The Origins of Your Favorite Video Game Friends

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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.

Check out the rest of our College Weekend festivities.

February 10, 2008 - 11:35am
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