Week of September 27, 2020

Gaming the System


The long-running video game classic “Tetris” involves stacking various shapes, each made up of four squares. Hence, the title combines the words “tetra” (Greek for four) and “tennis,” the game developer’s favorite sport.


Mario, that globally-known mustachioed hero of the Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers video games, was originally just known as “Jumpman.” While developers at Nintendo’s suburban Seattle US headquarters were brainstorming better names, landlord Mario Segale angrily interrupted to berate the company’s president for being late on rent. When he left, employees immediately named the character “Super Mario.”


The runaway arcade hit Pac-Man was called “Puck Man” when released first in Japan, but was retitled before the 1980 US release to prevent the defacing of machines into a less family-friendly title.


If you’ve ever noticed that Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog were both side-scroller games involving high-flying characters collecting floating gold circles (coins vs. rings) seeking to defeat an ultimate bad guy (Bowser vs. Dr. Robotnik), it is because Sonic was created by Sega to compete with Nintendo’s very successful Mario. In Sonic’s original backstory, he is named Sonny and comes from a poor hedgehog family that subsists on bugs, slugs, and food scraps from a nearby burger joint in Hardly, Nebraska. The design of Dr. Robotnik is based upon President Teddy Roosevelt wearing pajamas.


The original conception of the 1978 classic shooter Space Invaders had the alien ships replaced by humanoid beings, but this idea was nixed so as not to suggest that shooting at people was morally acceptable.


The name “Atari” is taken from a position in the ancient strategy game Go in which one player’s piece is in imminent danger, similar to a king being in check in chess. Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell was a big Go enthusiast.


The big ape in Donkey Kong may remind you of King Kong, but the trademark infringement fight has already been lost. Universal City Studios went after Nintendo in 1982, but Nintendo’s lawyer noted that the movie studio itself had already proved in earlier litigation that King Kong’s story and characters were in the public domain. Accordingly, the court ruled that Universal had no right to the character, had filed the case in bad faith, and were now themselves liable for damages. Years later, the Mario Brothers character Kirby was named for that prevailing lawyer, John Kirby.