Sonic and Mario have long been rivals in the platforming world, ever since the blue critter’s first game in 1991. Therefore, it is only natural that fans would pit the two legends against one another. However, since both franchises have existed for a few decades now, even spawning a spin-off Olympics series together, it seems like the right time to assess each franchise and see which is superior in quality. Hold on to your dungarees and slip on your red sneakers as we explore which franchise ultimately comes out on top.
The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is commendable for achieving great popularity from its inception in 1991, at a time when Mario was King of the platforming world. It is thanks to their spiky blue mascot that Sega managed to shift more Mega Drives, thanks to the character’s appeal and, of course, the unique fast-paced gameplay of his initial foray.
Sonic could run at terrifically high speeds, bouncing off springs and destroying evil robots with his Spin Attack, in some ways reinvigorating the platform game in a time where it was most needed. Sega had truly succeeded; Sonic was created as a character who could stand on his own against Nintendo’s famous plumber, and he did so in fine fashion.
The sequels that followed on Sega’s 16-bit console only improved the Sonic formula, adding longer stages and varied challenges, as well as increasing the series’ cast of characters with faces such as Miles ‘Tails’ Prower and Knuckles the Echidna. Arguably, it was the 16-bit era where Sonic was truly a worthy contender for the platforming throne, as Sega continued to churn out classic after classic.
As the series progressed, other new features were added, including the ability to enter pseudo-3D special stages that were impressive at the time and, also, the ability to turn into Super Sonic. In addition, the series maxed out the Mega Drive’s graphical capabilities and provided some of the most memorable gaming soundtracks of the era.
Of course, Mario was introduced to gaming audiences years prior to the blue critter’s beginnings. Starting off under the name of Jumpman in 1981’s Donkey Kong, the character soon evolved into Mario and starred in Super Mario Bros. four years later.
The gameplay is loved for its precise controls, allowing players to choose how fast Mario runs and how high he jumps, as well as the many power-ups, including the mushroom which allows the plumber to become Super Mario, as well as the star which enables invincibility for a short period of time.
Sequels expanded upon the plumber’s arsenal with the Cape which enabled the plumber to glide through the air and the Tanooki suit, which enabled him to fly, as well as adding widely-loved characters such as Luigi and Yoshi. Stages were fun and varied, keeping players hooked until the very end, until the final battle with Mario’s archnemesis, Bowser.
The 16-bit era was a successful one for Nintendo’s moustachioed hero, but the time came when he would have to face the greatest challenge of them all; not another duel with Bowser, but his emergence into three dimensions.
The 3D platformer will be more than familiar to players now, but as the late 90’s got underway, it was an entirely new concept. Due to the developing technology, many franchises were expected to make the transition from 2D to 3D, and Sonic and Mario were no exception in this case.
It was just a shame that, between the two platforming rivals, Sonic’s transition wasn’t quite as smooth. Sonic Adventure was one of the doomed Sega Dreamcast’s launch titles and, whilst it was a decent platformer in its own right, failed to engage players in the same way that Super Mario 64 did.
The game offered plenty of variety, even giving the player a choice of six different characters through which the game’s narrative could be perceived. However, the gameplay types offered by these characters were hit-and-miss – including awkward fishing segments with Big the Cat and sections where Amy Rose would have to run away from a robot in each stage. Nevertheless, playing as the blue hedgehog himself offered players some incredibly fast-paced action stages that recaptured the magic of the 2D games and supplanted them in a 3D environment.
As the years went by, Sonic made new allies and enemies, and the franchise took steps into unlikely territory; this territory included Sonic Shuffle, a spin-off party game not dissimilar from Nintendo’s own Mario Party and, much later, 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog, which had Sonic’s rival wielding guns while giving the player an option of choosing the light side or the dark. Understandably, critics chastised the games for their multiple flaws despite Sega clearly wanting to explore new horizons with their characters.
Since then, the franchise has suffered many setbacks and it has become clear that Sonic’s best days were truly behind him. Despite more recent games such as Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations garnering a relatively positive reception from fans and critics alike, the blue hedgehog still has much to prove before he can reclaim his place among platforming’s elite.
However, Mario has always managed to keep himself there. The plumber’s first foray into the world of 3D gaming, Super Mario 64, was a critical and commercial success and rightfully so. It revolutionised 3D gaming with its camera system and use of the analogue stick.
Another aspect of its game design that impressed gamers was its non-linear approach; players could tackle courses in any order they wished, provided they had enough stars to access them, and extra replay value came in the form of collecting all 120 stars.
The franchise since has expanded upon the Mario universe with each installment, adding variety to the series. The spin-off, Luigi’s Mansion, for example, starring Mario’s green-hatted sidekick, had him use a vacuum machine to capture ghosts in a dark mansion. Similarly, in Super Mario 64’s true sequel, Super Mario Sunshine, Mario himself had to utilise a new gadget in the form of FLUDD, a machine that could shoot water and use the liquid to complete puzzles.
Part of the franchise’s success comes with its ability to reinvent itself in every game, with every title seemingly having its own unique formula, making each game all the more distinctive and memorable in the minds of its fans. The Super Mario Galaxy games on the Wii have also showcased how unique and larger-than-life Mario’s universe can be, while the New Super Mario Bros. series has revisited the classic platforming of the first Mario games while giving it a modern spin, making it accessible for players of all ages, from casual to hardcore.
Unlike the Sonic games, which have constantly been changing in tone and theme, the Mario franchise has always remained the same. It has treated its fans well, developing Mario’s world whilst being careful not to overstep its boundaries like Sega did with titles such as Shadow the Hedgehog and its gunplay. Every game seems to be polished to great perfection, whereas the Sonic games have to a far lesser extent, with bugs, glitches and camera issues plaguing the 3D releases.
As for the future, both franchises seem to be heading in promising directions. With their upcoming release for the new generation of consoles, Sonic: The Lost World, Sonic Team have seemingly found a good balance between the 3D Sonic titles and his classic 2D adventures, hinting towards their past yet embracing the future. Similarly, Super Mario 3D Land on Nintendo’s 3DS looks like an effective mix of the 3D Mario games with the 2D Mario titles. Only time will tell as to which game will be better received.
Both franchises have managed to give birth to great games in their own right, platformers that will forever have an impact on gaming. However, in terms of the franchise that has provided us with quality gameplay, Mario seems to be in the lead at the moment, whereas Sonic’s recent past has been flawed, with Sonic Team seemingly still in the stage of finding a voice in the current generation for its speedy blue hero. Still, the future holds much mystery, so who knows if Sonic and his friends can rise again and be as they did in the 90’s?
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This article was first posted on September 27, 2013