Frogger. Q*Bert. Ryu. Pac-Man. Mario. Mention any one of these names in a conversation about video games to a random person on the street and they will instantly know what you are talking about. But what about Winky? Commander Champion? Krooz’r? Pengo? Captain Carnage? Trog? Chances are you’d get a confused look, unless that person happened to be a retro gamer.
Often labelled as “mascots”, these characters bring to mind certain video games or brands. Everyone knows the popular ones but what about those characters that maybe only showed up in a game or two? That’s what we’ll focus on today.
Because there are a lot of characters out there who never moved on to greater name recognition(usually through home console ports), I will limit this article to three companies: Atari, Exidy and a few random one offs. We can always cover others later in case its a slow news cycle (like it has been this month). Use the tabs to take a look at some of the forgotten heroes of the arcade industry.
Potential Atari Mascots
Despite the name becoming synonymous with video games in the early 80s, the company never gained a Mario kind of mascot to promote their brand but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Funny enough, many people still think that Pac-Man was an Atari made character thanks to the home licensing deal for their consoles and the aggressive marketing division they had at the time.
Note: This only is going to cover characters that showed up on the arcade side of Atari Inc./Atari Games. For a treatment on their console IP, click here.
Commander Champion (Liberator, 1982) – The 80s was a time of the macho man and this character combined that with the space craze that everyone was on at the time. In this way, he was kind of a buff Captain Kirk. His appearance in the little known Liberator showed the fighter pilot side while the character was fleshed out in the Atari Force comic book series that Atari commissioned to show up in many of their popular home games. He seemed positioned to fill the role of space commander (and Atari was big on space games) although perhaps from Liberator not catching on and the industry crash, they just decided to move on.
Other potential genres: other space games; platformer; run ‘n gun; brawler; FPS; 3rd person action game; pinball (he would have worked in Atari’s first pinball game The Atarians but he hadn’t been invented yet)
The Archer (Millipede, 1982) – If you’ve never come across a Millipede cabinet, then you might not realize that the object you control in the game itself is representative of an Archer and not just a disembodied bow. Atari came up with an elaborate back story to the character and game that they printed on the first sales flyer. Otherwise the game doesn’t even hint that you were cursed by your father and all of that jazz. Perhaps if Millipede has been released a few years later the hardware could have pulled off something that looked like a guy wielding a bow (then again, you did have Winky who we will mention below and that was 1981).
Other potential genres: RPG; platformer; light-gun shooter; pinball
Black Widow (Black Widow, 1982) – Spiders generally don’t make for the best creatures to base a lovable mascot off of (Exidy cancelled a spider game because “women wouldn’t go near it”) but with color vectors, perhaps the detail just wasn’t there that would creep arachinphobes out. This character also didn’t get re-used in other Atari titles down the road. The game was sold as a kit where sales were not as strong as dedicated games and home ports were non-existent for it back in the day.
Other potential genres: Hard to see this moving on from the shoot ’em up genre but could possibly work in a puzzle game.
Bentley Bear (Crystal Castles, 1983) – This might be the one Atari character to get a bit of recognition out there, mainly thanks to the number of ports that Crystal Castles received. It also came along at a time where bears were a thing (Care Bears; Teddy Ruxpin; Berbils; etc.) The character was also the only Atari character to be used in the console game Atari Karts and a homebrew effort has created a platformer title that he stars in. Perhaps what he needed to gain a little more star power was some sort of additional ability or something like a magic wand or a crystal sword.
Other potential genres: platformer; racing; puzzle; RPG; pinball
Major Havoc (The Adventures of Major Havoc, 1983) – Moving on from Commander Champion and the Atari Force was the brave leader of an army of clones known as Major Havoc. He takes on the evil Vaxxian empire using his sweet space ship known as the Catastrofighter which helps him infiltrate the enemy bases. He didn’t have anything like a ray gun to blast enemies with however so more strategy and timing had to be used in play than going one-man army style.
