This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. Our two shows this week are based on one of the most well-documented, and longstanding rivalries with each other; I’m talking about that between Nintendo’s Italian moustachioed mascot, Super Mario, and Sega’s anthropomorphic blue blur, Sonic The Hedgehog. When it comes to television adaptations of the respective characters’ adventures, it seems that Mario mostly relies on its games to power through its success, while in recent years Sonic has become indigent on expanding its media outreach through use of meme exploitation and feature films especially in the North American market; recent examples such as the largely successful 2020 film and Sonic Boom come into mind, whereas Nintendo has not had a hand in pushing a Mario cartoon in recent years.
In some ways, this is a bit understandable as Mario game plots are very simple – save the princess from Bowser – and trying to make a decent story out of this would be much more than necessary, in contrast to the complex storylines, expandable world and action sequences that involve Sonic and his friends against his arch-nemesis Dr. Eggman. As a result, a comparison between North America’s Nintendo network, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Japan’s attempt, Sonic X, is one that I feel is warranted; considering the similar, yet different direction taken by both shows, and their attempt to create a coherent story based on video game plots.
EASTERN COMPETITOR #4: SONIC X
Sonic X, created and animated by the same folks at the Tokyo Movie Shinsha studio, comes from a studio with a long line of animators who have been involved with both Western and Eastern animated flicks such as Detective Conan, Hamtaro, Kaitou Saint Tail, and the crack-induced Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland as well as Batman: The Animated Series, Inspector Gadget, DuckTales and Spiderman: The Animated Series. Mostly chronicling Sonic and his friends’ adventures on Earth in the typical American town of Station Square, as well as their attempt to integrate to human society, this anime is a 78-episode slugfest whose first two seasons attempt to lacklusterly synchronize slice-of-life, adventure, and the plot of two SEGA Dreamcast games, Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2; with the third season being a completely original space adventure alongside bad music and puns as well as many original characters and cameos, including but not limited to Cosmo the Seedrian (who I ship with Tails very hard), Bokkun, and everyone’s favorite punching bag, Chris Thorndyke.
In North America, this show was registered for dubbing and licensing by the notorious producer of anime abominations, 4Kids Entertainment, alongside Kirby Of The Stars, Magical Doremi, Shaman King, Yu-Gi-Oh and many others – not that the Japanese version was any better. Like most other Sonic-related things online, it has becomethe subject of various jokes, especially with its North American theme song, aptly titled “Gotta Go Fast”; nowhere near the awesomeness I pedestaled this series on as a child.
WESTERN COMPETITOR #4: SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW
It’s tough to believe, but Japan has never attempted to make a feature-length series involving the adventures of Mario and his pals. That distinction goes to North America, under the auspices of Saban Entertainment and Dic Enterprises, who attempted to cash in on the video game craze of the late 1980s by releasing a 52-episode Saturday morning cartoon (back when those existed) in 1989. In this one, titular protagonist Mario, his brother Luigi, Princess Toadstool/Peach and her servant Toad indulge in a thoroughly non-sequitur adventure across the Mushroom Kingdom to stop King Koopa/Bowser from executing his evil plans. Like the former, this show was somewhat influenced by a video game series: Super Mario Bros. 2, which itself was a near-exact rip-off of another lesser-known video game, Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic with a little bit of spice from the original 1984 video game thrown in to the mix. In-between the cartoon segments, the late WWE wrestler Lou Albano and Canadian actor Danny Wells would play Mario and Luigi respectively in a live-action sequence chronicling their life in pre-Rudy Giulani NYC.
This would be the first of several North American Mario cartoons that premiered on Saturday mornings; it would be followed up in 1990 and 1991 with two other shows based on the games Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, and finally the infamous 1993 movie featuring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, before they decided “Yeah we’re not doing this anymore”.
I’m going to be looking at both shows from the perspective of five categories, as is the case in previous East Meets West installments, them being:
- Best Characterization
- Best Visuals
- Best Music
- Best Adventure
- Best Video Game Adaptation
CATEGORY #1: BEST CHARACTERIZATION
Let me start by saying this: both Sonic X and The Super Mario Bros. Super Show (hereafter SMBSS) do poorly at the higher-levels of characterization. Very little character development occurs and whatever progress is made for them to grow out of their established personalities at the end of each episode or arc is immediately forgotten. We see this very well in Mario, who although courageous, is not prone to making pasta-related jokes; or Sonic who thrives on being fast and very cocky. Bowser and Dr. Eggman also rarely offer anything outside of being bad for the sake of being bad. For those who are looking for a series that features these components, look away for something else.
