Nintendo has rare talent for creating compelling new characters, and it makes the process look effortless. With every new franchise Nintendo makes, or with every new game it creates for an established franchise, we get at least one character who's so cool or cute, they become an instant social media star. As a writer who makes new characters as gracelessly as a cow struggling with a breech birth, it makes me furious.
In the past decade alone, Nintendo's made dozens of new characters across various games, genres, and platforms. Some have become as recognizable as Mario himself; some have faded into near obscurity, but are still lovable all the same. But who are the best characters and mascots Nintendo brewed up between 2010 and 2020? Which character deserves the coveted rank of "Best Nintendo Character of the Decade?"
We had a discussion at USgamer that was civil and dignified, outside a few hurled bricks. Here's our list of nominees, and our winner.
The Squid Sisters (2015, Splatoon)
Splatoon is so cool and colorful, it's easy to forget the team-based paintball shooter was born during Nintendo's darkest years. The whole new franchise gave us Inklings, neon-spattered turf wars, and a new roster of characters to get acquainted with. Splatoon's biggest standouts are the Squid Sisters (actually cousins), Callie and Marie.
Fans grew closer to the Sisters as they delivered in-game news day after day and spent weekends doing idol shows to hype players up for Splatfest competitions. Their tunes are maddeningly catchy—even though they lack earthly lyrics—and their chemistry with one another made us pay attention when Callie went missing in Splatoon 2.
On the topic of Splatoon 2, Pearl and Marina do an excellent job taking up the mantle of idol duo in the second game. The sweet, gentle Octoling Marina certainly found an admiring audience that persists on social media. We have to hand it to the originals, though. And no, Callie and Marie don't count as two separate characters. They're inseparable. They draw sustenance off each others' sass and barbs, like a lime-green clownfish and electric-purple anemone.
Isabelle (2012, Animal Crossing: New Leaf)
Animal Crossing was popular before New Leaf came to the Nintendo 3DS. Still, it feels like the debut of Nintendo's fluffy yellow shih tzu added something extra special to the unique sim franchise. Isabelle arrives in New Leaf to help with your new duties as mayor, and her unfailing sweetness is contagious. I remember the first time I fell in love with Isabelle: it's when she hands you a fruit that's not native to your island and tells you her mother taught her "good puppies always share." That's when I took my oath and swore I'd die for Isabelle at a moment's notice. (If her performance in Super Smash Bros. is any indication, however, she's quite capable of defending herself.)
I guess I didn't love her enough to keep my New Leaf city well-maintained, though. Ah-heh. But when Isabelle joined me in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, she didn't pass on a single word of judgment about the town I left to the weeds and bugs. She's a great gal.
Dillon (2012, Dillon's Rolling Western)
I have a weakness for cowboys and I like armadillos, so it's natural I'd have a spot in my heart for Dillon of the Dillon's Rolling Western series. Dillon's Rolling Western and its follow-ups are strange action-based tower defense games that can't seem to find a strong fanbase. That's a shame, because I think Dillon is one of the coolest-looking characters associated with Nintendo's systems. His hat, his bandana, his metal claws, and his red-beige shading just makes me say, "I like him. I want to play as him; I bet he can do all sorts of cool things."
He can, too. Dillon can roll, punch, claw, and dig. He literally grinds down the Grocks, his rocky alien foes by chasing them down and shredding them with the metal spikes he equips on his shell. It's an unusual and satisfying way of fighting enemies. Dillon is silent but kind, always eager to help the disenfranchised. I really want to see him break out of Nintendo 3DS niche game limbo and become a more recognizable hero.
It should be noted that Dillon is the creation of Vanpool, a company that works closely with Nintendo, not Nintendo itself. Though this list is purposefully absent of second-party characters, I feel very strongly about my boy Dillon getting some recognition. Therefore, an exception was made.
