How a Mascot Was Lost to Time
Guest post by TheAcapellaJester
Introducing: the Xbox
It may be a difficult thing to recollect, but Microsoft wasn’t always the de-facto response whenever someone brought up the idea of companies competing for their share of the money that more and more people were forking over every day for an expanding industry. The market always shifts rapidly, so too did its dominant contenders, many of whom that refused to adapt, leaving a large vacancy asking to be filed.
Companies like Sony were taking the initiative and filling it nicely, after their partnership with Nintendo fell-through, and ultimately created the PlayStation, a now multi-million unit sold household name for generations. People were still longing for a brand that they could be likened to a second home for them: a brand they could be loyal to.
A brand that could spark a new console war to help further diversify, and intensify the movement of technology within video-gaming, and the way they could mass-market gaming into the more connected, and subscription-based world at the time. The market needed to evolve in order to survive, and progression is sometimes dictated by how hard one can attempt to outdo the other, as is demonstrated many a time in history, like with the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Formerly specializing in only hardware and operating systems. Microsoft decided that the allure of the gaming industry at the time was too lavish to resist, and a name wedged into the hearts and minds of consumers everywhere today was created: the Xbox.
A name that evoked the style of the decade it was released, along with the style and audience it targeted, which was unfortunately a name that also spelt a great omen of death in Japan, so much so that they were recommended to omit the “X” altogether. Many of their creative decisions labelled with the company’s more western aspects were critiqued heavily when translated into a much different culture or didn’t translate at all.
An example being that one of the games they published had a protagonist missing several fingers in their design, which evoked morbid connotations in the Japanese culture as this was typically associated with the Yakuza crime-families graphic dismembering of fingers (though Sega themselves funnily enough did end up starting up their own IP of the family itself in 2005).
Even the hardware demonstrated was criticized for its bulky; sharp, rectangular corners, compared to the more sleek, curvy devices they favoured, and the controller itself designed by Seamus Blackely, was too large and cumbersome for the smaller hands of the Japanese population. The design in question was affectionately dubbed the “Duke” by the Project Manager of Hardware after his son who shared the same name due to its sheer size and weight. A new, smaller variant was eventually released as a timed-exclusive to Japanese audiences.
The Xbox was forever branded a western product in concept and execution, and even to this day recently: only 0.3% of Xbox Ones (not the original Xbox: the Xbox ONE) were recorded as sold in Japan.
Microsoft was very much a western company, and that was embedded into the very UI and marketing of the Xbox itself with its more immature sense of humour, and the Matrix-esque colour-schemes of the dashboard upon booting the console itself: with its samples of NASA launches, and almost alien-like ambience and chamber in the background. Western companies were often disregarded in Japan for the comfort and pride of more homegrown companies like Sony or Nintendo, so off the bat they were at a significant disadvantage.
Their collaboration with Sega offered many avenues to integrate into the Japanese video-game market, and that’s what ultimately led them to pursue a more family-friendly, “furry” mascot akin to the likes of similar anthro faces such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario or Crash Bandicoot. These faces seemed a dime-a-dozen at the time, but they made great strides in helping define and humanizing (ironically) their respective companies, along with diversifying their demographics as it caught the eyes of many younger audiences everywhere. Sonic in particular would unintentionally play a crucial role in the conception of this Microsoft character.
Microsoft was in desperate need of an IP that could appeal to not only Western audiences, but their Japanese counterparts as well, so the former vice-president of game publishing and Blinx executive producer himself Ed Fries helped orchestrate a branch of Microsoft Game Studios in Japan, and subsequently the head of the group enlisted the aid of numerous Japanese development teams. One of whom was a relatively unknown group of developers composed of key personnel who worked on Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and Panzer Dragoon IPs.
A company called Artoon.
A name that was coined from the English word “CARTOON”, with the “ART” reflected in the passion, and optimism that the team wove into each of their creations. They aimed to elicit joy by sharing their work with the world, as it demonstrated by even their custom logo in the final product.
But what’s just as interesting as the brand today: is what was left behind in the shadows cast by the millions of units, and IPs that paved the way for the Xbox’s dominance. A great emphasis on more hardcore exclusives similar to Halo or Gears of War would define the image of the more “adult” demographic of the Xbox brand now, and the unfortunate reminder that sometimes ambition doesn’t always equate to the results you want to receive.
