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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.

Check out the rest of our College Weekend festivities.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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