Villains to heroes and lawsuits abound
This holiday season Nintendo is really looking to cash in on gamers’ collective 80s nostalgia with the release of the NES Classic, a reprise of their earlier Nintendo Entertainment System.
The system comes pre-loaded with 30 classic titles featuring characters like Link, Mario, and Donkey Kong. The system came out on Nov. 11 and has been sold out in stores since its release. So while you wait to get your hands on the one, why not dive into the rich, strange history of some of your favourite Nintendo characters?
It’s on like Donkey Kong
Before the era of Mario, Nintendo’s last hope to make it in the North American market was Donkey Kong.
In the late 1970s, Nintendo was having major problems. Their launch of the arcade game called Radar Scope had failed miserably, and the company was running out of time. As a last Hail Mary pass to stake a claim in the fertile North American video game market, Nintendo’s CEO at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, reprogrammed the game units, and Donkey Kong was born.
While Donkey Kong is a beloved Nintendo character now, he started his life as a villain. Inspired by a love triangle from the popular Popeye cartoons, Donkey Kong stole the girlfriend of a certain mustachioed carpenter—known then as Jumpman—who was tasked with rescuing her.
The game was a hit, but not everyone was happy. Universal Studios sued Nintendo over the game, alleging they stole the name from King Kong. An American lawyer named John Kirby defended Nintendo, the judge threw out the suit against Nintendo, and Donkey Kong lived on.
And yes, Nintendo has since tried to copyright the phrase “it’s on like Donkey Kong.”
Kirby: The placeholder
Many fans of the NES will be excited to play as Kirby, the beloved pink fluffball who absorbs his enemies and steals their powers. But Kirby as we know him almost didn’t exist.
When the game Kirby’s Dream Land was being created for the original Game Boy in the early 90s, the designer, Masahiro Sakurai, used the spherical pink character as a placeholder while the game was being developed. But in the end, Nintendo decided they liked Kirby just the way he was.
If the name Kirby seems familiar to you, there’s a good reason for that. Remember that lawyer who helped Nintendo keep the name Donkey Kong? That’s who the character was named after. Before that, he was referred to as “Popopo.”
Zelda: Art imitating life
Nintendo’s original The Legend of Zelda (released in 1986) is a game that focuses heavily on exploration. Its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, said the game was inspired by his own wanderings around local forests, caves, and secluded lakes—ironically providing millions of kids with a reason never to go outside.
Zelda, a princess and the game’s namesake, was named after the wife of American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose name Miyamoto found “pleasant and significant.”
Speaking of inspiration, the main character Link and the fairy Navi, that accompanies him in the franchise’s 1998 entry Ocarina of Time, were based on Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, respectively. Nintendo didn’t get sued over these characters, though.
Wait a second, what kind of name is Link? According to Miyamoto, the game was initially to take place in the past and the future, with the main character being the “link” between them.
One of the most important objects in the Zelda games is the Master Sword, which, as it turns out, was modeled after the original master sword, Excalibur of Arthurian legend.
Mario: The prodigal plumber
In today’s world, Mario is the face of Nintendo, known to gamers all over the world. But it wasn’t always that way.
As mentioned before, Mario started his career as Jumpman in the first Donkey Kong game in 1981. After a brief stint as a whip-wielding villain in Donkey Kong Junior, Mario would jump out of Donkey Kong’s shadow to become the star of the show.
As he garnered more attention, designers decided the “Jumpman” moniker just wouldn’t cut it anymore. And when an angry landlord named Mario burst in on a Nintendo board meeting to demand overdue rent, they had their answer.