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ThinkQuest

The Secret Origins of 11 Famous Video Games

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ThinkQuest

Secret origins aren't just for superheroes in need of a good backstory. Many of the most popular video games ever to find their way onto shelves have arrived with elements of their development that make a great product even more memorable. Whether it's surprising celebrity tie-ins or random discoveries that went on to define a franchise, these 11 games each have a “secret” origin that adds yet another footnote to the impressive place they hold in gaming history. 

1. Mario Bros.

Courtesy of EmuParadise

After making his Japanese debut in Donkey Kong, the game's mustachioed hero was still going by the name “Jumpman” ahead of the game's arrival on shelves in the U.S. However, while Nintendo of America was preparing the American release of Donkey Kong, the company's landlord reportedly barged into their office, demanding that month's rent. His name was Mario Segale, and his name became the inspiration for Nintendo's jump-happy hero, who went on to headline his own game in 1983's Mario Bros. and become the face of Nintendo around the world.

2. Sonic the Hedgehog

Courtesy of GiantBomb

Faced with the dominance of Nintendo and their iconic plumber hero, Sega set out to create their own mascot who would be capable of headlining games and carrying the company's success on its shoulders. The result was Sonic the Hedgehog, a blue-skinned speedster who was originally named “Mr. Needlemouse.” Along with getting a new name, the character's was colored to match Sega's blue logo, but here's the most interesting part: He has Michael Jackson to thank for his red-and-white shoes. According to character designer Naoto Ohshima, the contrast of red and white on the cover to Jackson's 1987 album “Bad” inspired the choice of colors for Sonic's footwear.

3. Street Fighter II

Courtesy of 2d-x

The sequel to 1987's Street Fighter proved to be the installment that truly established this franchise as fighting-game royalty, and its innovative use of “combo” attacks was a big part of that success. This came as a surprise to the developers of the game, who considered the “combo” system an easily overlooked, acceptable bug in the programming. The system of timing certain button sequences in order to string attacks together was uncovered while testing the game at a late stage, and the developers decided to leave it in the game as an Easter Egg of sorts. What started out as an accident soon became the hallmark of the games, and future installments of the Street Fighter franchise made combos an intentional, finely tuned element of each sequel.

4. Final Fantasy

One of the most popular role-playing game franchises of all time got its name from almost becoming the last project its creator ever worked on. According to Hironobu Sakaguchi, he named the game he'd been working on Final Fantasy because he planned to quit the video-game industry if it didn't sell well. Despite the small staff of developers he was afforded for the game, it managed to sell—to the tune of 400,000 copies initially and a long list of sequels, spin-offs, and remastered releases in the years to come. Sakaguchi went on to serve for several years as President of Square USA, the company that first took a chance on Final Fantasy.

5. Metroid

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A fantastic game on its own, 1986's Metroid became the stuff of legends when it saved its biggest surprise for the final moments. After a player completed the game, a short scene revealed that the space-suited, missile-blasting hero was in fact (*gasp*) a woman! This shocking revelation wasn't something that had been planned from the start, and was instead the result of a programmer asking, “Hey, wouldn't that be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?” midway through the game's development. The Metroid team already counted Ridley Scott's female-led, sci-fi horror movie Alien as one of the game's chief inspirations, so they decided to run with that innocent suggestion—and the rest is gaming history.

6. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out

Little Mac's showdown with “Iron” Mike Tyson is the stuff of legends for old-school gamers, but both the hero of the game and his nemesis at the top of the rankings had interesting backstories. The diminutive boxer controlled by players was named after a play on McDonald's signature “Big Mac” hamburger, referencing the fact that he had to be made short enough for players to see his opponents over him. On the other side of the ring, Nintendo of America founder Minoru Arakawa pursued Mike Tyson's likeness for the game after seeing the fighter in an early match that pre-dated his time as champion. An early predictor of Tyson's success, Arakawa reportedly arranged for Tyson to be paid $50,000 for his likeness to be used in the game for three years.

7. Mortal Kombat

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One of the most popular—and controversial—game franchises of all time got its start as a vehicle for martial-arts actor Jean-Claude Van Damme to star in his own game. The original plan was to combine elements of Van Damme's Universal Soldier and Bloodsport movies into a game that featured him fighting a variety of colorful villains. After the deal with Van Damme fell through, the small team decided to continue their work on the game. Mortal Kombat went on to raise the bar for all fighting games with sales that broke nearly every existing record and eventually earned the franchise a Guinness World Record honor as “The Most Successful Fighting Game Franchise” of all time. Oh, and you can probably guess where the team got the idea for the character of Johnny Cage, a movie star looking to prove his fighting talents in the game whose signature movie is a groin-stretching split.

8. Metal Gear

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One of the earliest examples of stealth games, Konami's 1987 classic Metal Gear didn't start out as an adventure in avoiding enemies and keeping battle to a minimum. Initially conceived as a standard shoot-'em-up combat game, the limitations of the consoles it was being developed for forced designer Hideo Kojima to rethink his approach to the project. He found inspiration while watching the 1963 film The Great Escape and its depiction of 76 soldiers' carefully planned escape from a German prison camp in 1944. Kojima decided to structure the game around the idea of evading detection and capture instead of shooting bad guys, and the game went on to spawn multiple sequels and a critically praised, best-selling franchise of Metal Gear games. 

9. Tomb Raider

Courtesy of GiantBomb

At its earliest stages, the hero of what was to become the Tomb Raider franchise was eerily similar to a certain gruff, whip-wielding archeologist with a nose for treasure. Wary of a potential lawsuit, the studio requested a change—prompting designer Toby Gard to promote one of the female supporting characters he had created for the game into the lead role. It was a gamble, but the studio gave the female-led adventure the go-ahead with its new lead, Laura Cruz—a tough-as-nails South American treasure-hunter with a long braid and short shorts. The game's star went through another revision, though, when the studio pushed for a more British-friendly character as a nod to its new parent company, the U.K.-based Eidos. They eventually settled on “Lara Croft,” and Gard's heroine went on to become one of the most recognizable characters in the the industry's history.

10. Legend of Zelda 

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Developed concurrently with Super Mario Bros., Nintendo's flagship fantasy adventure made household names out of its hero, Link, and the princess he pursued, Zelda. The latter got her name from the wife of American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to producer Shigeru Miyamoto, Zelda Fitzgerald was “a famous and beautiful woman from all accounts, and I liked the sound of her name.”

11. Resident Evil

Courtesy of IGN

What started out as a remake of an existing horror game (Capcom's haunted-house thriller Sweet Home) eventually paved the way for survival-horror to become one of the industry's most popular genres with the release of Resident Evil. After the game's developers decided to branch out with their own plans for the project—which included changing it from a first-person shooter to a third-person perspective—they sampled some of the best material out there, including backdrops inspired by The Overlook Hotel in the 1980 horror classic The Shining, as well as other notable haunted-house thrillers.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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