A game featuring both mascots would have been unthinkable in the 90s, but they'll be battling it out at the Olympic Games. Nintendo and Sega talk tactics
Back in the 90s, it would've been hard to imagine that a game would launch featuring both Sonic and Mario. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games is a good analogy for Nintendo and Sega nowadays; they're still competing, but things aren't so polarized as they were when Sega was still a console maker. At least now they can have a foot race without going at each other's throats.
We wanted to find out how the Mario-Sonic deal materialized, what the heck is going on with the flagging (quality-wise) Sonic franchise and what Nintendo thinks about people who say the company throws its mascots into too many games. Sega's Simon Jeffery and Nintendo's George Harrison have the answers.
Did this deal stem from Sega’s agreement with the International Olympic Committee? Did Sega just kind of call up Nintendo and say, “We’ve got a license, you want in on this?”
Jeffery: We have actually been discussing ways of working together with Nintendo for several years. It was hard to find some common ground because the gameplay styles and environments of Mario and Sonic are actually quite different. So when we signed the Olympics deal a little over a year ago, we suddenly realized that we had some common ground, some commonality. We have a situation where the two characters could meet and compete and it made all the sense to both parties to move out.
What’s the trick to keeping mascots relevant as the characters’ original audiences get older?
Harrison: I think it’s something that both Nintendo and Sega have been good at over the years. I mean, every year millions of new gamers arrive into our industry when they’re six, seven, eight, nine years old, and we’ve had to continuously reinvent our main franchise characters to appeal to them. There are probably no more two adoring characters in the industry than Sonic and Mario.
Jeffery: If you think back to the years of Genesis and the Super Nintendo, think how many critter games were on those platforms at that time. They’ve all pretty much fallen by the wayside. Some new guys have come along like Crash and Ratchet and Clank, but in terms of longevity, Sonic and Mario are the only characters that have survived that long.
Some people see this as burying the hatchet between Nintendo and Sega, but has there really been much of a hatchet left to bury in recent years?
Harrison: I don’t think that there ever was a hatchet. There was certainly spirited competition when we were both in the hardware business but at that time there was certainly mutual respect. For someone to create a character like Sonic that had that kind of popularity or appeal, you couldn’t dismiss it. There was always mutual creative respect that has led us to come closer together over the last several years.
Simon, what’s going on with Sonic? Sales seem to have been holding up for the franchise but the PS3 and 360 versions of Sonic the Hedgehog were critically panned. Sonic for Wii was fun, but how does Sega intend to save its mascot from bad games?
Jeffery: Yeah, that’s a fair question. We have actually for a couple years now been looking quite deeply into the character and longevity. Part of the reason for the longevity is just the initial character design itself. When Sonic was designed it wasn’t just done on the back of an envelope. Sonic’s character was designed to have attitude and depth and speed, all of which I can honestly say are very important.
The reason that Sonic is still selling well is because the character itself still appeals especially to those kids who come into gaming every year like George was talking about. Sega has been looking at Sonic and the Sonic franchise quite heavily and seriously, figuring out what we can do to improve the quality of games overall. The games tended to be fairly good quality on the Nintendo systems the last few years, like Sonic on the Wii but also Sonic Rush on the DS, which came out last year. It’s a great game.
The franchise has been gravitating well towards the Nintendo platforms and a game like [Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games] is a natural progression as we move towards reinventing and reaffirming Sonic as a brand.
This will be a Wii and DS game. Were those platforms targeted because of the younger crowd that is attracted to those systems?
Jeffery: Well we think younger crowd yes, but I think another way of looking at it is wider crowd. We think that both of those systems are really appealing to a wide market, to lax gamers who have kind of got bored with gaming over the last few years. Those are the Genesis and SNES players who are familiar with both of these characters, but the interactivity of both those hardware systems from Nintendo just makes gaming cool and exciting again. That’s bringing back the lax gamer market again.
George, what would you say to people who accuse Nintendo of overusing its well-known cast of characters in such a large amount of its games?
Harrison: I’d say take a look at our financial statements. I mean, popularity and appeal are not something that you want to walk away from, simply. It’d be like saying to Disney, “You shouldn’t do so much with Mickey Mouse.” It makes no sense. What we do have to do is be careful to cultivate the use of the character and not use it in ways that are inappropriate, make sure every game is as good and enjoyable as consumers expect when they see a Mario game. We feel that’s certainly the case as we come together with Sega to put both Sonic and Mario into a game.