There are few rivalries in the history of gaming as iconic as Sonic vs. Mario. If your passion for gaming started to develop as you grew up in the 90s, you’ll remember those heady days well. In schoolyards around the world, friendships were won and lost over the sides we took in the great Nintendo or Sega debate.
Whichever side you allied yourself with back in the day, there’s no denying that Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog are both indelible gaming/pop culture legends. Which franchise is truly better, though? That’s a super subjective question, but we’re going to take a shot at answering it anyway.
10 Longest-Running: Mario
As most gamers know, the first video game to feature Nintendo’s main man was Donkey Kong, which hit arcades in 1981. At that stage, though, he was simply named Jumpman, with Donkey Kong serving as the star of the show. Four years later, Super Mario Bros. released in Japan, officially introducing the world to both Mario and his bumbling brother Luigi.
It was another six years before Sonic made his debut, in 1991 Sega Genesis title Sonic the Hedgehog. Depending on how you look at it, then, the Mario titles have been doing the rounds for a full decade longer than the Sonic series (or at least six years).
9 Popularity: Mario
In their 90s heydays, it would have been quite tough to pick out one or the other as the most popular. When it comes to platforming mascots (or games company mascots in general), Sonic is quite possibly the only legitimate rival Mario has ever had. Remember Alex Kidd? No, neither do we.
Today, though, the story’s a little different. Sonic certainly still has that star power, but is his series still the force to be reckoned with that it was in Sega’s console days? As we’ll see later, the franchise’s star has waned in a big way.
8 Story: Sonic
Now, this one might be a little controversial, but we’ll do what we can to explain. As beloved as the Mario titles are, as close to perfecting that gleeful, cartoony platforming formula as they’ve come, as astoundingly creative as the level designs can be, the stories of the games tend to be sorely lacking.
Whenever you pick up a Mario game, you know that Bowser’s about to kidnap Peach and you’ll be pursuing the scaly fiend in order to rescue her. The Sonic the Hedgehog games may have made all kinds of missteps, but they certainly did vary the formula plot-wise. In Sonic and the Black Knight, we were journeying through the world of King Arthur with a talking sword in tow. Before that, it was the Arabian Nights-inspired Sonic and the Secret Rings. Great games? Perhaps not. New and different ones? Absolutely.
7 Innovation: Both Franchises
Naturally, when it comes to ranking one beloved franchise about the other, there are going to be tough, controversial decisions to be made. Everybody’s opinions are going to be totally different when it comes to each of the entries on this list, which is completely fine. With all of that said, though, there are some areas in which it seems unfair to choose one series over the other.
Innovation is one such case. Both series have made dramatic changes to the established formula, which is always very bold. Sometimes horrible, experimental failures that were soon ditched, but still bold. Innovation comes in many forms, from Mario’s inspired level design to talking swords and Sonic Unleashed’s Sonic the Werehog.
6 Villains: Sonic
No, it isn’t easy trying to pit two of the world’s most beloved gaming franchises of all time against each other. Here’s another controversial pick: the villains of the Sonic universe over the villains of the Mushroom Kingdom.
On the surface, both series have one very distinctive and iconic villain: Dr. Eggman (Robotnik for the old-school) and the ever-quirky Bowser respectively. When you trawl through the annals of each series, though, the more obscure villains of the Sonic franchise may just have a little something more up their sleeves than those of the main Mario series. Mephiles The Dark, of 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog, is one example. The embodiment of Solaris, the sun god, this guy was not to be messed with.
5 Spin-Offs: Mario
Needless to say, you can’t have a long-running video game franchise without a whole array of spin-offs popping up along the way. Equally inevitably, some are going to be pretty darn good and others are going to be… decidedly not.
Sonic brought us some quality offshoots like Sonic The Hedgehog Spinball and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, but there’s no contest here. Mario Party and the almighty Mario Kart have become two of Nintendo’s biggest franchises in their own right; both have been effortlessly destroying friendships forever for decades now.
4 Gameplay: Both Franchises
Here’s yet another tough call. When it comes to general gameplay, we’ve opted for another tie. Why? Because the two franchises are trying to do very different things, and it’s all about particular players’ preferences.
On a basic level, both franchises are platformers, but the gameplay differs a lot. The Mario games often take a slower, more methodical and considered approach, while Sonic has always (as he’ll tell you himself) gotta go fast. If you’re looking for the thrill of barrelling around those loops as Sonic, you won’t find quite the same experience in one of Mario’s titles. Likewise, Sonic’s stages don’t tend to be geared towards tricky jump sections and such, which experienced Mario fans love conquering. Does this make either franchise better than the other? Not exactly.
3 Supporting Cast: Mario
As any fan of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 will tell you, Tails is one of the greatest sidekicks in gaming history and demands to be respected as such (in his modest Tails way, that is). Aside from the fluffy orange icon, though, the supporting characters of the Sonic the Hedgehog cast aren’t especially memorable. We all know Amy, Knuckles, Shadow and the like, sure, but things get increasingly more obscure with the generic anthropomorphic animals from there.
Big the Cat has become a meme in his own right at this point, for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, the Mushroom Kingdom supporting cast, from Luigi to Peach, the Toads, Donkey Kong, Wario and everyone in between, have appeared so often (in their own series too) that they’re also stars.
2 Current Reputation: Mario
However long-running and iconic a franchise may be, there are always ups and downs. Both Mario and Sonic have experienced plenty of them over the course of their long careers, but Sonic has definitely suffered more in this regard.
As with Capcom’s storied Resident Evil titles, Sega’s franchise has lost its way a little in recent years. The classic titles fans remember have been left behind, in favor of more ‘creative’ entries that have strayed from everything the series used to be. Sonic’s name doesn’t carry the same cachet it once did, but perhaps it can again.
1 Overall: Mario
Mario’s own franchise isn’t beyond reproach, not by a long shot. They’re consistently solid, quality and quirky platformers, but we’ve seen a little too much of that with the New Super Mario Bros. titles in particular. Words like “rehash” have been creeping into the conversation more and more.
Even so, for our money, Mario trumps Sonic, especially in terms of consistency. Some of this may be because Nintendo play things a little too safely with their flagship series, but the bottom line is that you almost always know you can rely on a Mario title. That’s not a boast that Sonic has been able to make of late.