The Secret Origins of 11 Famous Video Games

iStock / robtek
iStock / robtek

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.

iStock / ilbusca

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

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

iStock / ilbusca

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

BagoGames, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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

Peter-Ashley Jackson, Flickr // CC BY SA 2.0

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

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

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

SteamXO, Flickr

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 

iStock / CTRPhotos

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

BagoGames, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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.

8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

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