an iconic villain who he will duke out with until the end of time (Bowser).
These characters have become masters of their own games and are as recognisable as any other gaming cast out there. Parties, sports, mario kart, Olympics…the releases have been endless, and they continue to wow audiences all over the world. Nintendo is currently struggling against Sony and Microsoft, but there are still yearly Mario releases that deserve a play. For what started the industry should never be forgotten.