How Some Famous Video Games Got Their Names

Rob Lammle of MentalFloss.com takes a look at how 13 classic video games got their names.

1. Pac-Man

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It’s not easy to create a game based solely on the concept of eating. But Namco employee Tōru Iwatani did just that in 1980 by taking the idea of a pizza with a slice missing, and then having it eat a bunch of dots while being chased by ghosts in a maze. (Iwatani has also said that the shape is a rounded version of the square Japanese character for “mouth.”) The name of the game, Pakkuman, was inspired by the Japanese onomatopoeia, “paku-paku,” which describes the sound of eating, similar to the English word “chomp.” As the game was brought to market, the title morphed into Puck Man.

But when Puck Man made his way to North America there was concern that the arcade cabinets would be vandalized by making the P into an F to spell something entirely different. A compromise was reached and the game became known as Pac-Man instead. Thanks to the American marketing machine, the name Pac-Man was eventually adopted for the game all over the world.

2. Metroid

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The name of Nintendo’s classic game is actually a combination of two words: metro, as in another word for subway, which is an allusion to the game’s underground setting; and android, referring to the game’s protagonist, Samus Aran, who appears to be a robot through most of the game. (Really old spoiler alert: Samus is a woman.)

3. Tetris

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When Russian game designer Alexey Pajitnov named his famously addictive video game, he decided to combine two words: tetromino and tennis. A tetromino is a geometric shape comprising four squares. Tennis was just Pajitnov’s favorite sport.

4. Grand Theft Auto

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According to one of the original game’s developers, Gary Penn, GTA was initially called Race ‘n’ Chase. And instead of only playing a car-stealing gangster, the game gave you the option of being a gangster-chasing police officer, too.

5. Wolfenstein 3-D

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id Software’s Wolfenstein 3-D essentially created a whole new genre – the first-person shooter – but its name is hardly original. The title roughly translates to “wolfstone” and was first used in 1981, when Muse Software released Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple IIe. The object of the game was to find secret Nazi plans and get out of the titular castle alive. But Wolfenstein 3-D wasn’t a simple run-and-gun action game like its namesake; while the player did occasionally have to kill enemy soldiers, the preferred method of play was to sneak around and evade capture. This makes it one of the first games in the “stealth” genre that has since spawned titles like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell.

Because 1992′s Wolfenstein 3-D was heavily influenced by the original game, id Software hoped to use the name if it wouldn’t be too expensive to license. However, Muse Software had gone out of business in 1987, so the name was no longer protected by copyright and was free to use.

6. Doom

After the success of Wolfenstein 3-D, id Software programmer/designer John Carmack was already hard at work on a follow-up. The concept for the new game was said to be Aliens meets Evil Dead II, so the game’s working title, It’s Green and Pissed, seems pretty self-explanatory. But Carmack admits that a game with that name might have been a hard sell. Instead, inspiration struck while he was watching the Tom Cruise/Paul Newman billiards film, The Color of Money.

There’s a scene where Cruise’s character, Vincent, is holding his custom pool cue case, waiting for the next game on a table. The winner of the current game walks over to him and asks, “Whatchu’ got in there?” Vincent rubs the case and asks, “In here?” He smiles a cocky grin and replies, “Doom.” Vincent then goes on to destroy his opponent, which is what Carmack thought he and his id buddies would do to the industry once their new game hit the market. He was right.

7. Guerrilla War

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In 1987, SNK released the top-down view “run and gun” arcade game, Guerrilla War. The game featured two unnamed beret-wearing rebels firing machine guns, tossing grenades, and comandeering tanks as they invade a tropical island in a righteous quest to overthrow an evil king.

That’s the American version of the game anyway.

If you lived in other parts of the world, you played Guevara – essentially the same game, except it stars heroes of the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara as Player 1, and Fidel Castro as Player 2. The game was (loosely) based on real events from the Cuban uprising, and the “evil king” you fight in the game was Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator.

Since America was still fighting the Cold War, all mentions of the historic events and figures were removed from the U.S. game, but the rather obvious 8-bit portraits of Che and Castro remain.

8. The Legend of Zelda

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Zelda is the princess that the hero, Link, is trying to save. According to the game’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, the name was inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, simply because he liked the sound of it.

