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Evolution in pixels

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Traditional wisdom suggests that fictional superstars never change. Bugs Bunny, Homer Simpson and Superman, for example, have endured for decades with more or less the same appearance. They never age, never look incredibly dated (save for a few misguided revamps that die off) and consistently appeal to a new generation. The same can’t be said for videogame characters, though.

As a technology-based medium, game heroes and villains cannot remain the same. They must constantly evolve, or risk looking “last gen.” That doesn’t mean the new or old designs take precedence, it just means no developer will ever, ever leave its creation alone. Now, with decades of console history to pull from, let’s take a look at the “old” designs and see how they stack up against their modern equivalents.

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Donkey Kong

Then: A brutish ape who threw barrels down at Jumpman (that’d be Mario, actually) and loved to hold women hostage. Not too bright.

Now: Allegedly, the Kong from the original game is now Cranky Kong, a wrinkled old ape who does little more than sit in a rocking chair and whine about the “old days.” Today’s Donkey Kong (the guy on the right) is said to be the former Donkey Kong Jr, though it’s never specifically stated that way. Other than a red “DK” tie, he’s physically the same, but has taken a page from Mario’s book and gone on to become a platforming star instead of a stubborn antagonist. Diddy Kong is in there because he didn’t come in PSD format and refused to move.

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Mario

Then: A stumpy carpenter and plumber who first harassed Donkey Kong, then took to the sewers to handle turtle/crab/fireball infestation. A humble everyman with no overt sense of whimsy.

Now: The global figurehead of Nintendo, whose exploits have sent him into the mystical Mushroom Kingdom and beyond. No power-up is too silly, no sport too challenging, no merchandise too sketchy for ol’ Mario. Pictured in his most recent incarnation found in Mario Galaxy–still a bit portly and wearing his ‘80s attire, but infinitely more expressive and adventuresome than that sad plumber could ever have imagined.

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Luigi

Then: Mario’s brother was nothing more than a palette swap with strangely darker skin. He was functionally identical to Mario, and other than the one-off Super Mario Bros 2, he would continue to be that way until the 16-bit Super Mario All-Stars re-drew him as a different person. Oh, plus Mario Kart made some distinction as well.

Now: Still very much “Mario’s brother,” but now with distinct physical and gameplay characteristics. He’s taller, slimmer and handles like one of those creepy gas station tube toys that you can never hold onto. Luigi’s had some starring roles and even played a large part in the various RPGs, but he’s still no Mario.

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Sonic the Hedgehog

Then: Sega’s 16-bit answer to Mario, a speedy hedgehog who exuded personality and attitude instead of Nintendo’s “let’s all play together” mantra. The sprite actually changed completely one year later in Sonic 2, though it was merely a re-drawing–all the same aspects were kept.

Now: Sonic Colors marks Sega’s latest entry in the long-churning series, and this official art looks damn near the same, doesn’t it? Sonic’s seen a lot of games come and go, but other than his green eyes and improved rendering and sprite tech, little has changed. Maybe animal mascots get a free pass?

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Cloud Strife

Then: A pointy assemblage of polygons that looked a bit crap even back in 1997. From the Popeye arms to the rectangle legs, this was an appearance that had no choice but to be drastically re-imagined.

Now: The basic getup is similar, as is the Super Saiyan haircut, but it’s done with such detail now that you can accept the quirks as simple videogame silliness. The version, taken from Advent Children, isn’t even the final word–Cloud is more or less re-thought each time he pops up, from Kingdom Hearts to Crisis Core to Dissidia. All are similar but none are identical.

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Lara Croft

Then: Oddly considered an attractive representation of a polygonal woman, but is now seen to be an atrocious patchwork of various geometric shapes.

Now: Cleaner, smoother and without a doubt sexier (even if you’re one of those “games can’t be hot” people). This image is from, fittingly, the modern remake of the original Tomb Raider, so that’s why the clothes are dead-on. Normally she’s donned in whatever grab the environment calls for, be it short shorts, skin tight swimsuit or chest-hugging t-shirt. Just like real archeologists!

