by Justin Crockett
If you were a child of the Nintendo age, you no doubt have fond memories of the times: seeing the unmistakable shape of an NES game wrapped up under the tree, going to the movie rental stores that had video games and being able to rent two at a time(damn you for losing the instruction manual!), and enjoying a game that had focus and purpose that didn’t require 60 hours to complete. It was a simpler time, which required the developers of these games to really invest some thought into their characters. Here are some of the more unique origins of your childhood heroes.
Donkey Kong Was a Popeye Game
Meet Shigeru Miyamoto, perhaps the most important video game designer in history. His credits include the Mario games, the Zelda series, Metroid Prime, and uh, Ham Ham Heartbreak.
The most Japanese thing, ever.
So Miyamoto was a big deal. But not so much, back in 1981. Not until he came out with the iconic Donkey Kong, which not only featured the first appearance of the one guy who would save the videogame industry, Mario, but also did alright on its own, spawning numerous sequels and spinoffs. But the barrel-throwing monkey that you know so well was originally meant to be a video game for another hairy-armed fella:
Yup, the game that became Donkey Kong was originally meant to be a platform for Popeye. But a deal between Nintendo and the holders of Popeye’s likeness could not be reached. So, while Miyamoto had a basic outline of a game going, he now had to proceed with original characters. But the stamp of Popeye still remains if you look closely: the setting is a kind of construction site venue, of which many Popeye cartoons take place. The triangle of Popeye(the hero), Bluto(the brutish, hairy bad guy), and Olive Oyl(the waify damsel) now became Mario(the hero), Donkey Kong(the brutish, hairy bad guy), and Pauline(the waify damsel). And instead of the spinach that Popeye got his powers from, Mario used a piece of fencepost, studded with rusty nails(not true).
Mario Almost Wasn’t Mario
Probably the most famous video game character the world has ever known, and notable for not really ever having a weak entry in his anthology, Mario has done a slew of work in his career, none of which involve him plumbing.
When we mentioned Mario appearing in the previous Donkey Kong entry, we neglected to mention that his name was not Mario at all: it was Jumpman. Clever, right? Cuz he jumped? It’s succinct, if nothing else. It was a primitive NES game; he didn’t do much more than run and jump. You can’t really call him Runman, that’s stupid. Being a Japanese port of a video game, we’re really lucky it wasn’t anything besides Jumpman. It could have been Super Mustache Yay! or many other things worse than Jumpman. Oh sorry, what was that? Jumpman was called “Mr. Video” during the initial development of Donkey Kong, and he couldn’t even jump? Oh, and before any of that, he was called Ossan, and looked like Captain Lou Albano?:
Yup, he wasn’t even called Mario until the Donkey Kong game came to the United States. Miyamoto recalled that he was in an argument with the landlord that owned the early Nintendo warehouse, who was named, guess?!! EARL!!
No, it was Mario Segale, and Miyamoto changed the game character’s name to Mario as a tribute/f&*% you to the man he paid his company’s rent to. When the first Mario Bros. game was planned, the amount of underground settings the game took place in made Miyamoto dub Mario to be a plumber by trade. And the look, the iconic Mario design, with the mustache and hat? Simply due to the limitations of the game hardware; they gave him bold features to stand against the simplistic backgrounds of the game.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Everyone’s favorite blazing blue hedgehog who couldn’t swim one single ounce, Sonic debuted on the Sega Genesis in 1991. Sega, being the only real rival to Nintendo, really needed a trademark character like Mario was. So they put their heads together over at Sega, and came up some really strong ideas:
An armadillo(mmmkay..not bad).
A dog(getting better, people love dogs, who wouldn’t love to go on an adventure with one?)
A bunny that would collect items with its ears(uh, I guess….little silly though).
A THEODORE ROOSEVELT DOPPELGANGER IN PAJAMAS
Shockingly, none of these were accepted, but the above Roosevelt-clown would become a boss enemy in the game to come. Finally one developer won the design for the company’s new flagship mascot: Naoto Oshima came up with a blue hedgehog, whose cobalt blue color matched Sega’s corporate font, and red boots that echoed a pair Michael Jackson wore. Initially dubbed “Mr. Needlemouse”, Oshima must have known that the name would not stick. And apparently, he put as much research into hedgehogs that he put into the name, as yes, he mistakenly thought that they could not swim, so Sonic goes into water like a turd waiting for his death.
Original designs gave Sonic a pair of fangs, and put him in a band with a girlfriend named Madonna. That’s when Americans stepped in and said “that’s enough weird stuff, guys. He’s Sonic, boom we’re done here.”
A Pizza Inspired “Pac-Man”
In 1979, arcade games were just starting to find homes in malls and arcades around the country. There was Space Invaders and a few other games that were gaining popularity, but no killer app that would have everyone and their sister playing a video game.
That changed when a group of developers sat down(they all sit) to create a game based on eating. It would be called Pakkuman, which was a play off the Japanese “paku-paku”, which emulates the sound of a mouth opening and closing. It’s also what King Hippo does when he opens his big trap.
“Why did I band-aid my tummy and give away my ONE weakness?? Pakupakupakupaku.”
There are two main stories explaining Pac-Man’s appearance. One is that the designers took the Japanese symbol for “mouth” and rounded it out. The other is that the main developer, Toru Iwatani, was eating a pizza while brainstorming one night. He took a slice of pizza in his hand, and then looked down.
Taking the original name Pakkuman, and Americanizing it by comparing it to a hockey puck, they ended up with the name Puck Man. The reason it was changed to Pac-Man, as we all know it to be now? They didn’t trust ignorant-ass American kids to not change the “Puck” to “F$#&”.
So we could have had a classic game named “F#$& Man”.