Such is the tail of Blinx: an anthropomorphic tabby cat birthed by the creative genius that is industry icon, Naoto Ohshima. A veteran who created the distinctive icons of Sonic the Hedgehog and Dr. Eggman that would permeate popular culture, be a major asset towards the market-share of Sega, amidst the aggressively monopolizing Nintendo at the time.
The pressure between the two companies would create one of the most popular and well-documented console wars in gaming, not just between the companies themselves, but just as presented culturally within them as well.
Microsoft themselves had developed and announced a partnership with Sega at TGS (Tokyo Game Show) 2001 keynote presented by CEO Bill Gates himself to the attendance of around 4000. This partnership included the perk of an 11-game-deal that would be promised exclusively to the original Xbox itself. Included among these were tragically late Jet Set Future, or the recently revitalized Panzer Dragoon.
Recently rumours began circulating that they were even as being close enough for Sega to propose implementing Dreamcast backwards compatibility into the Xbox after fiscal results for Sega were disappointing, but were held back by internet-connectivity issues with the Dreamcast itself.
Sega would subsequently transition fully from console hardware into third-party publishing instead. Their business-relationship with Microsoft continuing regardless.
Now that the context has been established: we can now discuss the developers and key figure involved in the concepts and decision-making that would help possibly one of the most ambitious franchises and characters of all time. The franchise was developed with the Xbox hardware in mind and Western/Japanese trends alike. A concept was conceived that could only be possible with Xbox’s unique hard-drive that could document and record the player’s progress to create the time-powers that became instrumental to the franchise’s allure.
Blinx and Sonic became interchangeable conception-wise at that point, as they were both created from the minds of both Sega and Microsoft as a desire to prove by the executives over the developers passion to design, even if the developers themselves gave their hearts and souls into a franchise that deserved better, and a workforce that aimed to do better, but could only muster so much with the resources and deadlines given.
We’re gonna bring him back to the present for just one more time... but who knows what the future can hold? Time after all is a precious treasure, and that too is not appreciated nearly enough.
Until it’s too late.
The initial proposal for Blinx (initially conceived as Project Pelon, which would later be a name given to a prominent side-character in its sequel) to the Microsoft heads by Ohshima and his team was simple, as previously stated: develop an identifiable face and name that can make people immediately go “Yeah, that’s Xbox!”, and further cement Microsoft Game Studios (now Xbox Game Studios) as a staple in the flourishing video-game market. Microsoft needed the accessibility and promise of a console that could appeal to all audiences if they wanted any chance of competing with now long-term rivals Nintendo, and Sony, they needed long-term trustworthy supporters on their side, and they got with the recent acquisition of Rare Studios.
They were quickly turning into a goliath that need tailored attention by their competitors. Blinx would be a great opportunity to demonstrate not only the power of the hardware that the Xbox possessed, but could distinguish itself as something was fully Microsoft, with his abilities tailored so that only the Xbox itself was capable of supporting this character and universe.
The conception and designs behind Blinx as a character were strategic. Animal mascots were the universal appeal at the time and were capable of providing many gameplay opportunities for a winning formula. They needed to be immediately recognizable by their silhouette, and just as adorable to match. Sonic was a hedgehog, Crash was a bandicoot, and Spyro was a dragon, and the imagination that entails on the gameplay itself is boundless.
The designers at Artoon Studios went through many species for their protagonists, and antagonists: they even thought of using dogs at one point, but eventually cats were chosen due to their mass-appeal, and cute factor. This choice was also inspired by many popular fables of fiction: such as the phrase “Cat-sith”, which represents a fairy creature within its legends similar in appearance to the final vision; or the fairytale of Puss in Boots, with his aloof clothing and eccentric personality. His trademark smile was inspired by the Cheshire Cat from pseudonym Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which would later become popular in Western media dubbed as the “Dreamworks smile”.
All of which would be integral to both Blinx’s personality and overall physical design.
It’s easy to see why cats were chosen for the protagonists, as their potential for emoting; distinct personalities and traits, and as a pet loved by all would a sure-fire way to draw the attention of cat-lover everywhere: some of whom were even on the team and offered their personal experience, specifically one of the women among the development team contributed to flesh Blinx’s behaviour and move-set so that they could capture the idiosyncrasies of his species perfectly, and have his personality resonate with the audience even more.
