It’s safe to say that one of gaming’s longest running rivalries is between Sega’s ‘Blue Blur’ and our beloved moustachioed plumber from Nintendo, Mario. Though, if we’re honest, the ‘rivalry’ has really only been in spirit of late as Mario has dominated the market in both commercial and critical success over the past two decades, leaving Sonic in the dust as the team continues to struggle with delivering quality games, flailing to capture the magic once held by their original 16-bit titles on the Sega Genesis. The fact that Sega has gone third party and is no longer in the business of making consoles – and hasn’t been for many years – is evidence enough that this supposed ‘rivalry’ has been long over, and Mario has won; though maybe it’s a little unfair to peg the blame entirely on Sonic for that.
But even if the sales numbers and aggregate scores throughout the years tell the story of this battle between mascots, you’d be hard-pressed to find Sonic fans waving the white flag at their Italian nemesis, or dejected after the release of yet another subpar title, or not writing up a storm on online forums upon the release of a new title. The spirit of competition, and belief in their franchise still lives on, and it’s stronger than ever. Though, for those on the outside that don’t drink out of a Sonic flask every morning, the series has done little to bring us into the fold. Sonic Frontiers was the first title since Sonic Heroes in 2003 (one of my personal favourites in the series) to sell over 3 million copies. In comparison, Super Mario Maker 2 – a relatively niche offshoot of the series – sold nearly 8 million copies, while the series’ last mainline title, Super Mario Odyssey, sold 25 million. The last time Sonic was even remotely close to a number like that, or even in the double-digits for that matter, was with its first ever title, Sonic the Hedgehog, in 1991 with 15 million copies sold. In terms of critical response, looking at aggregate sites like Metacritic show that most mainline Mario titles are north of the 85/100 score, a good handful of which going into the prestigious 90s, while even some of the best Sonic games fail to break the 80/100 mark.
Still, Sonic has seen some recent mainstream success, albeit in a different medium altogether: movies. Both Sonic the Hedgehog films, the first releasing in 2020 and the second in 2022, have been box office successes, raking in $320 million and $400 million respectively. Critically, even though video game adaptations have historically been (rightfully) marred with terrible review scores, it seems there’s been a recent upswing with their productions leading to better critical responses, which Sonic is now a part of. Both movies hover around the 65-70% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is even higher than The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which stands at a 58%.
Yes, the Mario movie has made over a billion dollars at the box office, but that was to be somewhat expected given the fact that it’s, well, Mario. But that a Sonic movie, now movies, could keep up with Mario, even with a games development team that has been floundering with its recent titles (Frontiers aside), all of which are essentially out of the eye of the mainstream, is quite notable.
It begs the question, then, that with this newfound momentum that has seemingly put the franchise back in the eyes of the mainstream, and with Sonic Frontiers being both a critical and commercial success: can Sonic Superstars compete with Mario Wonder, especially as it may release right alongside of it? Possibly, though if history is anything to go by, it has quite the up(green)hill battle to face.
Mario Wonder and Sonic Superstars were revealed at Nintendo’s June Direct and Summer GameFest respectively. Both look to be classic 2D platformers, each dawning their unique art-styles and showcasing both classic and fresh game mechanics; Mario Wonder with a new consumable that turns the world into a psychedelic trip, and Sonic Superstars with new powers and abilities that blend in some fun 3D depth. If trailers are anything to go by, then for me Sonic Superstars won my initial impressions. Even though I’ve historically – and maybe controversially – preferred Sonic’s 3D outings, some of the new powers and levels looked quite fun and unique in this upcoming 2D adventure; and being able to play as many of Sonic’s other friends with their character-specific abilities is a bonus. Mario Wonder, on the other hand, looked…fine. The changing and unpredictable environments looks to be a fun twist, but the overall aesthetic of the game didn’t do much in swaying my interest.
As of writing, Mario Wonder is set to release on October 20th, 2023, and while Sega have yet to officially say a date beyond fall of 2023, leaks from online retailers suggest a release of October 17th. We’ll see if Sega decide to push the release in order to stave off losing sales to its competitor or hold their ground with confidence, though from my vantage point I don’t really see much crossover of the fandoms to necessitate a delay.
This is of course not to mention some of the other heavy-hitters that are slated for a fall 2023 release that will inevitably be vying for gamers’ attention as well. Sony’s Spider-Man 2, Xbox’ Forza Motorsport, Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, and the much anticipated, Alan Wake 2, are all set to come out in October of this year. A very busy month, indeed. But again, how much that will actually play a part in taking away sales from Sonic Superstars I’m not sure as I doubt there’s much crossover between those fans and those of Spider-Man—even though I myself admittedly am one of both, and as it stands my wallet is veering towards opening for Spidey, so I guess there is a point to be made here.
In terms of who will win the commercial and critical battle in this superfluous war of the mascots, the odds greatly favour the plumber, but I personally am rooting for our ‘Blue Blur.’ It does bode well for Sonic Superstars that it’s a traditional 2D platformer, albeit with a few aforementioned quirks that play with 3D. The 2D titles have seen far more success for the franchise in recent years. Sonic Mania, even though not developed by Sega Team themselves, was a breakout success and still remains one of the greatest Sonic games of all time if aggregate scores are anything to go by. 2011’s Sonic Generations was arguably the first Sonic game since Sonic Adventure 2 to receive any acclaim from both fans or critics, and it was also a play on 2D Sonic that meshed with its 3D brethren.
The opposite does seem to be somewhat true for Mario. Not to say the 2D games don’t garner acclaim, far from it, but it does seem that there may be a little bit of an over-saturation of the games in recent years with the 3DS churning out so many similar look titles, many of which got remasters and ports to the Switch. We’ll see how things pan out come this fall, but at the end of the day, let’s celebrate that we’re hopefully getting two promising 2D platformers from these iconic franchises.