Sonic vs Mario: The Highs and Lows of a 30-year Rivalry | History Hit

Sonic vs Mario: The Highs and Lows of a 30-year Rivalry

Ben Wilson

22 Jun 2021
Sonic The Hedgehog
Image Credit: SEGA

While PlayStation vs Xbox is social media’s most prominent gaming rivalry, the back end of the 20th century was all about two super-cute mascot characters: Nintendo hero Mario, and spiky Sega talisman Sonic.

This plumber vs hedgehog face-off has endured for three decades, with roots that stretch even further back, to the early 1980s. Below we take in all its highs – Super Mario Kart! – and lows, such as the mid-2000s decision to turn Sonic into a werehog. Fittingly, that one left fans howling.

High: Donkey Kong (1981)

Gameplay from Donkey Kong

Image Credit: Nintendo

The arcade machine which started it all, as you steered ‘Jumpman’ through a series of levels on a construction site, dodging barrels slung by a giant monkey. Originally it was intended as a Popeye game, with Bluto as the opponent, but creator Nintendo lost that licence.

Already sporting his now-iconic red overalls and ‘80s ‘tache, ‘Jumpman’ was rechristened ‘Mario’ for 1982’s Donkey Jong Jr – in which he played the antagonist.

High: Super Mario World (1990)

Gameplay from Super Mario World

Image Credit: Nintendo

By now established as Nintendo’s mascot thanks to 40-million selling NES platformer Super Mario Bros, our red-hatted hero transformed gaming with this open-world smash.

Astonishing visuals, brilliantly varied and engaging levels, ace power-ups and a lovable new sidekick character – green dinosaur Yoshi – added up to a cart-based phenomenon. So groundbreaking it spawned its own TV show, which scored a 13-episode run on American network NBC.

High: Sonic The Hedgehog (1991)

Gameplay from Sonic The Hedgehog

Image Credit: SEGA

Arcade manufacturer Sega’s forays into at-home gaming finally caught on via the introduction of its own mascot character. Three years of brainstorming for a Mario rival inspired two options: an armadillo and a hedgehog.

Originally teal-coloured, it was the speedy hog who won out and was given this instant-hit platform game – after being turned blue. Runner-up Mighty The Armadillo instead appeared in 1993 arcade title SegaSonic The Hedgehog.

High: Super Mario Kart (1992)

Gameplay from Super Mario Kart

Image Credit: Nintendo

Another Mario effort which redefined a genre. Previous to this, racing simulations were often staid, serious affairs: but here, a cartoony cast, colourful courses and devilish power-ups made for a speedster which was equal parts cute and competitive.

If you’ve owned a SNES, Gamecube, Wii or Switch then you know the series is still wowing drivers of all generations, with most recent entry Mario Kart 8 as essential now as it was on release in 2014.

Low: Hotel Mario (1994)

Gameplay from Hotel Mario

Image Credit: Nintendo

After reneging on an agreement to build a CD-based console add-on with electronics giant Phillips, Nintendo instead permitted the latter to create its own Mario game. The result was atrocious.

A single-screen puzzler, you had to close all the doors of a hotel by moving up and down lift shafts and evading enemies. Abominable cut-scenes and weak voice acting made this an all-time Mario stinker, and the Philips CD-I machine on which it emerged was discontinued in 1998.

Low: Shadow The Hedgehog (2005)

Gameplay from Shadow The Hedgehog

Image Credit: SEGA

While Mario’s name value remained formidable throughout the noughties, Sonic had a dismal decade. One low point was this uneasy mix of platforming and shooting, which introduced a grittier lead character in an attempt to adult-up the series.

Guns in a Sonic game were a major turn-off and critics tore it apart, but that didn’t stop Shadow from going on to sell more than 2 million copies. Still, Sonic faced a long road back to redemption.

High: Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games (2007)

Gameplay from Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games

Image Credit: Nintendo

Throughout the ‘90s gamers dreamed of a crossover featuring the digital world’s two most iconic characters, so the March 2007 announcement of this officially licensed Olympics spin-off triggered delirium – and global surprise at the choice of genre.

Packing in 24 lighthearted sports events, it was a motion-control success on Wii, although subsequent efforts – such as a tie-in based on Rio 2016 – diluted the innocence and ‘how-is-this-happening?!’ magic.

Low: Sonic Unleashed (2008)

Gameplay from Sonic Unleashed

Image Credit: SEGA

Oh no they didn’t… oh yes they did. With Shadow The Hedgehog panned by critics, Sega doubled down on more mature themes by building a weird platform-action hybrid where night-based levels saw him transform into a werehog.

Old-school 2D side-scrolling sections served to remind fans what they were missing, and the community response was to beg Sega to return the series to its roots. It made it there eventually – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

Low: Mario Tennis Ultra Smash (2015)

Gameplay from Mario Tennis Ultra Smash

Image Credit: Nintendo

Like Mario Kart before it, 2000 Nintendo 64 release Mario Tennis switched up a competitive genre beautifully, with larger-than-life character models engaging in riotous whack-ball-over-net encounters. The game coming to Wii U with motion control should therefore have ben a no-brainer triumph.

Nope. A lack of modes, clunky controls and weirdly unlovable character designs made this the very opposite of ace. Indeed it’s the nadir of Mario’s sports-based offshoots.

High: Sonic Mania (2017)

Gameplay from Sonic Mania

Image Credit: SEGA

The return, at long last, of classic 2D Sonic. Created in conjunction with Sega by a bunch of blue-hog devotees, the traditional platformer took all the best elements of old Sonic and wove them into an entirely new game, complete with ‘90s-sounding throwback soundtrack.

It was so successful that an expanded version of the game, called Sonic Mania Plus, emerged in 2018 – with Mighty The Armadillo as a playable character.

High: Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

Gameplay from Super Mario Odyssey

Image Credit: Nintendo

Nintendo Switch is blessed with myriad excellent Mario outings, including the aforementioned Mario Kart 8, and arguments-at-teatime-guaranteed family effort Mario Party. This tops the lot.

It’s a sandbox-style mix of platforming and exploration, with clever ways of rewarding both dip-in-and-out gameplay (for youngsters) and longer sessions (for the grown-up player). Plus – as has become a Mario staple – it looks incredible and is a dream to play. Three decades on from Super Mario World, the plumber in the red hat remains an essential living-room buddy.

Ben Wilson