So last time we looked at a trio of narrative nightmares and learned some important lessons. Namely the importance of self-awareness, the dangers of fruitless repetition and the knowledge that even a flawed character must have some redeeming features to be realistic, or even tolerable.
But today we’re looking at three more bozos who could’ve used some more rethinking, and we’re starting with one of the most famous characters in gaming – and one of the dorkiest.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (ALL VOICED VERSIONS)
Sure, people whine about Sonic’s comrades, most specifically Amy, but let’s think about this dispassionately for a moment and look at Sonic himself. Even before the horror show that was Sonic Boom, the little blue bugger never seemed anything other than cringingly embarrassing. In fact, nearly all of the attempts made to develop Sonic as a character have fallen flat, mainly because somebody at Sega decided a little while ago that Sonic is a product of the nineties and that should be reflected in every facet of his being.
But nothing from the nineties has aged well. And I’m from the nineties, so believe me, I would know.
As a result of this mistake we have a character who is just sort of fascinating in his sheer awfulness. I’ve never been a massive fan of the franchise as a whole, but Sonic The Hedgehog in particular has always rubbed me up the wrong way. Maybe it’s because he feels like the worst elements of a dated Saturday morning cartoon hero brought to life, with his cocky, arrogant swagger and constant “Dreamworks’ Face.” Maybe it’s the fact that the freakishly modern attitude and running shoes seems to clash weirdly with the storybook fantasy that the games are set in.
Or maybe it’s the voice, usually badly acted and inspired from the kind of person who wears a baseball cap backwards and uses the word “radical” every time he inhales. And though I don’t think Sonic has ever actually rapped to camera, at this point it feels like only a matter of time. It is possible to make a kid-friendly hero who doesn’t make me want to run screaming from the room. Even Mario, devoid of personality completely, is preferable to something this painfully outdated.
But there’s not much to be done here, not without burning it down and starting all over from scratch. And the opportunity for that was Sonic Boom, which of course failed beautifully.
And it didn’t fail because they changed the formula, mind you. The franchise has never stuck to one thing long enough to develop a formula, and as we’ve mentioned, everything from the older canon was kind of sickly and needed shaking up anyway.
No, it just kept all the problems of the originals and added a batch of new ones. The biggest problem is Sonic himself – and nothing will be fixed until that issue is sorted.
And on the opposite side of the coin, what happens when a series is all too happy to let you make fun of a character, swamping you with reasons to detest him?
Claptrap has been a staple of the Borderlands series since its inception, he’s the third NPC you meet in the whole story (besides Marcus and the flaky chick who managed to wangle enough money for FMV). He’s kept showing up constantly since then – in Borderlands 2 he was a major character, in The Pre-Sequel he was actually playable, and in Tales From The Borderlands he was an easter egg, available if you’d been hoarding money throughout the game, which came as something of a disappointment to people like me who had been doing so and were hoping for something better. The series has likable characters, but I couldn’t help but get irked by having to see this jackass show up yet again.
Some might claim that Claptrap has the same problem as Ben – namely that he’s an entity designed to be annoying, which is certainly true. The developers have admitted as much and it’s constantly brought up in the games. But I would say that Claptrap is a more obvious failure than Ben, as his purpose for being so aggravating is much clearer – Claptrap is designed to be so annoying, he becomes funny for it. And the problem is that he isn’t funny.
Gearbox were really playing with fire here, because there really were only two ways it could go. Either he managed to go right round the circle and make people laugh as intended, or he’d fall short and get real old, real fast. And boy, we know which one it was now.
And yet, they still keep trying. The battle to make Claptrap accepted by the public has been a losing struggle for years now. They tried everything, including making two DLC campaigns about him, and yet it still won’t take, not quite. Perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow is that Telltale made what I can’t help but think of as “what Claptrap should have been” – Gortys, the chirpy little robot who managed to blend childlike naiveté, excitable charm and a real sense of friendly altruism.