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Solid Snake

Then: A camo-covered soldier with no discernible features. He’s a dude in camo on a mission to stop a walking nuclear tank. That’s about it.

Now: OK… other than the fact he’s gray and old, he’s also got a special sneaking suit with high-tech “OctoCamo” that blends in to any given surroundings. Plus he’s got enhanced strength and about 100 hours’ worth of baffling exposition and character development. Not to be confused with Big Boss, who, in Portable Ops and Peace Walker, kinda looks like that ‘80s Snake (with good reason!!!!).

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Ryu Hayabusa

Then: An adept ninja out for revenge. His father was killed by baddies and he wants to make ‘em pay. Even though he looks rather plain in his blue outfit, Ryu ends up battling demons, monsters, robots and everything in between.

Now: Hm, actually not too different, if only because the image of ninjas has survived untouched for hundreds of years. In this case Ryu has gone all black, gained an ornamental headpiece and taken up violently dismembering foes with his weapons. It’s also not even supposed to be the same Ryu. A bit of “same but different” here.

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Ryu (the Street Fighter guy)

Then: A red-haired scrapper who could, with great effort, toss a fireball out of his hands. Otherwise pretty bland.

Now: He’s still the yawn-iest of the Street Fighter characters (“I have to be the best!”) but has since beefed up considerably and gone for a dark-haired appearance. Still got the headband and belt, though the hand guards tend change from red to brown.

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Link

Then: A small but devoted elf-child who was forever intertwined with the Triforce, Ganon and Zelda.

Now: A sometimes small, sometimes teenage elf-person who is forever intertwined with the Triforce, Ganon and Zelda. As with Cloud, Link’s appearance tends to slightly shift with each new entry, though the green tunic, long hat and silent-hero stature remain intact every time. Comfortingly consistent while consistently refreshing. Kind of like [your soft drink preference here].

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Ganon(dorf)

Then: A sky-blue pig-thing that teleported around the room. You knew he was the main villain, and that he had captured Zelda, but very little else was made clear. The other art is Ganon’s first human form, Ganondorf, introduced in 1998’s Ocarina of Time. Up to that point, Ganon was some form of beast (not counting Zelda II, where he’s supposedly Link’s shadow).

Now: The beast Ganon last appeared as the final boss in Twilight Princess, and while he was definitely a pig-thing, he was on all fours and seemed far less in control than the wizard-y boss from the first game. He’s also not blue. As for Ganondorf, he’s only slightly changed, but then again, he was already a re-imagining of the NES original.

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Fox McCloud

Then: Humanoid fox pilot with a headset. You actually don’t see much more of him in the first game, which primarily featured polygonal Arwings. Man, those things really look like ass.

Now: Fox has seen drastic redesigns in almost every game, but the general look is the one found in Smash Bros Brawl. Eyepiece, headset and white jacket/ red scarf combo. The details are always the same, but wow, Nintendo really can’t decide what to do with this guy.

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Nathan Spencer

Then: The hero of Bionic Commando was known as Ladd, a mistranslation of Rad. He also sported a nifty grappling hook cannon that was so heavy he couldn’t jump (or, there were only two buttons on the NES controller).

Now: Sigh. We accept the new Nathan “Rad” Spencer name just fine, and we even concede that the new, literal bionic arm makes sense–after all, if it’s not part of him, it can’t actually be bionic in the first place. But did we need the stupid hair? The gruff M-rated voicover? And did we honestly, truly need the goddam wife arm? This one’s all kinds of messed up. Don’t expect it to stick around.

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Samus Aran

Then: A tough as nails bounty hunter who turns out to be a girl… in a bathing suit, with green hair. She fights space pirates and kills Metroids. At the time her gender was something of a secret, and one of the first genuinely surprising reveals in games.

Now: No mistaking Samus’ gender today, what with the skin-tight Zero Suit outlining her every curve. The armor has changed only slightly, with expanded shoulder pads being the one notable difference. Like other Nintendo characters, her outward appearance hasn’t altered significantly.

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Warcraft Orcs

Then: Tiny units presented in glorious 640×480. You could tell they were orcs because they were green, and that’s about it.

