The Secret Origins of 11 Famous Video Games
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.