Despite the lack of complex characters, one thing both shows do well at is innovating personalities and ensuring they do not stray far from how they are in the video games. Especially with SMBSS, which at the time of its release did not give us much background about each character’s personalities, and left the directors to determine how they wanted each character to be; hence, we get things like Luigi being a perennial scaredy-cat – something which would follow up in later incarnations of the character. Sonic X takes this a step further and adds a cast of completely original characters to their list, alongside the existing ones. Complain all you want about some of them subverting existing characters’ roles (Chris Thorndyke, I’m looking at you), but give them credit as they tried to make the viewer either love or hate them.
At the end, Sonic X wins the characterization category not because of its abundance of original characters, but because the existing characters make sense in context. When the anime was released in 2003, fans of the games knew what to expect from the protagonists and antagonists, and all things aside the characterization stuck. SMBSS tried to give Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad some personality, but since then their personalities have taken a wide U-turn, meaning that those who grew up today would have a hard time understanding Mario and Luigi’s gruff Italian personalities.
SONIC X 1, SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW 1
CATEGORY #2: BEST VISUALS
When I talk about visuals I’m not talking about the quality of the animation, but rather how well-represented the different worlds were. Obviously, if I were to talk about quality alone, Sonic X would win the category, which to me is a pretty unfair statement. Yes, I will admit that many of the places in the games, from Station Square to the Mystic Ruins to Space Colony ARK were well-drawn and faithfully adapted to the screen. In-game power-ups such as the Chaos Emeralds and Sonic’s rings largely retained their original designs and purposes, and make no mistake, Dr. Eggman’s robots brilliantly displayed the evil scientist’s level of genius.
The same case goes for SMBSS which takes place through 52 different worlds across the Mushroom Kingdom, such as Victorian-era London, a Mexican desert town, a Japanese village, an Egyptian valley of pyramids, and an Antarctic wasteland. Although the quality of visuals is on par with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, being able to see different worlds was refreshing to watch, as well as to see familiar Mario-related objects such as warp pipes, Fire Flowers, and Super Stars blending into the scenery. The inclusion of Albano and Wells’ live-action segments as Mario and Luigi respectively was also an interesting feature which made the characters feel real to us.
Sure, Sonic X might have modern visuals and a setting which looks real-world; but I will have to admit that SMBSS’s visuals of different places, their inhabitants, and the various pitfalls that Mario and company encounter each episode fascinated me, to the point that it completely trumps the former.
SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW 1, SONIC X 1
CATEGORY #3: BEST MUSIC
Having grown up with the 4Kids abomination in my youth, I was pretty aware of the OST, which I could describe as fast-paced brand of synthesized music – a far cry from the games which put out hard rock, rap, and pop tracks (for example: Crush 40’s Live And Learn or Tony Harnell’s It Doesn’t Matter). The Japanese music however, is one of the rare instances where the dub’s quality was enormously better than it. The opening and ending tracks sounded really off-course for a character who prides itself on speed, but the in-episode OST was awful and left me perplexed. It’s music that could make you fall asleep, which is a huge disappointment especially for epic battle scenes.
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, on the other hand, tends to remix music from the NES games, and add a bit of modern flavor to them. One such example is the level theme, ripped straight out of Super Mario Bros. 2, which is catchy. Not to mention, there’s something charming about listening to something like the famous ending song, Do The Mario – which mixed the famous Super Mario Bros. theme and gets you in the mood to do some exercise. I don’t know about you, but I’d take this video game music over the bore-fest that is Sonic X‘s music.
SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW 2, SONIC X 1
CATEGORY #4: BEST ADVENTURE
Adventure is a key component of both series, and what’s a video game adaptation without one? Unless if you’re trying to make a show based off Tetris, then an animated series ought to have some hint of such to it. Sonic X and SMBSS are no exception to this rule, but they handle them rather differently to say.
