The Origins of Your Favorite Video Game Friends

You guys already know that I love Guitar Hero, but my video game fascination began a long time ago. One of my favorite Nintendo games back in the day was Burger Time. And who can resist Frogger? Nick Cannon can't. He claims to be majoring in business administration at Elon University in Elon, N.C., but I bet he plays Tetris on his cell phone during lectures. -Stacy Conradt

The Origin of Your Favorite Video Game Friends
by Nick Cannon

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Ever wondered why Mario is, well"¦ Mario? Just like you and I have a story of how we came into existence, so do our two-dimensional video game favorites. Here's a tribute to some of our faithful flat friends with whom we all have logged many an un-moving hour.

Donkey Kong

donkey_kong1.jpgSpace Invaders came on the video game scene in 1978 and was an overnight hit. Such a hit, in fact, Japan suffered a nationwide coin shortage, resulting in the need to quadruple the amount of Yen in circulation. Nintendo, previously a playing card company, wanted their slice of the pie. They created a similar game called Radarscope, which bombed spectacularly. Nintendo had banked on Radarscope being a blockbuster and had already ordered and paid for an entire warehouse full of arcade gaming cabinets. The job of what to do with the surplus was given to programmer/designer Shigeru Miyamoto.

Miyamoto had originally been working on a Popeye-based game, but had to drop the project when he was unable to obtain the rights. Wanting to stick to his original Popeye theme of "beauty and the beast", he created a disgruntled, gigantic gorilla that had escaped from his annoying, tiny owner. For the "beauty" aspect, the gorilla kidnapped his owner's girlfriend out of retribution for years of captivity. So that leaves us with the name. Kong obviously makes sense, but what about the first part? Miyamoto wanted to demonstrate the beast's stubbornness "“ what better name than Donkey?

Mario

mario.jpgDonkey Kong was also the birthplace of another staple video game character "“ although he was originally known as Jumpman.

Donkey Kong's original owner was none other than the Mario that you and I have come to love. Once DK had taken off (selling 65,000 units to Asteroid's 70,000), all promotional materials referred to his owner simply as Mario. I guess Jumpman didn't have the same ring to it.

Believing that people would identify better with a blue collar hero, Miyamoto made Mario a carpenter in the first video game; he later switched professions, becoming a plumber. The name came from the landlord at Nintendo's Headquarters in NYC, Mario Segali. Mario's trademark mustache is the result of low pixel resolution: a mustache looked a lot better than any mouth they could come up with. Low pixel resolution is also the reason Mario's has a hat instead of hair.

Sonic

sonic.jpgSega went on a quest for a recognizable Mario-esque character to compete with Nintendo. But they hit a few bumps in the road before creating the tough guy we know today as Sonic.

Before hitting the jackpot with Sonic in 1991, Sega's research and development team came up with many an odd character. Some of his predecessors include an Armadillo, a Theodore Roosevelt character (in pajamas), a rabbit, and a dog. Finally, Naoto Oshima came up with the fun-loving, fast-paced face of Sega, Sonic the Hedgehog. His original name was Mr. Needlemouse. That was changed for obvious reasons. Although no blue hedgehogs exist in nature, that color matched Sega's sleek logo. Sonic rolled off to immediate success. He was so popular, he even has his own protein named after him. In 1993, a scientist discovered a protein that caused spiny backs in fruit flies. Because of the resemblance "“ and his love for Sonic "“ the scientist named it the "Sonic the Hedgehog protein." To this day, Mario still does not have his own kind of protein.

Pac-Man

pacman.jpgWe all have a special place in our hearts for our insatiable, round, yellow friend, but no one ever asks to hear his story. The best-selling arcade game of all time came on the scene in 1980 and has been devouring our quarters ever since.

Japanese game designer Toru Iwatani was 26 when he invented the timeless masterpiece. In the original Japanese release, our star was called "Puckman" which was just a wee bit too close to a certain English swear word for the developers' liking. Thus, "Pac-Man" emerged. His name is derived from the Japanese slang term "˜paku paku,' which describes the motion of the mouth opening and closing while eating, and in the literal English translation means "to eat." It was rumored that Pac-Man's shape was created over pizza. Iwatani took one slice from a full pie, the legend goes, and presto! They had their character. But in a 1986 interview, Iwatani admitted that was only half the story, and Pac-Man's design was also influenced by the shape of the Japanese character kuchi, which means mouth. Wanting to appeal to a bigger audience than just young boys and teens, he added the maze aspect and the rest is history.

If you think you're the biggest Pac-man fanatic, then you've probably never heard of Billy Mitchell. In July of 1999 die-hard Pac-Man fan Billy Mitchell attained the first-ever recorded perfect score of 3,333,360. After playing for six hours straight, he beat all of the 256 screens, ate every pellet, fruit and ghost, all using just one Pac-Man.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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