Video games have fascinated us for decades, and they’ve become so advanced that modern games often look like cinema, offering unique, deeply layered narratives that transport the player into a digital realm, providing an invigorating escape from reality.
Despite modern video game innovation, nostalgia keeps the allure alive for classics from the 1980s and 1990s, offering simpler pleasures—albeit with fewer pixels and polygons. And the one thing that all the most memorable vintage games have in common are the unforgettable characters that inhabit them.
Whether it’s the protagonist or the villain, video games feature some of the most entertaining, bizarre, and unforgettable digital denizens. But for all the quarters (and couch time) we’ve spent on them, very few people are privy to what led to their creation. So, what inspired the likes of classic characters like Donkey Kong or Sonic the Hedgehog?
Just like an author often injects their personal details and life experiences into the characters they write, so, too, did the video game developers who designed iconic characters that have entertained multiple generations. Let’s look at some of the most unique, strange, and fascinating inspirations for iconic video game personalities—and why they’ve stood the test of time.
Mario has appeared in over 200 games since his first appearance in the classic 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong (more on that title character in a bit).
The character (and the Donkey Kong game itself) was created for Nintendo by Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto in an attempt to find a game that rivaled the success of Pac-Man, as well as something that would make Nintendo one of the major players in the video game market.
Miyamoto had originally planned to base the game around the cartoon characters in Popeye, including the title character along with Olive Oyl and Bluto. But when he was unable to get a license for those characters, he opted for an original concept and worked out the fine details about the game’s characters.
Mario was originally known as Mr. Video, before being changed to Jumpman due to his primary game function (he was listed as JumpMan in the original game’s English instructions). But right from the start, the character defied convention.
Instead of the traditional musclebound hero, Mario was a working-class everyman, which the designer thought would be more appealing to a variety of players. And he went to great strides (and struggles) to make him more relatable and personable.
“Drawing a face was complicated, so I started with a nose,” he recalled in an interview with Great Big Story. “In order to distinguish the nose, I added a mustache. Drawing hair was also complicated, so I made him wear a cap.”
So, how did the Italian carpenter (who later became a plumber) get his name? “When we shipped Donkey Kong to the US market, Japanese staff went to the US to help with the release,” Miyamoto said. “The staff was working with a warehouse in Seattle to store the games. The warehouse’s landlord was named Mario [Segale], and he also had a mustache. I thought it was a nice name, and it might work.”
It certainly did. Mario is the most enduring character in video game history. According to National Videogame Museum co-founder Sean Kelly, “Mario is the definition of a ‘marquee player.’ Consoles themselves can fail or succeed based on his presence or the quality of the games that Mario appears in. Nintendo is very conscious of this and is extra careful to ensure that any game where Mario is the main character is, at the very least, good and, in most cases, either great or bordering on great.”
This is the Mario of approval. Mario is very proud of you and believes you can do anything as long as you put heart into it pic.twitter.com/19RJGvyd1b
— Shikki (@SonicDahMario) June 12, 2018
“[Mario] is the Mickey Mouse of video games. In fact, he is even more well known than Mickey Mouse,” Mike Stewart, game designer at Kaos Games and creator of the game Valkyrie, adds. “Mario transcends video games and is one of the most popular fictional characters ever created. No other game character can make that claim.”
Now that we’ve covered Mario’s origin, it seems appropriate to discuss the namesake of the game he first appeared in. Just as Mario was originally based on Popeye, Donkey Kong was based on Popeye’s arch-enemy Bluto.
When Miyamoto couldn’t gain the license, he opted to ditch a human villain for an animal one, a former pet of Mario’s that ran amok and abducted Mario’s love interest Pauline, much in the way that King Kong absconded with Fay Wray on the silver screen.
King Kong was the obvious inspiration for the game, which prompted the need for a different name. How did Miyamoto settle on Donkey Kong? For years, an urban legend suggested the name was the result of a misread fax, pronunciation, or translation. But it ultimately came about because of an alternate definition in a dictionary.
“I was trying to convey the idea of ‘stupid monkey,’” the designer said in a 2016 interview for Nintendo’s official website. “‘Donkey’ of course referred to the animal, but the dictionary I used said that it had a secondary meaning of ‘idiot.’ Nintendo of America said that this was not the case, and ‘donkey’ didn’t mean ‘idiot.’”
In the end, the designer decided to go with his gut. “I just liked the sound of it, so I decided to stand my ground on Donkey Kong. And within a year, everyone was saying Donkey Kong with no hesitation.”
Like Mario, the video game gorilla remains popular and has appeared in multiple games throughout the years. Kelly says this is another example of Nintendo’s staying power: “They have accomplished something that few other companies have been able to. They have been able to ingratiate themselves with all generations of gamers and even non-gamers. Adults play Mario games, teens play them, little kids play them and even non-gaming parents know they can feel comfortable buying Mario games for their kids.”
