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Crash Bandicoot and the end of videogame mascots

This article is part of PS1 Week, a full week celebrating the original PlayStation. To see the other articles, go here

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In 1996, a little less than a year after the launch of Sony’s Playstation console, Crash Bandicoot made his first appearance on millions of TV screens across the United States. Or rather, a man dressed in a bright orange furry costume drove an old pickup truck into a parking lot outside of what was presented as an office building with a Nintendo logo sign on the side. The man’s face was entirely visible through a cutout in the costume’s mouth, but when he yelled through a gray bullhorn with an oversized (but not particularly readable) Playstation sticker, it created a surprisingly convincing image of a cartoon marsupial issuing a direct challenge to the company which was, at the time, the best-known videogame company ever.

There’s a lot going on in this moment, both in terms of the commercial itself and surrounding context. It’s useful to note that this commercial was aired in prime time and during NFL games, so it was almost certainly seen by far more people than have ever played a Crash Bandicoot game. Sony couldn’t have known it at the time, but the Playstation console was going to end up coming close to selling as many units as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis combined. I was in high school when the commercial aired, and I still remember it now. Crash Bandicoot made an impression on my awareness of the pop culture world. He did not, however, get me to save up for a Playstation.

It may seem odd to talk about a character who retains a certain fandom to this day (Google, for example, “Why isn’t Crash in Playstation All-Stars”) primarily in terms of his appearances in TV commercials, but like many other videogame protagonists at the time, Crash doesn’t really get a great deal of characterization in his own games. In Crash Bandicoot, Crash runs, he jumps, he spins, and if you complete a level perfectly he does a “ta-da” gesture at the end, but he doesn’t do much more than that. Crash’s soundtrack (written by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh) is more mischievous than Mario’s, his girlfriend is a bit more Jessica Rabbit in jeans than Princess Peach on casual Friday, but otherwise their games have a great deal in common. Crash Bandicoot introduced an over-the-shoulder viewpoint into some of its levels in addition to the standard side-view 2D platform areas, but Super Mario 64 already had it beat. What Crash did as a player-controlled videogame character wasn’t much different than anyone else. All in all, Crash’s games are fine. It’s just that the commercials are, well, better.

According to David Regan, an Instructor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Michigan State University, addressing a competitor directly in an ad is a risky move. When a Playstation commercial shows the Nintendo logo on the side of a building, it creates the possibility of viewer confusion. Usually, such a tactic indicates a disparity between brands, a “David taking on the Goliath.” Placing Crash in hostile territory, with a megaphone no less, established the character as a prankster far better than his game could. Crash declared himself and the Playstation the small upstarts taking on the big bully. “People just love an underdog,” Regan says.

Crash’s games are fine. It’s just that the commercials are, well, better. 

It’s that element of risk, I think, that makes Crash’s TV incarnation work. It’s impossible to forget that you’re watching a man in a costume. Sometimes the costume acts as a giant puppet, with exaggerated gestures trying to communicate what the immobile cartoon face cannot. But sometimes the camera pulls close on the actor himself, who makes eye contact and talks directly with the people around him. It’s funny and very, very slightly uncomfortable, a cartoon that never stops being a person, and whose greatest virtues seemed to be a willingness to say anything that popped into his head and just the right level of social obliviousness. It might have been the perfect model of what an adolescent would want adolescence to be.

Except that perhaps the most salient fact of adolescence is the desire to no longer be an adolescent, or to attach one’s self to images of adolescence, and this apparently extends to videogame consoles as well. Crash Bandicoot did indeed help establish Sony’s new console, but Crash’s reign as the face of the Playstation was a short one. If Crash was intended to be Sony’s answer to Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog as the cartoon faces of their respective companies—and there’s reason to believe that wasn’t exactly ever the case—then it was a role that had become almost entirely obsolete by the time the Playstation was replaced by the Playstation 2.

In the videogame-industry history All Your Base Are Belong To Us, Harold Goldberg describes the fight between Sony executives in the U.S. and Japan over what sort of a marketing role Crash Bandicoot should play, and whether the Crash Bandicoot game should be released at all. U.S. executives, according to Goldberg, were looking for a “Mario Killer,” believing that a successful console would need “to present the U.S. market with a compelling, American-made product.” In their mind, Crash Bandicoot was that product. In Japan, however, Ken Kutaragi, “the father of the Playstation,” didn’t like Crash Bandicoot. and “he hated the idea that Crash Bandicoot might be a mascot for the Playstation.” Goldberg describes Kutaragi  as being against the idea of any single character acting as the face of the Playstation, especially a cartoon. In Kutaragi’s mind, the Playstation was not intended primarily for children, and shouldn’t be sold as if it were a toy.

Crash’s ad campaign might give the impression that Kutaragi lost this particular argument, but in fact you can see the coming future if you know where to look. When Crash’s truck pulls into the Nintendo parking lot, the bed is filled with televisions showing the Crash Bandicoot game, but in another ad from the same campaign, Crash pulls up in the middle of the night to a single family home. This time, as Crash addresses “Joseph Feldman,” who is apparently in the market for a new console, the televisions play clips of naturalistic racing, fighting, hockey, and water sport games. To contemporary eyes, the graphics are rough, but they are much more consciously modeling real objects in a world intended to resemble a natural (rather than a cartoon) environment. As Crash lists the names of the games, he adds his own, and gestures to himself, standing in front of the truck. There are no screencaps of Crash Bandicoot.

The end of Crash Bandicoot’s brief tenure as the face of the Playstation did not, of course, mean the end of cartoony games. Even beyond the Playstation 2 era argument of whether a game with cel-shaded graphic must or must not necessarily be considered “cartoony,” or whether Mario’s continued prominence for Nintendo renders the whole discussion moot, cartoon conventions and characterizations are too large a part of our common imaginative culture to ever disappear entirely from games. In some sense, 8-bit and 16-bit nostalgia can even be said to be driving a resurgence of games with simplified, iconic, and whimsical presentations. But not since Crash Bandicoot has any single character been asked to embody a videogame platform. Crash is a particular artifact of the original Playstation console not just because of his success, but because he was the last gasp of a particular vision of what the face of videogames should look like—or, more accurately, the idea that videogames should have a singular face at all.