Unicorns, and the concept of unicorns, have been around for centuries. And over time they have been slowly re-envisioned. However there are dozens of other mythical creatures and fictional monsters that have been updated far more drastically within the last few years.
Greek mythology was the backdrop for the God of War video game series which saw many of the stories re-imagined and tailored to fit a modern audience. The series plays with the myths, creating warped versions of the originals which serve the emotional arc of the game. At Universal Pictures, all of their famous monsters have been given face-lifts despite having first made it to the screen a little less than a century ago. In the cases of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the Wolfman, and Dracula, most of their core stories have been held intact, while their characterizations and visual portrayals have been updated. Even zombies, a midnight horror film creation and staple, have been tweaked to the extent that much of their original allure no longer exists. But perhaps the most extreme changes have occurred to vampires, with series such as Twilight and True Blood playing with the very way people now perceive vampires. Despite all this need to revitalize myth, very little has been done with unicorns.
While most people today would consider a unicorn to be a horse with a single horn growing from its forehead (which, a horse, it most certainly is not), traditionally the unicorn has the beard of a billy goat, a lion's tail, and cloven hoofs. The Chinese qilin, perhaps a relative of the unicorn, is more chimaera, with a deer's body, a lion's head, green scales, and a long, curved horn. However the Japanese kirin, derived from the qilin, bears more resemblance to the Western unicorn.
The unicorn's prominence was probably greatest during the Medieval times, when it was depicted in many pieces of artwork, such as the Hunt of the Unicorn and Dame a la licorne tapestries. Unicorns were usually displayed in either their traditional form, their modern interpretation, or a combination thereof, and it is likely that during that time the idea of the unicorn changed dramatically. Writers and artists of the era romanticized the unicorn, attributing special powers and properties to the horn and its owner. The unicorn myth truly emerged, and the unicorn was no longer just a rare, flighty creature, but was a creature that embodied certain qualities, a creature that could not be caught by fair means, and a creature whose horn became a much sought after prize.
In modern times, the unicorn and its myth have rarely been utilized in the popular media. Unicorns made a brief appearance in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in two significant scenes. In the 1980s, My Little Pony launched a line of unicorn ponies. But perhaps the two works most responsible for keeping unicorns alive, were the Peter S. Beagle novel and Rankin/Bass film The Last Unicorn, and the Ridley Scott film Legend. Those works followed the romantic tradition of the unicorn. Legend, as a live film, was constrained (by real-life terms and the lack of visual effects at the time) to using a horse made up to look like a unicorn. The novel of The Last Unicorn did its best to differentiate unicorns from horses, describing them as being "smaller and cloven-hoofed," and having "pointed ears and thin legs with feathers of white hair at the ankles." Since the film version was animated, the filmmakers were able to keep Beagle's vision of the unicorn intact. But aside from those predominantly '80s works, unicorns have all but fallen out of the limelight, except for a few recent appearances.
In April of 2009, pranksters hacked ESPN.com so that when one's browser was opened to that page and the user entered in the Konami code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, "B," "A," "ENTER"), unicorns filled the screen. It was a neat combination of unicorn activism and digital graffiti. Most recently, Cartoon Network's [adult swim] Games have launched a flash game called Robot Unicorn Attack, where the player controls a robot unicorn as it runs across floating land masses while trying to gather butterfly fairies and avoid crashing or falling which result in the robot unicorn's death.
Robot Unicorn Attack
Pushing the unicorn mythos into the next decade, [adult swim] is trying to offer a new, advanced take on unicorns. The robot unicorn presents a myriad of debates. On the one hand there is the human vs. robot debate. The inherent fear involved with that issue juxtaposes the fanciful nature and mysticism of unicorns. Perhaps it is also a commentary on the rare state of unicorns, that with the possible extinction of unicorns, the only way man will be able to see them in the future is if he builds them himself. In any case, this may be the first step towards seeing the unicorn myth rebuilt, since we simply cannot rely on Deviant Art to keep pumping out mediocre unicorn artwork to keep unicorns alive. And the world would be far less mysterious and beautiful if unicorns truly ceased to exist.