First Click: Before Brexit and Trump vs. Hillary, there was the mascot war

June 23rd, 2016

Years before they learned to fight over Hillary or Trump and Leave or Remain, the children of the West honed their combative instincts on another war with another fundamental difference at its heart. Nintendo or Sega? Mario or Sonic?

It was on this very day, 25 years ago, that the mascot war began in earnest. Nintendo's Mario — short, fat, improbably good at jumping — had seen off eggs, cavemen, and nondescript spaceship blobs in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it was quickly clear there was something different about Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog. The way he tapped his foot if you took a break from the controller, the way he raised a quizzical eyebrow at the screen, the way he blazed through levels like he blazed past societal conventions. This hedgehog had attitude, and as anyone who lived through the era knows, attitude was the most important thing to have in the early 1990s.

The subsequent fight was between two moneyed and monolithic entities, but as is always the case in war, it was the little people that suffered. Vicious battles were fought in schoolyards, the combatants trading barbs about parental income, social standing, and mental fortitude. Among them wandered evangelists like priests, proselytizing where possible and delivering the last rites to friendships where not.

Some kids stayed neutral like Switzerland

A lucky few stayed neutral. Some kids were like Switzerland, their vast cash reserves and high standard of living allowing them to play both sides, while others were so far removed from the conflict that they could avoid it entirely. But even those without consoles found themselves conscripted into the war as their allies chose to take up arms for the hedgehog or the fat man.

The heartbreaking thing is that it could have been over by Christmas, but unlike his predecessors, Sonic had staying power, and the war lasted a generation. A console generation, specifically, starting with Sonic's arrival on the Genesis on June 23rd, 1991 and persisting as both Nintendo and Sega readied their new consoles. Each new game's release was a counter-offensive, both companies giving their child troops fresh ammunition to fight their battles.

It was June 23rd again — that auspicious day — that started the beginning of the end of the war. Dictated by technological limitations, Nintendo and Sega had kept their conflict to 2D platformers, a kind of accidental Geneva convention that saw both parties at parity. For all the schoolyard battles over which side had superior level design or nicer graphics, Mario and Sonic games at least looked similar, giving their heroes side-scrolling levels to leap through and enemies to defeat by bopping them on the head.

Super Mario 64, released 20 years ago today, blew this detente deal out of the water. It was a fully 3D platformer, with full analog control, huge open levels, and an explorable castle. It luxuriated in the new power of the Nintendo 64, its designers creating a game that still holds up two decades later as a masterpiece of design. Make no mistake — Mario versus Sonic had been fought with conventional weapons, but in this war, Super Mario 64 was the nuclear option.

Nintendo's elite shock troops were the first to strike. Those who could play the game early — kids with rich parents or family in Japan — rapidly realized what this new development would mean for their war. It was a time before the internet as we know it now, but the second wave was just as devastating: children mobilizing as they heard through video game magazines, friends of friends, or "uncles who worked for Nintendo" that this superweapon was coming.

When Super Mario 64 finally arrived — in my school, at least — the Sega side was deserted, its troops having defected to Nintendo or Sony months before. Sega's own retaliatory strike came too late. The fully 3D Sonic Adventure debuted for the Dreamcast in 1998 in Japan, two years after Super Mario 64, and wouldn't arrive in the west until 1999. Even then it was a shadow of the opposition's weapon, a 2D platformer at heart that couldn't make proper use of its new third plane, forcing players into the same loops and sprints as the Genesis games before it.

Sega capitulated in the wider console wars soon after, giving up its hardware aspirations as Sony and Microsoft moved in to carve up the turf. While Mario remained king of his castle, Sonic became a soldier of fortune, flipping between jobs for the highest bidder. Sometimes headlining his own games, sometimes appearing as a supporting actor, Sonic was even able to swallow his pride and join his arch-enemy in a celebration of winter sports.

But while their general could put his differences aside, countless kids raised during the Mario versus Sonic war are still looking for battles to fight in new culture wars. Some stayed in video games and found new champions, both weak (Crash Bandicoot) and stronger (Nathan Drake), while others moved to new media, or looked to loftier arguments about politics.

Perhaps June 23rd is destined to be a divisive day — this year, it's also when the UK chooses whether to leave or remain in the European Union. No matter the eventual result, toxic campaigning has cleaved a cultural gap in the nation reminiscent of the Mario and Sonic schoolyard split on a country-sized scale. Kids who grew up in the US during the 1990s will also be reminded of the fight in November's election when they're asked to choose between two new mascots — one slick and blue, the other portly and red.

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