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Happy 35th birthday to Donkey Kong and the dawn of video game characters

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

Thirty-five years ago, on July 9 1981, the game Donkey Kong introduced the world to a villainous gorilla and a heroic carpenter. Nobody knew back then that Shigeru Miyamoto’s ‘Jumpman’ would go on to star in a huge array of titles (from Mario Bros. to Mario Party), be played by Bob Hoskins in a woeful movie, and sell over 528 million games worldwide.

While early video games had impersonal bats (Breakout), spaceships (Defender, Asteroids) and tanks (Space Invaders), games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were among the first to give us characters we could care about. Perhaps it’s why we fondly remember old gaming heroes like Mr Do! And Q*bert, and why later video game characters like Link, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Lara Croft and Master Chief stand the test of time.

Mario, though, is arguably the most recognisable. He was originally named ‘Mr Video’ and cast as a carpenter, not a plumber — Donkey Kong is set on a perilous construction site, after all. As for his design, much of it is accidental. Mario was named after Nintendo of America’s warehouse landlord Mario Segale, while his iconic look was a product of 1980’s graphical limitations (e.g. Mario wore a cap so Miyamoto could avoid animating hair).

So why did Mario capture our collective imagination? It wasn’t just because he had a pixel personality where the Asteroids space-triangle didn’t. Nor was it the fact that Donkey Kong pinned its gameplay to an enduring ‘damsel in distress’ mechanic. Maybe it was because the barrel-jumping, hammer-swinging character was a down-on-his-luck, odd-stacked-against-him protagonist you could root for.

When Mario died onscreen in a sad, jerky cartwheel, you almost felt his digital pain.

But that was then. Simpler times. Thirty-five years on, there are still some instantly recognisable video game characters around — Lara Croft (via a gritty, high-def makeover), The Player in Minecraft, while Pokémon Go has brought back the likes of Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. (Gotta catch ‘em all).

Some games, like the recently released Overwatch, are defined and shaped by their fantastical characters. While games, like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer go all out for realism, striving to recreate the world’s best footballers in astonishing detail.

FIFA 17 Manchester Utd and Chelsea
FIFA 17 uses the Frostbite 3D engine to render players in extraordinary detail.

But our notions of ‘character’ have also changed over the years. So much so that we’ve witnessed a switch from pre-designed characters to those we create ourselves and develop as we play.

In multiplayer FPS games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, we can define our own video game personas, experiencing the action up-close-and-personal. While games like Fallout, Skyrim and Mass Effect give us characters we can customise. For some players, this means making an avatar that resembles how they look in real life. For others, it’s a chance to go wild, playing as a tattooed, scar-faced hero with a blond mohican and a beer gut.

In 1981, Donkey Kong gave us a likable character (Mario) and a simple story objective we could get behind (rescue Mario’s girlfriend, Pauline). Today, many games allow us to grow and evolve our characters from a default build into a satisfying alter-ego that reflects the way we want to play. In these games, character development has become the story; gaining perks, levels, new abilities or weapon upgrades have become our reasons for playing.

Gunslinger McCree from Overwatch
Blizzard’s Overwatch has an array of colourful characters, including Gunslinger McCree.

So we salute you Donkey Kong. We thank you for leading the way, ushering in some memorable video game characters, some we should all remember (Dirk the Daring, Gordon Freeman, Marcus Fenix) and some you might not (Zuul: Ninja of the Nth Dimension, Joanna Dark and Little Big Adventure’s Twinsen).

In an age of more realistic heroes, like Lara Croft, Nathan Drake and Rico Rodriguez, we may never see Mario’s like again.

Main image credit: Alexisrael/Wikimedia Commons

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