On advice internally he was given chubbier cheeks; a closed, curvy-smile that evoked innocence; he was changing from his initial Puss-in-Boots routes and given more contemporary clothing, with a pang of the future the franchise was set in; a hoodie and goggles that were never actually used by the character in marketing, and only for specific circumstances in-game; a pair of shorts and metallic boots that evoked trends at the time, and Blinx finally adorned his orange, blue and white colour-scheme after the initial colour-patch of purple, orange and white was scrapped.
The mood, tone, and colour-palettes would be as light as they were vibrant; maintaining an other-worldly feel yet simultaneously grounded at the same time, and the character had to reflect, and stand out among it all.
Even the iconic bell that Blinx dons was recommended due to its jolliness, and Christmas-themed setting (later used in Christmas marketing).
But most importantly of all: Blinx had to be beloved by the Japanese market, from his mannerisms to the species itself. Blinx was chosen as was common at the time with video-game mascots like Crash: he was depicted as an innocent, cheerful character in Japanese media, whilst he was given a more mischievous, edge in the west, along with more exaggerated, extreme poses to exacerbate his appeal.
The enemy cast of time-monsters were given more bubbly, and circular-designs that could pop out to the player as memorable, but still retained an uncanny threat to the. Due to their nature as anomalies in time, the developers were allowed to experiment with the more unorthodox of artistry ranging from checker-board patterns of the floating squid-like Octaballons to the antennae bearing frogs of the Keraroppers.
All of the enemy-types were given definitive powers to counteract or weaponize the use of time that was decided for the protagonists, dubbed as the “Time Sweepers”, so the difficulty-curve adjusted properly to match the player’s progress.
The antagonists of the game were designed with their greed in mind, so their uniforms were considerably more rugged, and basic compared to the Sweeper’s more intricate clothing, and their features more aggressive in colour-scheme. Presumably, they were chosen as pigs as a play-off the words “piggy-bank”, and the gang of antagonists became known as the “Tom-Toms”.
The Tom-Toms would appear regularly as hazards in-game and were the instigators of the game’s events. The leader Benito himself was named after famous historic figure, Benito Mussolini, and it’s worth taking into consideration that “pigs” were generally used as an insult at the time against their governments at the time.
The story was intentionally given a minimalist structure with barely any cutscenes, or dialogue, to accommodate the emphasis on gameplay, art-style and performance. It could also have been a way of harkening back to Ohshima’s routes also with the classic light storytelling formula of the earlier Sonic the Hedgehog games, as is present also in the 10-minute time-limit shared in those games as well.
The language used by the Time-Sweepers themselves was dubbed internally as the “Time Factory language” was articulated by linguists that Artoon had hired, and that’s apparent in its complexity and lack of inflection. This would later be abandoned in the sequel, presumably due to deadlines, voice-acting and budget concerns.
Naoto Ohshima himself has been rumoured to be the voice-actor of Blinx himself in the first game, as he implied on his Twitter account multiple times.
The environments themselves were inspired by the more dreamy, psychedelic fiction of the past, such as MC Eischer’s perplexing depictions of these ascending/descending stairs that would provide the foundation for the opening stage of Time-Square, or the more regal architecture of his Tower of Babel that would form the Deja-Vu Canals. Stages were also inspired by more real-life locales, with Deja-Vu Canals again being inspired by the canals and gondolas of Venice, Italy.
Marketing, Release and Aftermath
Blinx: The Time Sweeper was publicly announced at Microsoft’s second E3 in 2002 following the details of the console itself at E3 2001, and many other IPs of theirs made their debut also, sharing the stage with soon to be Microsoft flagship franchise, Halo with its first instalment - Halo: Combat Evolved. If that wasn’t enough, then the first trailer for Halo 2 was also making its rounds at the presentation so this year was a particularly special one for the Xbox brand.
Everything that Microsoft announced was undoubtedly Microsoft, and the initial presentation of the trailer for TTS was met with applause and wonder alike as can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHubfBg6ECY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_i9SnK6QeRg. A demo was available on the show-floor, featuring many scrapped and beta elements of its respective prototype, demonstrated here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeTuMyj4yZUso.
With their secrets finally revealed: marketing was now in high-gear.
