I recently watched the made for TV movie ‘Turtles Forever’. I’m not especially proud of that, but as a devoted fan of the cartoon when I was a kid, the concept was too intriguing to pass up. Through a dimensional portal accident (wasn’t that always the way) the 1987 versions of the Turtles were transported into the dimension of the current darker iteration of the characters. Capers and hi-jinks of course ensued culminating in both sets of Turtles ending up in ‘Turtle Prime’ which contained the original, Frank Miller inspired, Eastman and Laird’s Ninja Turtles. Spoiler alert; the universe was saved.
The movie itself was mildly entertaining but the most interesting aspect was seeing how much the characters had evolved. The basic story elements are essentially the same between the three iterations that span more than twenty years, but the tone is vastly different. That point was the main source of the humor within the show, as the current Turtles struggled to deal with their far goofier 1987 counterparts. So whilst the current turtles actually use their weapons to attack human opponents, the 1987 version are shown battling the robotic Foot Soldiers with large boulders, trash cans and stalactites. Oh, and apparently pizza is off the menu for the health conscious Turtle of today.
Comic books have always reinvented their characters in order to make them more relevant to a new audience, and in the case of particularly long running franchises, in order to provide a new origin and alter the nature of the character. Videogames on the other hand, have been less successful in their attempts to redefine their characters and the most successful long running series have relied on protagonists that have core personality traits or abilities that remain unchanged to this day. Mario is one of the most iconic mascots in gaming and part of his appeal is that he has changed little from his debut in appearance and personality. Personality is rather generous word to use for the man when he boils down to run, jump and save princess but the key element is that whilst he doesn’t change, his environments do. Not dramatically, as the Mushroom Kingdom is still his usual stomping ground, but Mario Galaxy was an interesting place to take the series and has a more ethereal feel to it, emphasized by its beautiful soundtrack and story book narrative device. The Mario RPG games provide a more tongue in cheek look at the Mario Universe and help to keep it entertaining through its parody of the traditional Mario platform games.
A character which has suffered as a result of attempts to keep him relevant is Mario’s formerly bitter rival Sonic. The problem with Sonic was that perhaps the developers never really understood what made Sonic so popular. Even in the early 90s I remember reading in gaming magazines about Sonic’s favorite foods and extreme sports which he indulged in when he wasn’t out collecting Chaos Emeralds. The reason Sonic was a good character was that he ran fast; simple as that. The appealing thing about his ‘attitude’ wasn’t that he liked pizza or skydiving, it was that if you left him waiting he would tap his foot impatiently. He just wanted to run, and anything else was a distraction. Unfortunately the focus on his ‘extreme’ attitude lead to some poor decisions with the direction of the franchise, such as Sonic Riders and the Shadow the Hedgehog shooting game. Let’s not even bring up the Hedgehog-Human romance in The Xbox 360 and PS3 game Sonic the Hedgehog.
The schizophrenic personality shifts of The Prince of Persia character is an interesting case of just how much the evolution of character depends on market forces. The 2003 re-imagining of the classic 1989 game was critically lauded but fared poorly at retail. Whilst it was a great game, the real appeal of the game for many was the witty and charismatic character of The Prince combined with the charming and whimsical world in which it was set. It failed to sell well for a number of reasons but it was decided that in order to appeal to a broader audience, the personality of The Prince would have to be altered dramatically as well as the tone of the game. So for 2004’s The Warrior Within we saw a brooding, vengeful, gothic figure with all the charm and wit of a block of granite. Cue despair from the reviewers, but greater financial success. The next year The Two Thrones was released and featured a balance of the tones of the two previous games. Within three years, three Prince of Persia games had been released featuring the same character with three alternate personalities. Although I appreciate the evolution of a character, the rapid emotional shifts caused by financial concerns as opposed to artistic decisions rankles somewhat.
The videogame industry has often struggled with how to update and reinvent its older franchises and for every success story like the PS1 Metal Gear, we have a 360 and PS3 Bionic Commando. And whilst the Metal Gear franchise should be lauded for always evolving the character and the plot, it leads to the inevitable aging and ‘end’ for that version of the character. There can still be prequels and spin offs from the current version, but would gamers be willing to accept a reboot of the franchise itself? After a period of time perhaps. But the luxury of time is something not granted to developers when it involves leaving a successful franchise alone. They are in need of a steady stream of profitable games featuring recognizable characters. Whilst cartoons and comics appear week in week out, games that continue a series appear less frequently, requiring them to evoke a sense of familiarity with the characters, and making shifts in personality only serves to alienate fans of the series.
Oddly enough, the Resident Evil series is one of the best examples of a natural evolution in personality of its cast members. Protagonists don’t often appear in the next game, thus giving the characters a period of unseen time in order to develop their personality. The change from the nervous and uncertain rookie cop Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 2 to the capable and confident Secret Service Agent Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil 4 is entirely plausible; a rarity in videogames.