Mayor Pauline (2017, Super Mario Odyssey)
The character Pauline isn't new; she's practically old as I am. In 1981's Donkey Kong for the arcades, she played the part of the kidnapped maiden. Mario braved a massive gorilla's rage (and penchant for throwing anything at hand) to rescue her from her precarious perch on a construction girder.
We're not talking about '80s Pauline, though. We're talking about Mayor Pauline, the god-queen of Super Mario Odyssey's New Donk City. Mayor Pauline needs to call in a favor from Mario when a mech-bug troubles the city, but beyond that hiccup, Pauline rules New Donk City with a perfumed iron fist. All of New Donk's citizens proclaim their love for their leader as they don their identical grey suits and pour into the subway tunnels. Visiting New Donk City is like visiting the Mario universe's take on Camazotz from A Wrinkle in Time.
Mayor Pauline's rule is carrot-and-stick. During the day, her citizens keep their faces frozen in pained smiles as Mayor Pauline denies them their right to have children. At night, however, they're allowed to dance and sing as Mayor Pauline dons a sequined gown and serenades the city with a song about jumping superstars.
Mayor Pauline is an unwritten horror story from every angle you observe her from, and I admire her so much.
Lucina (2012, Fire Emblem Awakening)
Last year's Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the better Fire Emblem game, but the surprise popularity of Fire Emblem Awakening likely saved the series from oblivion. It also introduced two of the most enduringly popular Fire Emblem characters to date: Chrom and his time-travelling daughter, Lucina.
Lucina's introduction into Awakening's story is slow and mysterious. She takes the guise of Marth, the Fire Emblem series' "Hero-King" until she's ready to reveal herself, her past, and intentions to Chrom. In the years before she reunites with her father, she endures a broken world where Chrom is murdered by an unknown assailant. It's hard to imagine the pain she suffered for years. Lucina should earn a trophy for Gaming's Most Justified Emotional Breakdown.
Nikki (2012, Swapnote)
Nikki, like the Swapnote app she represented, died too early. All right, that's a bit grim, but Nikki (and, again, Swapnote) is an example of Nintendo throwing away something everyone loved. Swapnote let Nintendo 3DS users share drawings and messages, and Nikki instructed us and cheered us on as we scribbled away.
Nikki has a lot in common with Isabelle. Both are informative, kind, and designed in a way that's simple but compelling to look at. Nikki immediately felt like a friend as soon as we met her, which earned her a strong fanbase for the duration of her short life.
Nintendo discontinued Swapnote in 2013, but Nikki's essence still wafts around us. She was a costume in Super Mario Maker, and she's also been committed to Super Smash Bros.'s Assist Trophy limbo. Cameos are well and good, but I hope Nintendo performs a full resurrection on Nikki; I miss that green sweater and those red glasses.
Rusty Slugger (2013, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball)
2013 was a bit of a panicky time for Nintendo. Not only was the Wii U in a graveyard spiral, but free-to-play mobile games were gobbling up kids' time and money. Nintendo swore never to get involved with the mobile market (oops), but it dabbled in free-to-play marketing via Rusty's Real Deal Baseball for the Nintendo 3DS.
Rusty's Real Deal Baseball is free to download, but the games within the collection—all based around baseball, natch—need to be purchased individually. This is where Rusty comes in. You can haggle with the former sports star to bring down the price of the games. If Rusty's sweet on you, his entire collection of discounted games will cost just $16.
There's something thoroughly "Nintendo" about putting a face—a hangdog face, no less—on the oft-predatory free-to-play market. Rusty is a devious addition to Real Deal Baseball. He's a washed-up superstar who's a single father to no less than ten puppies. If you buy Rusty's wares, he'll regale you with tales of the good ol' days. If you refuse…well, gosh, that's your choice, but Rusty's got a lot of mouths to feed, you know…?
Nintendo abandoned its "no mobile" pledge years ago, and now it has both feet in the sinful garden of free-to-play gacha mobile nonsense. It has no need of a personable mascot to soften kids up on the idea of microtransactions, so Rusty lingers behind the foul line in some forgotten field. I'd say, "Bring him back in one of Nintendo's mobile games," but he doesn't deserve to be soiled like that. If Rusty is fated to languish, let him languish as a good boy.