As for Link, he was originally going to be named Chris or Christo after Shigeru’s godfather, but the name Link was ultimately chosen because he is meant to be a “link” between the player and the fantasy world of the game. Of course if you don’t like the name Link you can always give him whatever name you want at the start of a new quest. If you decide to call him Zelda, you’ll unlock an Easter Egg that lets you play a harder version of the game.

9. Final Fantasy

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The year was 1987. Four years earlier, Hironobu Sakaguchi had left school mid-semester so that he could take a job as a game developer at a company called Square. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if this video game thing was really for him. He decided to give it one last shot with his latest title – an expansive role-playing game – but if it wasn’t a hit, he was going back to college to finish his electrical engineering degree. As a sort of inside joke, he decided to call the game Final Fantasy, because he figured it would most likely be his last. It wasn’t. The game sold 400,000 copies for the Nintendo Entertainment System, has gone on to sell millions of copies across nearly every gaming platform in existence, spawned 13 sequels, and more spin-off titles than you can count.

10. Yars’ Revenge

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One of the best-selling games ever for the Atari 2600, Yars’ Revenge, is named after Atari’s then-CEO, Ray Kassar. The insect-like alien species, the Yar, is Ray spelled backwards. The planet they come from, Razak, is a phonetic spelling of his last name backwards.

11. Q*bert

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When game developer Gottlieb’s Warren Davis and Jeff Lee started to create what would become Q*bert, they initially called their project Cubes after the M.C. Escher-inspired boxes that the main character hops around on. After they added the ability to shoot balls of slime from the character’s snorkel-like nose in order to defend himself, they changed the name to Snots and Boogers. But when it was decided that slime-ball-shooting made the game too complicated, the name didn’t really make sense anymore, so the marketing team started brainstorming.

One idea was to name the game @!#?@!, the curse-word grawlixes that appear whenever the player gets caught by a bad guy. They also thought about naming it after the main character who, until then, didn’t have a name. Someone came up with Hubert, which was later combined with Cubes to make Cubert. But as the art designer made the logo, he changed it to Q-bert, only to later have the dash become an asterisk, resulting in the game’s final name.

12. Halo

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The road to the Xbox’s “killer app” was hard for game developer Bungie Studios. After starting life as a real-time strategy game called Solipsis, named after the planet where the game took place, it was eventually retooled as a first-person shooter. It was also christened with many different monikers through these development stages, including Star Maker, Star Shield, Hard Vacuum, The Crystal Palace, and, oddly enough, The Santa Machine and Monkey Nuts. (Monkey Nuts was replaced with Blam! after the company’s co-founder decided he couldn’t tell his mother he was working on a game with a title like that.)

Eventually the simple, spherical planet of Solipsis became a “Halo,” a man-made ring inspired by the Culture novels of sci-fi author Iain M. Banks. Although the company was concerned that the angelic name might be too soft for hardcore gamers as a title, Halo stuck and actually fit in well with the plot focusing on an invasion of alien religious zealots.

13. Donkey Kong

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Although “kong” was a common Japanese nickname for “ape,” no doubt inspired by the 1933 film, King Kong, how exactly the first half of the name Donkey Kong came to be is something of a mystery. One version of the story says the title was supposed to be Monkey Kong, but there was a miscommunication that led to a misspelling. Another story is that game designer Shigeru Miyamoto was looking up words in a Japanese-English dictionary and found the word “donkey” as a synonym for both “stupid” and “stubborn”. Whatever the case may be, it didn’t matter to Universal Pictures how the first half of the title came to be; they were more interested in the second half.

Universal sued Nintendo in 1982, because they felt Donkey Kong was too similar to King Kong – in name and in concept. Nintendo hired attorney John Kirby, who was able to show that there were significant differences between the two, but the nail in the Universal coffin came from a 1975 case in which Universal sued RKO Pictures, the producers of the 1933 film, in order to film a remake. Universal claimed they were filming an adaptation of the original film’s novelization, which had fallen into the public domain. In that case, it was determined that the 1933 film’s characters were now in the public domain, though not the film itself. Shortly after, Universal bought some of the rights to the characters, but not all. So when they sued Nintendo, they did so knowing that the characters were partially in the public domain, because they had used that exact argument a few years earlier.

Nintendo won the suit and Universal wound up paying $1.8 million for legal fees and damages. To show their appreciation, Nintendo bought John Kirby a sailboat christened Donkey Kong, and it’s rumored that the bubbly character Kirby from the 1992 game Kirby’s Dream Land is named after him.

Source: Rob Lammle of MentalFloss.com