Mario and sonic were born enemies!

Right out of the gate their personalities clash.

“Sonic has the image of a mischievous bad boy, while Mario is playful, and aloof.”

In the beginning gaming had a singular phase. This guy, no I mean this guy, sure he was a tad destructive and might not have liked animals but in general the world of games was a bright and harmonious place. Then this guy came along, and all hell broke loose. Why can’t I be like that nice boy Mario?

If you were alive in the 90’s you had to choose a side, a rift was forming between those who remained loyal to Mario and the no good traitors who jumped ship for that sneaky blue varney. No hard feelings, true, they were on competing consoles but why did these two adorable little mascots cause such a hostile and intense rivalry? I think in a way they were naturally born to dislike each other, and if you look at the designs of characters you’ll see why. Just as the 19th century expressionists use shape and line to evoke emotional responses, character designers today use the shape of a characters body to communicate the personality of a character to us. Mario is circular, he has a button nose, a pot belly, and his hands, feet, and head, are all round. Sonic’s design on the other hand is all jaggy triangles, he has spiky hair, pointy cat ears, ski goggle eyes, and torpedo shoes. As Scott Mcloud rights in understanding comics, a character who is drawn with gentle curves conveys a feeling of whimsy, youth, and innocence, that’s Mario. A character like Sonic who’s composed of saw tooth shapes and lines conveys the hostile and severe look of teen angst he says, which kind of explains why he was always giving us the, “I’m not amused look”, and tapping his foot. I’m waiting.

Right out of the gate the personalities clash. Sonic has the image of a mischievous bad boy, while Mario is playful, and aloof. The difference in shape doesn’t stop with them but carries over to their nemesis as well. For instance, about the only character who’s rounded in Sonic Screw is the bad guy, Dr. Robotnic. Mario is at odds with prickly things, his arch rival Bowser is spiky, and triangular in silhouette. Not to mention how the character designs of Sonics pals are suspiciously close to the Koopa kids, so as they say, there’s got to be a show down.

I hear you, aren’t I just being superficial? After all what people usually mean when they say they prefer Mario to Sonic or vice versa is that they like how those respective games feel. Sonic is fast, Mario is bouncy, as I explored in a previous episode. The thing is, the shape of the characters often times informs the way they move through their environment. Gotta go fast.

The game artist Chris Solarski calls this dynamic composition, and if you look closely at Mario and Sonics movements, you’ll see sonic_the_plumber_and_mario_the_hedgehog_by_kahcow50-d57goawhow it works. Mario’s main method of movement is of course the jump, as we’ve talked about before, Mario slows down and almost seems to float in midair for a second as he presses against gravity and reaches the peak of his jump. If you trace his motion as he leaps forward it forms this eloquent and graceful arch. His physics allow him to hop through a level, skipping over pitfalls, and green pipes, in a motion that’s gentle and rounded just like his huggable character design. Sonic, yeah he jumped too but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying. His forte was running really fast, but unlike Mario who could also move pretty fast as well Sonic’s footwork was used to dare you to run to fast. His physics have what’s known as rebound, when he collides with an enemy he stopped dead in his tracks, kicked backwards, and the player loses control. The levels constantly push Sonic ahead with pinball flippers and downhill ramps at a speed that is faster than what he can reach of his own volition. The result is that he’s always zipping forward but getting slung back when he crashes into a robot insect, or air and spring. It creates all these harsh and aggressive ricochets along the path, which would seem weird with a chubby plumber doing it but with a spiny angular misfit it just feels right. Mario moves fast but has own controlled or rounded pace.

Sonic on the other hand is almost at the mercy of the level, constantly being propelled forward in a way that complimented his sharp, aggressive lines. As you see from their character design to their friends, family, and enemies, right down to the mechanics that make the two of them the most memorable characters in games, Mario and Sonic couldn’t be more different. It’s no wonder they caused a whole generation to fuss and fight over which one was better. Even though we’ll never truly decide, the important takeaway from both of them is that we need characters with a diverse range of shapes and body types because it’s great for diverse types of game design, not just women and men with crazy physiques or even more homely looking characters, but spirals, and star shapes, rhomboids, and I don’t know, mandalas. I had to look it up too.

What do you think? Are there other examples where you feel character design influences game play? By the way, who does have the best body, Mario or Sonic? Yeah that’s right, I said it.

SCHOOL OF GAME DESIGN