Knowing Your Story – Mario vs. Sonic

[Currently listening to: Olympics, baby!]

Mario vs Sonic1

The Olympics are pretty much the only sports I watch zealously. I’ve had several friends and some family members try to entice me into the world of football, but I typically use those games as an excuse to nap on the couch (while my mom screams at the Denver Broncos and throws her foam brick at the TV). But dude, when the Olympics come on I’m like, “IS THIS WEIGHTLIFTING I LOVE WEIGHTLIFTING LET ME WATCH IT FOR FIVE HOURS STRAIGHT.”

This really is a video game post. Hang tight.

A recent gimmick in the Nintendo world has been to create a “Mario and Sonic at the Olympics” game whenever the event itself comes around. I’ve never played the series, but its existence – and the fact that this Friday lines up right near the end of Rio’s summer schedule – has given me inspiration for a storytelling study.

Mainly, who does storytelling better: Mario or Sonic?

Dat sweat detail.

Ah, Mario vs. Sonic – the rivalry of the 90’s. I was a Nintendo gal, so of course I had a built-in appreciation for Mario, but when I got the chance to play the Sega Genesis Sonic trilogy (+ Sonic & Knuckles; would that make it a quadrilogy?), I had a great time. The speed was innovative, Tails was adorable, and – of course – the music was always solid.

Back then, each franchise kept their stories simple, but console limitations didn’t necessarily force them to do so. Of course, they couldn’t make things flashy with CG cutscenes, but more complicated stories like Final Fantasy and Shining Force (possibly a poor comparison) were already demonstrating what video games could tell.

Mario‘s plots usually centered around a rescue – typically Peach, but sometimes other unfortunate kidnappees of the Mushroom Kingdom. Sonic‘s plots during the early Sega era focused on stopping Dr. Eggman from turning all those cherubic forest creatures into robots for his own evil designs.

Years passed; consoles expanded their capabilities. Mario and Sonic continued to deliver games, adding new characters, small twists, and different challenges. But despite their mended rivalry, their games’ respective receptions began to divert from each other.

Sure, Sonic has had struggles with glitchy games and incomplete programming, but I also think its lag behind the Mario franchise has been because – it doesn’t know its own story anymore.

*dodges raw vegetables thrown by Sonic fanbase*

Listen: in a platformer, you don’t need much story. You need engaging level design. Mario and Sonic both had that, and they had enough characters and world-building to keep players interested in progressing through the game.

But in recent years Sonic games have begun to experiment with more involved plots. More cutscenes, more characters, more dialogue. I certainly can’t fault them for getting creative, but so much dabbling at once can screw with the canon – and the flow of the games themselves.

Remember what the Sonic games did well: rescuing robotized animals. You didn’t need more than that; you just wanted to go fast through all the loop-de-loops. So why did the games divert into odd territory like Arabian mythology, Arthurian legend, and (who could forget) this unnecessary display of affection?


Mario sticks to kidnapping – what it’s done since the beginning. And yeah, you could argue that the trope is getting stale – the same old rescues, the same Bowser set-up – but it could also be argued that these games know what works, and they know how to bring in fresh ideas without over-burdening the gamers with new plot ideas or a barrage of characters.

Which brings me to my next point: There’s also this problem with dumping characters quickly into a franchise. Sonic no longer allows time for its new additions to settle in our hearts. In the span between Sonic Adventure and Sonic ’06 its platformers introduced us to: Big the Cat, Shadow the Hedgehog, Rouge the Bat, Cream the Rabbit, Silver the Hedgehog, and Blaze the Cat – not to mention a few others who didn’t stick around.

In the span between Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy (a roughly similar time frame), we were introduced to Bowser Jr. and…Rosalina. That’s it. (Remember, we’re talking about main platformers.)

Because it leaves time between each addition, The Mario franchise gives its characters a chance to breathe when introduced – like Rosalina, whose premier game made her a focal point to the story.


Remember when Sonic 2 gave us just Tails, and Sonic 3 gave us just Knuckles? We were able to connect with those characters because their spotlight wasn’t split three separate ways. Not to say Sonic‘s more recent characters don’t have personality, but they end up becoming just one more face in a crowd of over-the-top dispositions.

It’s something to keep in mind when creating a written story or series: how much is too much at once? Do you keep interest more by busying readers/viewers/players with tons of characters and plot twists? Or do you build a better story by focusing on the critical points and allowing a smaller number of characters space to grow? Personally, I bank more on the success of the second option. Mario’s had his own hits and misses, no mistake; but he’s never forgotten his story.

So, Sonic fans…no hard feelings, right?

*runs from pitchfork-wielding mob*


The Mario franchise is property of Nintendo. The Sonic franchise is property of Sega. Go play ’em both!

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