5 Insane & Amazing Origins Of Iconic Game Characters
Game characters are just made up by design teams around a boardroom table right? Think again. We check out five of the maddest game character origins ever.
Published on Feb 29, 2012
Game characters have become as iconic as any of the leading men and women of Hollywood, or of the music world. After all, who doesn’t recognise Mario’s bushy moustache and red cap, or Solid Snake’s chiselled jaw-line and piss-poor dialogue?
Many of these characters have straight-cut origin stories, but some of the most beloved icons in gaming have bizarre, coincidental or downright insane origin stories that beggar belief. Join us as we explore the maddest of the bunch.
As seen in Street Fighter IV (Multi, 2009)
Gouken is Ken and Ryu’s bearded mentor in Street Fighter IV. His brutal special moves make normal fighters look like weak, gibbering children. Gouken’s origin story is interesting as he was actually the by-product of a cruel April Fool’s day hoax way back in 1992.
You see, while the Japanese version of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was being ported for the western market, Ryu’s end of battle win quote was horribly mistranslated.
Instead of Ryu’s original win quote that read, “If you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!” European and American players were treated to the mysterious quote, “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.”
Gamers were puzzled about the identity of Sheng Long, and how they could unlock him in the game. Some gamers went so far as sending letters to the cheat sections of their favourite gaming magazines demanding answers.
Seeing the perfect April Fools opportunity, gaming magazine EGM decided to turn the quote into one of the biggest April Fool’s gags in gaming history. EGM officially ‘revealed’ the existence of Sheng Long in the cheats section of its April 1992 issue, along with a faked screenshot of him battling against Ryu.
"OW!! My face bro! Wait, defeat who? What?!"
Fan excitement quickly reached critical level when EGM explained that Sheng Long had special moves derived from every character in the game.
The problem was, EGM claimed Sheng Long could only be unlocked if the player went through the entire game as Ryu without taking a single hit.
The notion that you could get through the game without taking any damage at all is ludicrous enough, but EGM then said that players also had to go ten rounds with M. Bison without either player hitting each other.
The theory was that Sheng Long would appear, defeat Bison himself, and then take Ryu on in a fight to the death. It was all nonsense of course, but this didn’t stop over-excited gamers trying to unlock Sheng Long using this method for months.
Feeling guilty at causing such a worldwide uproar, EGM issued an overdue apology in December that year. The dreams of rabid fans everywhere were shattered, but the hoax would reappear at the launch of Street Fighter III and the risible Street Fighter: The Movie. But Sheng Long was still nowhere to be seen.
However, Capcom noticed the impact that the hoax had, and the way fans had responded to the notion of Sheng Long. So in 2009, Capcom created the Street Fighter IV character Gouken, who was modelled on EGM’s fake Sheng Long character art, and was depicted as Ryu, Ken and Akuma’s mentor.
Gouken is badass, and is almost like a little gift from Capcom to the fans for putting up with years of hoaxes. But without the meddling of EGM in the first place, we may never have known who Sheng Long is.
As seen in Pac-Man (Arcade, 1980)
If you’ve ever watched the movie Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, then you probably already know half of this story, but it’s a great tale regardless. Namco’s mascot Pac-Man boasts character design that is less complex than Kirby – and he’s just a wad of thoroughly chewed bubblegum, or something.
But just like Kirby, Pac-Man’s design and name aren’t as clear as they first appear. Way back in 1979, fledgling game designer at Namco Tōru Iwatani employed a team to develop a new arcade game based around the concept of eating.
Pac-Man’s shape is always attributed to Iwatani looking at a pizza with a slice missing, although he clarified that Pac-Man’s final character design was a combination of the pizza story, and by his attempts at simplifying the Japanese symbol ‘kuchi’, which means ‘mouth’.
Proof that Michael Cera can be educational, as well as infinitely typecast.
Appearance aside, Pac-Man’s name is derived from the Japanese slang ‘paku-paku’, a Japanese slang term is used to describe the sound made when a person chews their mouth – which is also perfect inspiration for a character who loves to eat.
Iwatani then decided to call his character Pakkuman, and when Midway snapped up conversion rights for the American arcade version in 1980, Namco went for the translated name Puck Man.
However, Midway was worried about people vandalising Puck Man arcade cabinets by changing the ‘P’ in Puck Man to an ‘F’, which would have been rather unfortunate. As a compromise, and to avoid any name-based mishaps, both parties settled on the name Pac-Man, and a gaming legend was born.
As seen in Donkey Kong (Arcade, 1981)
Although Mario has grown to be one of the most iconic video game characters of all time, he could have turned out quite different to the leaping handyman we know today.
First of all, consider this – Mario was never intended to have the ability to jump. It’s like Capcom deciding that Ryu isn’t allowed to punch, or Nathan Drake being permanently denied a gun license. The concept is so alien considering everything Mario stands for.
Mario ‘s story begins with the 1981 smash Donkey Kong, and he wasn’t originally a plumber, he was a carpenter. Not that we ever see him doing any damn plumbing anyway, but that’s beside the point.
Miyamoto wanted to call his new hero ‘Mr. Video’, and have him star in all of his games. Inspired by the runaway success of Pac-Man, Miyamoto’s original concept for Donkey Kong was that the character would have to escape a maze.
However, Miyamoto quickly decided to give the hero a leaping ability and quickly renamed him ‘Jumpman’, as he felt ‘Mr. Video’ was a generic name that wouldn’t stand the test of time. He wasn’t wrong.