Other potential genres: scrolling shoot ’em up; Metroidvania; light-gun shooter; pinball
Interface Robot (#1984) (I, Robot, 1983) – For a game way ahead of its time it needed a character that would work out in early 3D. A robot fit the bill for what the hardware was capable of. Like some other Atari titles at the time, the back story to this character is provided via the sales flyer. They pulled ideas from popular books like 1984 and I,Robot to come up with an unhappy robot who is rebelling against Big Brother and his Evil Eye. That eye zaps you dead any time it catches you jumping. The robot even does a little victory dance between levels. Due to how advanced this game was, home ports were out of the question and the game didn’t sell very well in the arcade thus diminishing port chances even further. Seems like it would have been a good fit for a refresh/reboot on the Atari Jaguar hardware though.
Other potential genres: puzzle; scrolling shoot ’em up (w/o maze elements); 3rd person action; light-gun shooter
Paperboy (Paperboy, 1984) – It might be a stretch to include Paperboy on the list as anyone who grew up in the 80s will easily remember this one. That was helped in part to all of the ports that the game got for the home. Kids today though…well not so much. The character has slipped into 80s nostalgia as Atari never followed up on the concept. Still, nothing beat the arcade and those rad bicycle controllers, amirite?
Other potential genres: sports; racing; platformer; pinball
Charley Chuck (Charley Chuck’s Food Fight, 1984) – Food fights were a popular thing to see on TV or movies as I recall growing up in the 80s but not so much when you went to real school. Charley Chuck was the face of living out the food fight dream in this, the only game he appeared in. With his giant baby blue eyes (and slightly oversized head), he had good aim with a pie and really dug ice cream cones. This game did get a port to the Atari 7800.
Other potential genres: scrolling shoot ’em up; platformer; puzzle;
Peter Pack Rat (Peter Pack Rat, 1984) – Ever since Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse people have tried, and usually failed, to create a lovable mouse character. Despite featuring great animations and sound (along with a love of shiny objects and a snazzy blue vest), success didn’t pan out for this hoarding mouse character.
Other potential genres: puzzle; labyrinth; light-gun gallery shooter; pinball
Major Rock Hardy & Captain Ace Gunn (Xybots, 1987) – Continuing the theme of macho space commandos, Atari rolled out a team of them to star in the revolutionary title Xybots. Between their firepower, the evil Xybots couldn’t stand a chance. Atari would also roll out a few other ‘hero teams’ in the late 80s including Bif and Jet(Toobin’) and Jake and Duke (Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters).
Other potential genres: FPS; platformer; light-gun shooter
Officer Bob (A.P.B.. 1987) – Moving off from the Space Commando-type hero, here Atari went in the direction of the light-hearted (with a tinge of political incorrectness) with Officer Bob. He does whatever it takes to fill that quota, staying on the good side of the chief while keeping his job.
Other potential genres: racing; light-gun shooter; pinball
Hydra (Hydra, 1990) – Who better to pilot your delivery service for high value goods than a rogue who rocks nothing but a black vest, gray jeans, sunglasses and a widow’s peak? That’s something that only Hydra could have pulled off.
Other potential genres: racing; light-gun; survival horror; rhythm gaming (heavy metal or something along that line)
Tanya, Connor, Javier, Chief (Guardians of the Hood, 1991) – Well, it doesn’t take much to see why this group of hip 90s fighters didn’t catch on. They do provide a perfect snapshot of early 90s fashion though. Atari was never big on the beat ’em up genre but this game did give them experience in digitization. That technique would be used again in more popular games like Area 51.Let’s refer to the commercial for the game instead of the flyer:
To end the Atari line, I’ll throw this out there – which of the dinosaurs in Atari’s Primal Rage do you think served as the most memorable character or mascot for the game? Personally I found Vertigo to be the best but it was hard to ignore the gorilla with the gas move or the easily identifiable Sauron (who was just a T-Rex).
SCROLL BACK UP AND CLICK ON EXIDY TO VIEW THEIR POTENTIAL MASCOTS
Potential Exidy Mascots
Within the video game industry, the key to gaining wide recognition for your characters has been through console ports and while some Exidy games did receive those ports, it was no where near as extensive as other companies (some of whom had their own consoles to promote material on). Exidy still produced games and concepts that would influence the path of the industry, such as the cockpit cabinet or motion simulators. Among their titles, they did have a few characters that like the parent company have been mostly forgotten by time.
