Monday, November 12, 2007

Video Game VIPs

Video Game VIPs
Nov 2, 2007

Hanks. Nicholson. Streep. You need to open a film, you bring in the bigwigs. Silver screen A-listers determine the tone and timbre of the Hollywood heartbeat, selling more overpriced buckets of popcorn than the entire Redenbacher clan. One DeNiro is worth, like, twenty Jason Schwartzmanns.

The same goes for video games. While we all clamor for more original products and new franchises, it's important to honor the select few that, at the end of the day, truly make the virtual world go round. We tip our caps to these groundbreaking characters; without them, we'd all still be named "Player 1."
He's the captain of the football team, the lovable older brother and the feared CEO wrapped up in one chubby little package. Exactly how popular is Nintendo's favorite son? That's hard to quantify, but a study conducted in 1990 by Marketing Evaluations found that the plump plumber was more recognizable to kids than - wait for it - Mickey "I Used to Run This Town" Mouse. Heck, he's been the unofficial president of the video game industry for so long, his reign can almost be considered a dictatorship. But a nice one, for sure.

Believe it or not: Mario wears a hat because designer Shigeru Miyamoto had a hard time drawing hair.
Solid Snake
Based not-so-loosely on Escape from New York's gruff protagonist Snake Plissken, the Metal Gear mercenary has saved the world from giant mechanical nukes so many times, he deserves a lifetime Caribbean vacation package. Though his career began as a lowly rookie member of the special-forces unit FOXHOUND, his stunning turn in Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation turned him into an enigmatic action star. And with the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 4, the elderly soldier will battle both conventional enemies and video game ageism by tackling obstacles as a gray-haired retiree.

Believe it or not: If you see him on the street, call him by his real first name - David.
Sonic the Hedgehog
When upstart Sega decided to challenge Nintendo's console dominance at the end of the 1980s, gamers scoffed. Sure, the Sega Genesis was a cool rig, but it had no character, no pizzazz. In a word, no Mario. So Sega did what any enterprising company would do - they drew up their own mascot, one that was bigger, stronger and faster. A lot faster. Sonic roared into our homes and completely changed the way we looked at platforming games, turning Mario's mellow coin collecting into a frantic dash for gold rings. Though his popularity has waned over the years, we tip our hat to the first mascot who had the cajones to run against Nintendo. (Interestingly, he'll be running with the company in a few weeks.)

Believe it or not: In his short-lived animated show on ABC in the mid-90's, Sonic was voiced by none other than Jaleel "Urkel" White.
Master Chief
Got some Covenant in your closet? Then call Master Chief, the world's foremost authority on alien extermination. A man of few words, the silent giant is THE video game star of the new millennium. Enjoying more product endorsements than half of the NBA, Halo's hero is a money-making machine, helping save the underprivileged brass at Microsoft from the poor house by raking in enough money to actually scare normally unflappable film execs. Now that's a player.

Believe it or not: In full armor, Master Chief stands seven feet tall and weighs a whopping one thousand pounds.
Lara Croft
What can we say? She's the Angelina Jolie of video games. The worldly action heroine gives the image of the uptight, stuffy British noblewoman a black eye, routinely risking life and limb to secure lost treasures locked away in ancient ruins, steam liners, mansions, jungles, and of course, tombs. A star among stars, she's been portrayed by no less than nine famous models, voiced by Minnie Driver, and even shared the stage with Bono during U2's PoPMart tour in the late '90s. Not too shabby for a cold-blooded killer.

Believe it or not: Lara is in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the most successful human video game heroine."
Trouble-prone Princess Zelda owes more than just her kingdom to perpetual adventurer Link - she owes him every measly fan letter she's ever received. Time and again Link must rescue the eponymous ruler of Hyrule from some ungodly fate, yet somehow she gets top billing while Link gets stuck with the bill. It's not fair, but the squeaky clean star never complains, instead delivering awesome adventure after awesome adventure and cementing his status as the best good guy in gaming.

Believe it or not: Link was initially written as being left-handed.
Ms. Pac Man
Okay, so she's really just Pac-Man with lipstick, an eyeball and a bow (and eerily sexy legs in the key art). But there's simply no denying the fact that the missus has outperformed her iconic Mr. when it comes to contemporary street cred. Walk into any bar in America and chances are pretty good that you'll find a Ms. Pac Man machine instead of plain old Pac-Man. Why? Because it's simply a better game - with 6 different mazes, more randomized ghost movement and bouncing fruit, it's actually still quite fun. Score one for the ladies.

Believe it or not: Ms. Pac Man started off as an unauthorized bootleg of Pac-Man called Crazy Otto.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and there's no better pantry chef in the business than the determined demigod Kratos. In only two PS2 outings, he took down the god Ares, swore vengeance against his father Zeus and even escaped from Hell. Talk about a one-track mind. But while most of his in-game actions were born out of selfishness and runaway pride, he's gifted gamers with some of the most divine (and oft-copied) gameplay of all time. Besides, we couldn't keep this brute off the guest list if we tried.

Believe it or not: A God of War film adaptation is in the works with a tentative release date of 2008.
Gordon Freeman
In his ten-year career, the elusive star of the vaunted Half-Life series hasn't spoken a word. Not one syllable. Nor has he stared into a mirror. In fact, the only time we even catch a glimpse of Gordon is during the original game's expansion Half-Life: Blue Shift. But by allowing us to experience every minute of Half-Life through Gordon's eyes - including the in-engine cut scenes, a stroke of genius - Valve has unwittingly created the most relatable character in the history of the medium.

Believe it or not: Gordon is named after real-life physicist Freeman Dyson.
Ryu / Ken
We still can't tell the difference between these two, so they both get in. The dynamic duo of Street Fighter fame revolutionized gaming by introducing what is now considered the core control mechanic for the fighting genre: Quarter-circle forward = fireball! They've appeared in ever Street Fighter entry (including the long-forgotten arcade version) as well as every Vs. crossover game. While the Street Fighter series has sort of plateaued over the past several years, Ryu and Ken's archetypal impact is still felt far and wide. Hadooken!

Believe it or not: The original Street Fighter coin-op featured punchable pads rather than conventional buttons...until they broke.
And lest we forget the SIPs (Somewhat Important People):

Mega Man
In Japan, he's called Rock Man. In America, he's called a hit franchise.

Samus Aran
The maiden of Metroid has more tricks up her robotic sleeve than David Copperfield.

Duke Nukem
The first FPS superstar kicks ass and chews bubble-gum. Pray he isn't out of bubble-gum.

Crash Bandicoot
Sony's original mascot has seen better days, but he almost gets in on the strength of those awesome commercials alone.

Cloud Strife
Dumb name, great game. The hero of Final Fantasy VII introduced a generation to materia, Shinra, and those pesky Chocobos.

Donkey Kong
Remember when he was an imposing, barrel-lobbing kidnapper? Now he wears a necktie and no pants. How the mighty have fallen.

Equal parts gumball and vacuum cleaner, Nintendo's puffy pink poof is flirting with the big time.

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