If Mario couldn't jump, the Goombas would have surely won the great Mushroom Kingdom war of 1985.
So where did the name ‘Mario’ come from? Enter Mario Segale, an America real estate developer based in Seattle. Back in 1981, Seagle owned the warehouse Nintendo was renting while the company attempted to break the American market.
Nintendo was still to find its first real hit, and was a relatively small player in an industry that was dominated by Atari, Midway and Namco at the time. As a result, Nintendo was often late in paying rent, and this was really testing Seagle’s patience.
The widely re-told story suggests that Seagle would often clash with Nintendo – in particular, Minoru Arakawa, who was president of Nintendo’s American arm. After a massive argument with Seagle, Arakawa assured his landlord that he would soon be paid, and Seagle dropped the argument.
Miyamoto was said to have smelled a hit with Donkey Kong, and inspired by Nintendo’s row with its landlord, changed Jumpman’s name to Mario. Donkey Kong went on to be a runaway smash and Mario was propelled to the position of Nintendo’s mascot.
While Seagle and Nintendo have never confirmed this story, it’s quite coincidental. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a games industry without the antics of Mario and his friends.
As seen in Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy, 1992)
Another Nintendo entry here, and while Kirby is another example of basic character design, his origin story is surprisingly complex. While the true origin of the character has become muddied over the years, the most incredible version of the tale begins with a fierce legal battle between a Nintendo and Universal Studios.
Back in 1981, Nintendo was still a new name in America, and after cutting his teeth on arcade games like Sheriff and Popeye, a young Shigeru Miyamoto set about creating the concept of Donkey Kong. Chances are you’ve heard of it.
Donkey Kong launched in arcades and the public’s reaction was immense, propelling the game into the spotlight. It was a real boost for Nintendo, helping it gain a wider fan base Stateside.
However, Universal Studios saw Donkey Kong as a trademark infringement on the 1933 movie King Kong. To be fair, Donkey Kong does feature a giant ape climbing up a building while carrying a damsel in distress, but admittedly, we missed the part of King Kong when the fat Italian man ran around with a hammer.
Seeking some sort of retribution and a whopping back-payment in royalties, Universal took Nintendo to court in 1984. At one point, Nintendo’s then-lawyer Howard Lincoln was considering a settlement of between $5-7 million, but decided to see the case through to the end.
To be fair, King Kong can't pull off a tie.
Amazingly, Nintendo – this new kid on the block company from Japan – absolutely battered Universal in court, with Judge Robert Sweet ruling that King Kong was so old, that it belonged in the public domain and could be adapted by anyone.
Nintendo won and made a truckload of cash, helping it become the tour de force of game development it is today. So far, so good, but where does Kirby come in? Enter attorney John Kirby of American legal firm Latham & Watkins – the same man who defended Nintendo in court and won.
It has been said many times that John Kirby’s surname was used by Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai as a thank you for his landmark victory, but these days he claims he can’t remember. Still, ‘Kirby’ is much better than the character’s working name ‘Popopop.’
The other theory is that Kirby’s name comes from a brand of vacuum cleaners, which is why Kirby sucks in his enemies, but that story is guff by comparison. Either way, there’s no denying that John Kirby, as well as the character Kirby, have both helped Nintendo become massively influential over the years.
1. Strider Hiryu
As seen in: Strider (Arcade, 1989)
If any of the previous origin stories on this page have impressed you, then the creation of Strider Hiryu will surely blow your mind – not least because Strider is the result of an insane near-death experience.
In 1986, Strider creator Kouichi 'Isuke' Yotsui started his career as a background illustrator at Capcom to pay off student debts. The young artist quickly turned heads for his work on the arcade versions of Bionic Commando and Ghouls n’ Ghosts.
Yotsui tried to pitch ideas for games to his bosses, but was turned down constantly. But his big break came when Capcom decided to create a new series called Strider, which would be spread across a manga comic series, NES title and an Arcade game.
Capcom placed Yotsui in charge of conceptualising the Strider arcade game, and his team started bringing ideas together. If you’ve played the Strider arcade game, you’ll know that Strider is an athletic guy – climbing walls, flipping around and generally just showing off.
Strider might not have ended up as the death defying ninja agent gamers know today if were not for Yotsui almost getting himself killed on a freezing cold night in 1988.
Strider is quite fond of climbing, you see.
Speaking with NowGamer’s sister magazine Retro Gamer in a rare interview, Yotsui explained that he went up to the roof of Capcom’s building to “reflect on his mood”. But in doing so, the access door locked behind him and he was trapped.
In real danger of freezing to death, Yotsui was stranded on top of an impossibly tall building in a noisy city. Mobile phones hadn’t been invented yet and here was no way for Yotsui to shout down to pedestrians below for help. Put simply, he was utterly screwed.
But in a desperate burst of extreme dude power, Yotsui actually started climbing down the side of the building to reach a nearby fire escape. If he put one foot wrong on the icy building, he would surely die a grizzly death on the street below.
Amazingly, Yotsui actually made it to the stairway unscathed and lived to put the climbing element of his experience into Strider, and with it, created one of the most fundamental traits of his most iconic creation.
Strider’s climbing antics helped Yotsui’s arcade game go on to be one of Capcom’s biggest hits of the 80s, and underlined the character’s cult status today. It’s going to be hard for developers to top this story, but you never know what mad things might happen in the games industry.