Wummel (Targ & Spectar, 1980) – Turning a vehicle into a character isn’t impossible but in most arcade games, your vehicle isn’t anthropomorphized like animals are. In the case of Exidy’s TARG, you are (or drive) the “heroic” Wummel to clear out the Crystal City of evil Spectar Smugglers. Granted, I can’t imagine that smugglers would want to mess with a car that fires missiles out of the front regardless of what it is called.
Other potential genres: racing, scrolling shooter
Winky (Venture, 1981) – This was their happy hero that starred in Exidy’s signature dungeon crawling game, Venture. Winky himself was armed with a trusty bow and ever a smile as he crawled the dungeons looking for treasure and avoiding Hall Monsters. Oddly enough, the Winky seen in the flyers wasn’t the same as the ripped Conan-style hero that was on the game’s side art.
Other potential genres: RPG; light-gun shooter; pinball; survival horror
Pepper (Pepper II, 1982) – Having characters with dual states of being was common after Pac-Man and power pellets changed gaming forever. In the case of Exidy’s maze game, they created an angel/devil character called Pepper who was vulnerable to enemies while an angel but as a devil was invincible temporarily. That’s the reason for the II, as there was no plain Pepper arcade game. Perhaps it was the use of that two that kept the company from updating the graphics to the concept and keep the character going (that or just poor sales on the original). At least we got this very 80s flyer out of it.
Other potential genres: pinball, platformer
Hard Hat (HardHat, 1982) – This unusual game that combined some elements of labyrinth and puzzle also was billed as an educational game on the flyer. That was kind of a stretch though as you would only spell uncommon words like ‘Exidy’. Anyways, the character here was a carpenter who featured a unique design of a hat with legs…perhaps they could have had him move on to a platformer type game or construction themed light-gun title. The latter I mention as Exidy became really big on light-gun games after the success of Crossbow.
Other potential genres: platformer; racing; light-gun gallery shooter
Buster Badshot (Cheyenne, 1984) – Westerns used to do big business in the American entertainment industry and the arcade side of things reflected that through many games in the 70s and some in the 80s. As interest waned in the Western, the chances of Buster Badshot moving up in the world went with it. Well, that and by his painting on the flyer, he’d need a makeover – maybe a slight name change to “Gabe Goodshot”. Oddly enough they wouldn’t reuse the character in their light-gun based poker game Showdown a few years later.
Other potential genres: pinball; brawler
Max (Who Dunit, 1988) – As Exidy was nearing the end of their time on the market, they still pulled out some interesting games. As mentioned earlier, after 1983 they really took a liking to light-gun technology and most of their games used that control method from there on out. For this game,they took the idea behind Crossbow and built on it using ideas from the mystery board game Clue. The character here was simply called ‘Max’, the sleuth who looks like he just came from an 80s gym. Well, there are reasons why many of these characters never caught on.
Other potential genres: survival horror
Other Failed Mascots
With as many companies that have produced arcade games, there are many who might have had a game or two with a character that they had hoped would catch fire but it didn’t and it went into the dustbin of history. We’ll just take a look at a few of those here:
Popper (Omori/Alway Electronics, 1983) – This game was obviously designed to capitalize on Q*Bert’s popularity, using a rabbit for the character as opposed to…whatever Q*Bert is. That was part of Q*Bert’s charm however (that and his #$@# mouth) so even though this game had a lot more animation and level variety to it, Popper isn’t showing up in any Disney movies about video games any time soon.
Jake/Tomi/Brudo (Super Trio; Game Ace, 1994) – Making your maiden voyage with some cutesy characters seems like a good way to go but that won’t always work out like you hope. Especially if people think of a brand like Disney when they look at your designs. This is the only arcade game I could find from Game Ace; interesting in that it uses a design element of holding your hand (blinking direction arrows EVERY WHERE), a very common concept these days where AAA photorealistic games which assume that all of their players are idiots.
The guy in Dangerous Dungeons (Game Room, 1994) – Not sure what this character was supposed to be called but the game itself was an interesting mash-up of Boulder Dash and Bomberman. It was only released as a kit and didn’t gain any traction.
For more forgotten mascot characters, head back over to the Atari or Exidy tabs or just wait until next time!