Hades (2012, Kid Icarus: Uprising)
You've heard the expression "The beatings will continue until morale improves," right? I have a variation: "The port-begging will continue until we get Kid Icarus: Uprising on the Switch." Despite its hand-cramping control scheme—an issue that is easily resolved with the Switch's second analogue stick—Kid Icarus: Uprising is a blast to play. It's also one of Nintendo's funniest and best-written games, and it hosts its most undersung villain: Hades, the King of the Underworld.
Hades makes his grand entrance through Kid Icarus: Uprising's fake credits and reveals himself to be witty and sarcastic. At the same time, he's vicious, cruel, and conniving. Nearly every word out of Hades' ever-moving mouth is creepy, or hilarious, or both.
We need another game where Hades is the bad guy. We also need a new Kid Icarus game. Seems like the problem can easily solve itself. Oh…wait. Shucks.
Prince Sidon (2017 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)
I'm not sure what happened in 2017, but it's the year Nintendo started unashamedly making hot characters like Sidon, the Zora Prince from Breath of the Wild. Giant fish people aren't on everyone's lust menu, but the sleek, smiling Sidon had no trouble forming a fan club when Breath of the Wild arrived. (He has an in-game fan club, too.)
There's a lot to like about Sidon. He's perpetually optimistic, he works hard to bridge relations between Hylians and his fellow Zora, and he's got an entire shark for a head. Look, I just think that's cool.
Sidon is also the first to leap into action when trouble comes calling. He slew a giant "Fell Octorok" by entering its belly and slicing it from the inside. His powerful talent for swimming helped Link enter the raging Divine Beast Van Ruta, which Link subsequently calmed.
Prince Sidon's vast fanbase is currently hibernating, but a glimpse of their red-scaled hero will bring them back to life in seconds. If Sidon shows up in Breath of the Wild 2, the reaction will be like a live wire falling on a lake.
And the Winner Is…
Nintendo clearly knows how to build 'em, but our girl Isabelle gets the final nod for Nintendo's Best Character of the Decade.
We've acknowledged and recalled so many great characters in this list, but Isabelle's universal appeal can't be denied. It's sad that the term "In these trying times—" has become a cliché in a society struggling for months against COVID-19, but I readily admit Isabelle's been a comforting presence through this ordeal. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a calming game by itself, but it's an additional comfort to turn on New Horizons and have Isabelle cheerfully tell you the news of the day. I just wish she'd talk more about the movies and shows she stops herself from discussing. C'mon, Isabelle! Tell me what you binged on Netflix last night! (It was Beastars, right?)
It's worth mentioning that New Horizons is filled with amazing new animals whose pictures are splashed across social media daily. Flick, the punk-goth chameleon bug collector is wonderful. C.J. the influencer makes me feel my age, but at least he and Flick make a cute couple. Raymond, the heterochromatic cat, is a tremendously popular new villager—people are making actual monetary deals in hopes he'll camp in their town and decide to live there. Orville and Wilbur, the twin dodos who run Dodo Airlines, are so squishy that I want to hug them to death. Hrrrrrrggggh
But Isabelle is the sunny glue that holds everyone together. Villagers come and go; Isabelle is forever. Flick and C.J. abide by their own fussy schedules; Isabelle can always be found in the town hall, and she never sleeps. She sure does dance, though.
No matter how many stupid decisions you make while building your town, and no matter how many years you leave Isabelle alone when you inevitably abandon "Fart City," the plucky shih tzu is never irritable or disappointed in you. She just smiles and does her best while the little bell on her topknot jingles with every move she makes.
That's the kind of positivity we need in our sad world. Isabelle is the best Nintendo character of the decade, and as long as we're building and abandoning Animal Crossing towns for her to keep watch over, I don't believe she'll be usurped from her position any time soon.