Sonic The Hedgehog
Just as Mario and Donkey Kong were created by Nintendo to compete against the likes of Pac-Man, Sonic The Hedgehog was created by Sega to compete against Mario back in 1991.
He was also designed to replace original Sega mascot Alex Kidd, who had never fully caught on with the public. This sent Sega developers on a long trial-and-error approach to create the perfect character to put them in the big leagues.
The creative team went through a number of character designs, some of whom (like Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik and Mighty The Armadillo) would be used as supporting characters for the Sonic The Hedgehog game.
To reach a consensus for the final character, game designer and co-creator Naoto Ohshima took character sketches to New York City’s Central Park and asked passers-by their opinions, and it was ultimately Mr. Needlemouse (Sonic’s original moniker) that got the most votes. Sega’s new mascot was born.
Countless adventures. One best friend.#NationalBestFriendsDay pic.twitter.com/1SYHO3Y1Zw
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) June 8, 2018
Sega wanted a character that could appeal to any gender and age, which resulted in a few changes, including making the character less threatening (he originally had pronounced fangs, a human girlfriend, and belonged to a rock band).
The character also incorporated several American pop culture elements, including his red shoes, which were inspired by Michael Jackson’s boots. His upbeat, unstoppable, “get it done” attitude] was modeled after none other than then-president Bill Clinton.
Perhaps the quirkiest element of Sonic was the fact that he couldn’t swim, all because co-creator Yuji Naka wasn’t aware that hedgehogs have that innate ability.
Capcom’s Street Fighter II was another iconic ‘90s video game, helping to popularize one-on-one fighting games. And Chun-Li was its most memorable and groundbreaking new character, being the first female character to appear in the fighting game genre.
The design of Chun-Li went through several phases, initially developed as a character who was designed to be “cute, graceful,” and “beautiful.” Street Fighter’s lead designer, Yoshiki Okamoto, proposed giving her a shorter life bar to show her as less powerful than the male characters. Luckily, that didn’t make the final cut.
Chun-Li was far from some video pixie, showing a more muscular physique than many female video characters: This was partly due to the character’s prominent kicking ability (including her classic “spinning bird kick” move), although character creator Akira Yasuda has admitted to having a thigh fetish as well.
Chun-Li’s backstory was also changed. Before she became the Chinese Kenpo master/undercover Interpol agent that made her so iconic, she was an army soldier whose design was inspired by the Vasquez character from Aliens.
My 9yo is battering me as Chun Li in her first time out on Street Fighter II on the #SNES pic.twitter.com/LOHeX78XcO
— Andrew Webb (@foodjournalist) June 9, 2018
“It is possible that for many young men and women of the early 1990s,” author Bryan J. Carr wrote in the book 100 Greatest Video Game Characters, “Chun-Li might have been their introduction to the idea that a woman could be as capable as a man both in the virtual world and outside it.”
Chun-Li would transcend video games, going on to appear in films, comics, and animated TV series. And she even inspired a song by Nicki Minaj.
“I think that Chun-Li from Street Fighter has a presence in the mainstream much like Princess Leia from Star Wars,” Stewart says. “Being one of the first playable female characters, she really demonstrates that women can do more than just be rescued and that she can compete with the guys on their turf. …She is one of the more popular video game cosplay characters and almost as recognizable as Mario himself.”
What makes a video game icon?
So, what makes the likes of Donkey Kong, Mario, Sonic, and Chun-Li so enduring? According to Stewart, it goes part and parcel with the gaming experience: “I think that before you can have an iconic character, you must have an iconic game. If nobody wants to play your game, then nothing else matters. …You have to nail the game first. Once you’ve built a unique, immersive experience and a world that people care about, then they will begin to care about who lives in that world.”
There seems to be some magical element to video game characters that are a combination of careful planning by designers and happy accidents. Just like Mario’s name was inspired by a warehouse manager, other popular characters seem to be products of kismet, like Ermac (Error Macro) from Mortal Kombat, who originated from a game audit, or Lara Croft, who was initially a male archaeologist but switched genders after the game’s creator worried it might draw a lawsuit from the creators of Indiana Jones.
But once these characters take root in pop culture, they transcend video games. Chun-Li, for instance, went on to appear in films. Sonic was the first video game character to be featured as a balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he even the inspiration for the name of a gene and protein.
In this way, these characters (and games) have not only influenced pop culture, they’ve transformed it.
“Video game characters today are the Scooby-Doos and Woody Woodpeckers of our parents’ generation,” Kelly says. “…Our parents used to entertain themselves by watching the stories and actions of these characters on Saturday morning cartoons. Today, kids and adults alike control these characters and, to some extent, write their own stories.”