Sonic X is the archetypal adventure anime, spanning three seasons each with a different premise. In the first (eps 1-26), there’s a chase to capture the Chaos Emeralds from the hands of Dr. Eggman, who wishes to use their power to take over the world. Episodes 27-38 takes on the SEGA Dreamcast plots, with everything from the Perfect Chaos arc to the Space Colony ARK debacle being thrown into the fray. And let’s not forget everything from episode 53-78, where Sonic and his friends go into space to fight off the Metarex, a robotic army which seeks to deprive the world of its life source and use it to enhance their world domination plans. However, the first half and episode 39-52 have the feel of a slice-of-life series at times, with some of the most random scenarios being thrown in to help fill in the gaps between adventures. These include, but are not limited to a baseball episode (which I watched during the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians), a beach episode, a shopping episode, and even a fighting tournament mini-arc. One ought to wonder, how did this show go from a video game-based arc to Lucky Star?
On the other hand, SMBSS plays out with a more “monster-of-the-week” style premise, with each day’s episode featuring them in another world, another incarnation of Bowser, aided by his minions Mouser, Cobrats, and an army of Koopa Troopas, with some costumes that could be considered racist in today’s world. On some occasions, they’ll run into stale-inspired allies who more often than not are discount rip-offs of popular franchises. They run into a faceless Indiana Jones knockoff, a name-swapped Sherlock Holmes, a female Zorro, President George Washington, and even the entire Biblical story of Moses was not spared from these random cameos. Cheesy? You bet your arse it is. Conclusive? Don’t count on it.
It’s hard to imagine a Mario cartoon that doesn’t have a coherent beginning, middle and end; but somehow SMBSS manages to do it. This defeats the entire purpose of the repetitive story formulas and leave much to be desired from it. While Sonic X can be a bit lackey with its story execution, fortunately its adventure can be enjoyable to watch at times.
SONIC X 2, SUPER MARIO BROS SUPER SHOW 2
CATEGORY #5: BEST VIDEO GAME ADAPTATION
Overall, both shows have positive and negative aspects going for it. Sonic X has a decent adventure scenario and fun characters to go along with the ride, but ultimately lacks in music and episodic execution, sometimes sacrificing usefulness in the process. SMBSS has visuals and characters which are more faithful to the video games they were based on, as well as a consistent episodic format, but falls flat in terms of adventure and characters. It’s a darn shame what came out of this show, especially considering that its next two successor series would go on to handle this more or less the same, with some added adjustments like a talking Yoshi (admit it, that’s pretty awesome), a single central location, and being more faithful to the video game storyline. SMBSS had a lot of potential going for it, but unfortunately failed to exceed those expectations.
That being said, Sonic X isn’t perfect either. The show has not aged well since the days of my youth, and I’ve realized how cheesy it can be at times. I would spend my lunch breaks at my work-study sessions during university watching two episodes of this show, and thought to myself “This is somehow worse than I remember”. The lack of bad 4Kids puns was a relief, but didn’t do much to improve the show’s quality. Needless to say, it somewhat succeeded at capturing the excitement and intensity of a typical Sonic Adventure level, and for that credit ought to be given where it’s due.
The streak for anime goes on, as Sonic X takes the cake with a victory over The Super Mario Bros. Super Show as the superior animated feature between the two rivaling gaming mascots.
FINAL SCORE: SONIC X 3, SUPER MARIO BROS SUPER SHOW 2
Looking at Sonic and Mario in terms of their non-video-game appearances brings into mind some similarities with the Digimon and Pokemon series. In the case of Pokemon, there’s no doubt that the games are a masterpiece, one which will likely be passed down from generation to generation since its inception in 1995; the shows however leave much to be desired, and I’m not even sure how it got popular in the first place. The reverse can be said for Digimon: the games feel very clunky, but they make up for it with (for the most part) stories involving wonderful characters, epic battles, a gripping storyline and a memorable setting which continues to be a good part of my memories (and a savior of my sanity) to this day.
Likewise, Nintendo ought to keep doing what they do best with Mario: churning out addicting and lively video games involving his character, while SEGA has pretty much mastered at making Sonic into a memetic legend with a legacy that surpasses modern attempts to refine his video game mechanics. It’s no surprise that while the Sonic film from 2020 has succeeded at enthralling fans, Mario has gone 18 years and counting to receive a theatrical introduction at the same level as the former. Maybe his newest animated film, coming out in 2022, will change that trajectory.