Now: Still green, still an important part of the Warcraft experience, but now fleshed out into more of an actual race with history, architecture and speech. The improved 1024×768 resolution doesn’t hurt either.

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Rick from Splatterhouse

Then: A clear homage to slasher films, Splatterhouse’s main star donned a blood red Terror Mask that looked remarkably like Jason Voorhees’ iconic face. Otherwise a beefy dude who punched monsters until they exploded to death.

Now: The hockey mask is more or less gone, replaced with a skull-like visage that started with Splatterhouse 3. Rick’s also become even beefier, looking more like one of the thugs from Arkham Asylum than a dude with a mask on. Not the most inspired redesign, but then again Rick was never the most creative character out there.

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Chris Redfield

Then: A capable member of STARS who looked like a typical police type. Hardly imposing, and dressed like one of the new recruits who doesn’t know the proper kneepad protocol.

Now: A hulking tree trunk of a man who punches monsters in the face. Look at the size of those arms! Not even a falling boulder can withstand such force. Why the 180? Because in RE1 Chris was meant to appear vulnerable. In RE5, he’s part of a tag-teaming duo that ain’t afraid a’ nuthin’.

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Pac-Man

Then: A yellow circle with a mouth. Arcade cabinet art gave him eyes and a face, and subsequent cartoons turned him into a blue collar workman, but as far as the game was concerned, Pac was a yellow dot.

Now: He’s gained and lost limbs, family members and no small amount of videogame clout. His most recent incarnation is from Pac-Man Party, a Wii festival of minigames sure to detonate the hearts of anyone who grew up suffering from Pac-Man Fever.

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Rygar

Then: A fairly normal-looking warrior type with a shield.

Now: Christ, what a mess. Rygar was brought back in 2002 with a look that basically mirrored his NES and arcade counterpart, but for whatever reason, Tecmo trotted out that game again in 2008 for Wii. Along with waggle came that… thing up there, Goku’d to high hell and devoid of any rugged sense of god-slaying machismo.

Keep reading for a few characters that began life outside of games, but have virtual evolutions all of their own…

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Wolverine

Then: Logan’s starring role on the NES is easily one of the worst he’s ever endured. In addition to looking kinda puny, he crawls like a baby and can’t use his claws without losing health. Just awful.

Now: Like it or not, today Hugh Jackman’s face is synonymous with Wolverine. We’re honestly not too bothered by this, as at the very least he’s got the look down. The only other difference would the loss of Wolverine’s brown costume, which he ditched in the early ‘90s for his classic yellow suit. You can see him wearing it in Ultimate Alliance and Marvel vs Capcom 2.

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Mickey Mouse

Then: A crude representation of Disney’s world famous rodent. But, as we explained in the intro, his overall look is the same as it ever was.

Now: After years of living in animation limbo, Mickey’s back this fall in the same red shorts that made him a star. He’s perhaps a bit more emotive and mischievous than his prior games, but as far as looks go, it’s classic as ever.

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Batman

Then: Developers were so eager to get Bats into a game that they didn’t even bother waiting for color! This stern-looking Batman could also stand to lose a few pounds. And maybe chill out.

Now: Perhaps the perfect representation we could ever hope for, game or otherwise. He’s tall, ripped and certainly intimidating, all while sticking closely to the established comic book designs. Can’t even imagine someone else doing it better.

And then there’s the most seamless past-to-present transition you ever could wish for…

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Mega Man

Then: Simple. Perfect. He’s a blue robot dude who fights other robots. Maybe even robot elephants that shoot balls at you.

Now: Wonderfully the same. He’s seen changes through Mega Man X, Battle Network and all the rest, but the core Mega Man games, right up to this year’s Street Fighter X Mega Man, keep him just as he should be. The welcome exception to the rule.

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Look how they've grown

Which characters have evolved the best in your eyes? Who’s due for a reboot, and who needs to get back to basics? Let us know.

Or join us for a more indepth look at The evolution of Ken and Ryu or The ever-changing sizes of Mario and Bowser.

By GamesRadar Staff