Few rivalries in video games will ever live up to that shared between Nintendo mascot Super Mario and Sega icon Sonic the Hedgehog. Avatars of their respective 16-bit home consoles and their companies at large, these two characters touted the best of each system and illustrated the contrasts between the two companies in ways few other media could ever dream.
Who doesn’t remember Sega’s classic line of “Sega does what Ninten’don’t” or Nintendo’s marketing of CGI games like Donkey Kong Country as being part of its “Project Reality?”
The marketing hype was real on both sides – Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the best games for the Genesis and Super Mario World is easily the same on the Super Nintendo – and, in hindsight, both games are stellar titles that deserve a playthrough. In marked contrast between the emotions of the time, in retrospect they’re two solid titles from two vastly different systems that had different cultures attached to them.
For better or worse, Nintendo had the kid-friendly reputation then that it enjoys now while Sega deployed an edgier marketing campaign that gave it the allure of being the more “adult” system of the two.
Aside from that, Sonic the Hedgehog was a much younger property than Super Mario, and, as a product of the 1990s, still maintains a lot of that persona to this day. Mario, on the other hand, debuted in 1981’s Donkey Kong arcade game from Nintendo and wasn’t even known by that name until much later. 1983’s arcade title Mario Bros. really introduced a lot of what we now consider quintessential Mario but Sonic the Hedgehog was the first appearance of Sega’s blue mascot and remains the template for perceived greatness in that series.
In many ways, the two mascots functioned in very similar ways for their companies: Mario helped distinguish the Nintendo Entertainment System from the shovelware of an Atari-dominated past and Sonic the Hedgehog helped show off the Sega Genesis’ considerable graphical prowess for its time. Moving fast with bright colors, Sonic the Hedgehog was Mario on steroids and this message was conveyed repeatedly through the marketing. This contrast became very apparent when you compared the slower pace of the flagship SNES title Super Mario World with the lightning-fast speed of Sonic the Hedgehog.
While these two titles introduced the rivalry to the wider world they were not the only areas in which the two mascots would go head to head in a sense. Puzzle games, adventure games, sequels, sports games, and more all featured their respective rosters in a bid to outshine the other. And this might already be apparent to some people but Mario won most of these contests. After all, we love Mario Kart but Sonic Allstar Racing (or whatever the latest incarnation may be called) just doesn’t have the same cultural cachet.
This doesn’t mean that Sonic the Hedgehog failed to bring the heat to Mario – he very much did and the character himself is a case study in how to manufacture an iconic character. Sonic’s benefits for the Sega Genesis spread across the console’s lineup whereas a Mario game was expected on the Super Nintendo. Given the NES’ profligate lineup of Super Mario titles (3 in total), the two outings on the SNES seem fewer in comparison. Of course, Nintendo made up for this with Donkey Kong Country and Kirby, among others, but it is still interesting that when they were under the greatest pressure in the console mascot space they relented in the number of titles they released.
Sonic and Mario both had spin-off titles and properties that did incredibly well but Sonic was quicker to cash in on this and, in many ways, pioneered what we see with Nintendo products today. Sonic was on everything and for a good reason: Sega had to get its name out there as quickly as possible to take market share away from Nintendo, a veritable juggernaut in the space.
And this is where the crux of the difference between the two mascots lies: Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog is very much the product of slick marketing while Mario is an organic evolution of a character that appeared in titles as early as 1981. You can even note this in their respective designs. As said before, Sonic the Hedgehog is proudly a product of the 1990s while Super Mario hearkens from an earlier time in video games.
Even though the rivalry was born in the 16-bit era, it did extend beyond that time period even though it became less and less important as the two companies sagged under the weight of Sony’s newly dominant position.
Sega didn’t even release a Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Saturn, for example, and Nintendo only made one Mario game for the Nintendo 64. Now, that game happened to be Super Mario 64, easily one of the greatest games of all time, but it stands in marked contrast to the three released on the NES and the two editions for the SNES. Gamers would have gobbled up a Super Mario 64 2, there’s little doubt.
There were some furtive attempts at releasing a 3D Sonic game for the Saturn but they came to nothing and few people consider Sonic 3D Blast a true title in the line of Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequels. Sonic Xtreme, one of the more promising games in development, employed a bug-eyed camera lens for a unique take on the platforming classic. It could have possibly been the first Sonic game in 3D but was cancelled before release for a myriad of reasons, among them being its questionable quality and its being developed by an American team, something Sega of Japan did not like in the least.
Now when Sega returned to prominence for its final act in the home console space, it did bring out a 3D Sonic title called Sonic Adventures which is fondly remembered by people who owned the system. It did spawn a sequel but, by this point in video games, mascot games were not as important as before. While neither character has waned in popularity each now finds itself in a different position in the industry. Whereas before they were the symbols of home console video games as we know them, now they are as much associated with video games as Mickey Mouse is with animation: The history is there, the connections are there, but nothing is immediate.