Whereas Claptrap is just an arse, through and through. He’s whiney, egocentric, boastful and lethally unamusing. And though this is pretty bad, he probably wouldn’t be so detested if he didn’t have such a permanent presence in all the games. Not only do Gearbox insist on making him a major figure, he refuses to keep quiet when he’s around, constantly bleating out self-deprecating “jokes” over the top of a gunfight or grunting out the tune of some dubstep garbage. Yes, he’s even a fan of the most unlikeable music going, and there’s no way to make him shut his Hyperion-brand hole.
The cure here is a pretty minimalist one – to minimise the bugger’s performance. I know they can’t drop him completely, as he IS the mascot of the series, but keep him out of our way as much as possible, OK? And please, Gearbox, really work hard to make those jokes click. You’ve tried humanising him and that didn’t really work, so I’d recommend that you keep pushing to do what you did before – get right back round the circle to make him funny again. And just in case, keep him in the background. That way it can never be much of a problem. Deal?
BABY MARIO (YOSHI’S ISLAND)
Did you know that the human brain has evolved in such a way that we are inherently programmed to find the sound of a baby crying unpleasant? Apparently we’ve developed this so that when there’s something wrong with our kid we feel a sense of urgency to do something about it, to make it better, healthier, less hungry or whatever.
Of course, that only ever applies when it’s a child we care about. When it’s somebody else’s baby wailing, we just give the parents an ugly look and ask the stewardess if we can change seats to somewhere else on the plane.
Yoshi’s Island was released for the SNES in 1995, and I’ll happily admit that it was a pretty good game that still holds up, which is probably why it’s been rereleased and copied in various forms such as “Yoshi’s Touch & Go,” “Yoshi’s Story,” “Yoshi’s Island DS,” “Yoshi’s New Island,” “Yoshi’s Woolly World” and we’ll probably see Yoshi’s Championship Manager if somebody doesn’t stop Nintendo soon. It seems that Mario’s mount has so many islands and worlds that he probably owns more real estate than Donald Trump.
But speaking of Mario, that was always the glaring flaw in those games – the ‘ickle Baby Mario. See, there was never a health system in Yoshi’s Island, because you were basically acting as a substitute courier. Baby Mario needed to get to a boss fight before the shops closed and you were the bloke who had to carry him there through enemy-infested lands, like he was a wounded soldier on the beaches of Normandy.
Except that there’s a tit on a broom who’s constantly hanging around, waiting for the chance to pinch Baby M and sell him for adoption to wealthy celebrities. So when an enemy hurts you, Mario is knocked off your back and for some reason, instantly generates a bubble around himself that promptly carries him away into the horizon. That is to say, away from the only creature that’s helping him. Not only that, but up towards the clammy hands of the child-catcher above you!
And whilst Mario’s bubble-borne, he starts to make the most awful, screeching cry you can imagine. It’s like a woodpecker going at your eardrums, a high-pitched repetitive noise that sounds unnervingly like a siren. Meanwhile all sorts of bells start ringing, and everything goes to shit very quickly.
Because now the baby’s floating off, and you have a limited time to get him back before he gets stolen – which is usually about ten seconds. And Mario has the terrible habit of floating up just out of your reach, leading to some frustrating moments as you bounce fruitlessly beneath him, pawing at the air and never getting close enough. And besides, you had to lose a couple of seconds to turn down the volume because of that goddamn crying noise.
The true irony here is that you’re putting in the effort to retrieve a kid you’d have every reason to avoid. Baby Mario has no personality, no reason to like him and no benefit to gameplay. The only noise he makes is the screaming and other than that he’s just a pain in the arse.
This is a fairly easy one to remedy, though. A bit more lovability injected into the character would be necessary, as well as cutting out that wailing noise. I’d also drop the bubble, because the urge is to blame Baby Mario for his own predicament when it carries him off. Why not have enemies run off with him, so you’ve got to give chase and get your kid back? As it is right now, I’m kind of in two minds about doing so. Guess I’m no father of the year.
Hope you enjoyed this list – maybe you had some characters in mind that we missed? Feel free to mention them in the comments, and special mentions go to Navi (Ocarina Of Time), Eli (Metal Gear Solid V), Leon Bell (Dead Rising 2), Tingle (Majora’s Mask) and amateur bowling enthusiast Roman Bellic (GTA IV).