Blinx himself was even considered a potential mascot for the Xbox brand, to match along fellow anthro mascots as stated before, and a whole plethora of merchandising, promotional CDs (such as the recently discovered “Welcome to the BLiNX World” handed out at the Shinjuku Square Station Commemoration Release event for TTS to all attendees: it served as an introduction to the cast + universe acting as a series encyclopedia of sorts).
All of these can be found archived at blinxthetimesweeper.com: a fansite hosted by NipChipCookies, who provided the many resources, information and trivia incorporated into this study.
Blinx’s appeal towards the Japanese audience was made abundantly clear, so a clear quantity of marketing remained situated there. The event contained many celebrations ala. Blinx festivities and treats such as time-crystal shaped candy, and even somebody dressed in a Blinx mascot outfit. They were spotted attending various public establishments like eating at McDonalds, roaming the streets, and relaxing at a cafe.
All of this whilst likely sweating profusely in a large cat uniform, with a vacuum as your only defence: sounds like my average weekend really. Blinx himself was even proposed as a mascot for Xbox in Japan, so all seemed to be going well on the financial-parts of things.
The highly sought after collectable plush was released exclusively to Japan, with a prototype handed to Ohshima himself. Only a handful of the already few produced remain in the wild: one of which can be seen below.
Blinx: The Time Sweeper was released to store shelves in North America on the 7th of October 2002, followed by Europe in November, and Japan in December met by lukewarm to generally positive reviews: most critics agreed that the concept and character himself were strong, but the execution itself left much to be desired.
The game also provided significantly underwhelming sales for everybody involved (that to this day has only sold a few thousand units), this along with the insane critical acclaim and financial success of the Halo franchise, and subsequent unpopularity with polls and audiences relegated Blinx to just a blip in Xbox’s history, but it was enough to at least develop a small but loving cult-classic status and community.
(If you’re interested in all the current shenanigans of the Blinx community, or just want a little nostalgia trip and a reminder that at least 7 other people know about Blinx at all. Please consider the r/Blinx Reddit page; Amino page, and finally the Discord server linked on the fansite below).
Artoon was already commissioned for a two-game deal, and the sequel Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space whilst met with moderately higher review scores, was an even worse financial bomb, due to its poor marketing and release date a week before Halo 2 released in November 2004, but that’s a whole can of worms for another day.
Blinx never achieved his proposed status as Xbox mascot, and Master Chief unofficially took up that mantle instead. You might think: why didn’t they just go with Master Chief before when Combat Evolved was such a massive success?
Well, first: Chief himself is a character lauded for just how faceless he really was: he was a suit of armour that was meant to the audience’s avatar, so having a visor to represent your console wasn’t exactly the way to extend your audience.
Second: the franchise itself is targeted at an older and more mature audience, so they didn’t want a mascot that was involved in any kind of hyper-bloody violence or themes of alien invasions and religious fanaticism.
The Xbox lineup now is severely lacking in family-friendly platformers like Blinx (with the exception of Super Lucky’s Tale of course). The recent acquisition third-party studios into the Xbox Game Studios lineup however, along with the platforming boom of the past decade, and with the more recent announcement that the vault of IPs is open for any Xbox Studio to sift their way through. Maybe a Blinx revival isn’t so far off after all?
Artoon however has unfortunately been absorbed into multiple companies by now, and Naoto Ohshima himself along with key staff from Artoon and Sega have now formed a company called Arzest, recently credited with the Hey! Pikmin and the giant battles of the Bowser’s Inside Story remake (RIP Alpha Dream).
Any future-work would have to be given a Sonic Mania treatment ala. Fan-games, or a separate studio within the Xbox family altogether.
Also please stop bringing up that Blinx lost his trademark: that only means that people can use the name Blinx without the risk of legal ramifications. I’m sorry to say that means you can’t make your own Blinx sequel without first contacting Microsoft for permission (and they aren’t licensing the IP currently) or consulting their Game Content Usage guidelines for a fan-game. They can easily reapply for the trademark if a revival were to come to fruition.
Until then have a good one, people!
Enjoy this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSolMkrPNKo also
https://www.gamesradar.com/uk/be-kind-rewind-the-real-story-behind-blinx-xboxs-mediocre-mascot/ (I’m not gonna take this “mediocre” slander, ur… I mean libel of my boy Blinx)
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