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Hero Worship

The holidays being what they are ? a time for stuffing your face, not to mention occasional reflection ? we at Designtechnica often spend them pondering the odd stumper.

For example: What ever happened to Limahl, he of ?80s rock stardom and Kajagoogoo fame? (Unsurprisingly, an answer awaits at ? you guessed it ? Did Adam and Eve have navels? And, of course, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, given that you can just bite the damn thing in half with a single chomp.

Seeing as we?re getting into the spirit of the season, here?s another question veteran gamers, just like all you ladies, are dying to know: Where have all the good guys gone?

Time was, the keyboard and controller-worshipping crowd could count on larger-than-life protagonists to provide guaranteed entertainment at every turn. There was Mario and Sonic for google-eyed, candy-colored, butt-bouncing fun. Duke Nukem for over-the-top action, excessive gore, and sly one-liners. Shinobi for nonstop, ninja magic-powered mayhem. And, of course, a host of second-rate, but equally imaginative mascots (James Pond, Dynamite Heady, Aero the Acrobat, etc.) readily at hand when a little lighthearted excitement was called for.

But in this day and age, it?s the games themselves, not the superstars who headline them, which seem to get top billing. Oh sure, you may love the Grand Theft Auto series. Nevertheless, most fans would be hard-pressed to pick Tommy Vercetti from Toni Cipriani out of a police lineup. Shadow of the Colossus doesn?t even bother giving its sword-slinging star a proper name. As for Shadow the Hedgehog, well? Let?s just say the humanity-hating, gun-toting chump?s got nothing on his spunky blue cousin.

Even the Prince of Persia isn?t the stadium-filling draw he once was. Why else do you think a bladed-chain-swinging, bad attitude-packing evil alter-ego (the Dark Prince) co-headlines latest adventure The Two Thrones? Dwindling star power equals the need for trumped up production values, supposed gameplay innovations, and a greater emphasis on gimmicks like this.

Not that developers such as Avalanche and Krome aren?t still trying to channel the spirit of the old days. It?s just that heroes like Tak and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger don?t come anywhere near to approaching the majesty of their forerunners. No joke: Croatian superstar Serious Sam might be good for a few cheap laughs, but the Dukester he sure as hell isn?t.

When the closest today?s designers can muster to offering a truly iconic figure is God of War?s suicidal ex-Spartan lead Kratos, well? Put simply, it?s not a good sign. What we?re seeing is a shift towards branding different franchises like The Sims, Quake, Condemned: Criminal Origins and Dragon Quest VIII on pure name recognition alone, not the notable personalities featured within them.

Maybe it is time for Yoshi, Wario and Samus Aran to finally give up the ghost and secede all claims to stardom. Or, perhaps, simply to sell out, as a certain plumber (see Mario Tennis, Super Mario Strikers, Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix et al) has done in order to remain relevant.

Certainly, the culture shift may be a result of changing demographics. As the Entertainment Software Association tells it, the average game player is now 30 years old and has been enjoying digital diversions for almost a decade. Three quarters of all American households own one gaming system or another. What?s more, a shocking 43% of gamers are women, a larger portion of the market even than boys aged 6 to 17.

In other words, the more grown-up and diversified the hobby?s end-user base becomes, the less need there appears to be for bizarre, cheerful, zany, or just plain snappily-dressed headliners. Presently, it?s all about licensed Hollywood stars, whether you?re referencing From Russia With Love?s Sean Connery or King Kong?s cameos by Jack Black, Naomi Watts, and Adrien Brody. Still, there?s something inherently disturbing about replacing caped crusaders with obese, hairy comedians so greasy they could practically slide off the screen.

Either way, we?re sad to see the heroic archetype go. Bubsy the Bobcat and Gex might not have been particularly talented, but they were individuals audiences of all ages could relate to regardless. Similarly, guys like Croc and Boogerman didn?t necessarily evoke much empathy in viewers. But they did at least represent some effort at injecting a little personality into certain games, and provide something for friends the world over to simultaneously snicker at.

It?s a crucial element missing from many of today?s titles; without memorable (or memorably awful) individuals to rally behind, key play elements like storytelling and characterization fade into the background. All of which results, naturally, in a deluge of seemingly indistinguishable products.

Don?t believe it? How much can you really recall about Without Warning or Urban Reign?

Frogger remains with us. Ditto for Pac-Man, Scooby-Doo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, all exhibit the kind of verve and gusto you?d expect from a wheelchair-bound geriatric. Even Crash Bandicoot has been bastardized ? peep Crash Tag Team Racing ? for sake of a quick buck. Revisiting with old acquaintances such as these is all well and good. Finding out they?ve now got the charisma of a block of Colby cheese? not so much.

Seriously: Where have the Indiana Joneses gotten off to? The Lara Crofts of the virtual world? Put bluntly: Leisure Suit Larry, Eric the Unready, and Parappa the Rapper? why hast thou forsaken us?

Some of these names may, of course, be unfamiliar to you. After all, countless polygonal stars and their virtual dynasties have fallen into decline with the passing of time. No matter how small their present following though, folks such as Roger Wilco and Pitfall Harry still represent what gaming is all about.

Focus group-tested favorites like Harry Potter and Shrek just don?t spark the imagination the way the old guard used to. Nor, alas, do major efforts seem underway to revive the tradition of grandiose character design.

So treasure the few modern-day heroes who do capture your heart (i.e. Sly Cooper and Viewtiful Joe). Otherwise, a decade down the road, when photorealistic depictions of Paris Hilton and Ben Affleck start passing as protagonists, well? who will mourn their passing?

– Scott Steinberg

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