6 Iconic Video Games That Were Created by Technical Problems
We've told you before that some of the most iconic moments in movie history were created by accident, coincidence, or Benicio Del Toro's farts, but it's not just the movie industry that's prone to accidental genius. Video game developers, for example, often made their most creative choices specifically because technical limitations wouldn't let them make the game they really wanted to make. For example ...
Everything About Mario's Design Made Him Easier to Animate
Mario is easily the most recognizable video game character in history: the red overalls, the blue shirt, the hat, and, of course, the mustache. It's one of those timeless character designs, up there with Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader -- simple, yet imaginative and unforgettable. And it was all because the artists just didn't have enough goddamned pixels to work with.
Enough pixels for a lollipop hammer, but not enough for facial features.
The Technical Problem:
Creating an unforgettable video game character in the '80s was all about having a knack for shortcuts. Almost every aspect of Mario's design came from an effort to make him easier to animate. Remember, his first appearance was in 1981's Donkey Kong, an arcade game with processing power that was less than, say, a modern toaster (its 3 MHz processor gave it 1/70,000 as much power as a PlayStation 3 -- those old black-and-white Game Boy handhelds had more horsepower than a Donkey Kong arcade machine).
So Mario's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, needed to make a tiny block of pixels resemble a human being. He started with the red-and-blue color scheme, reasoning that it would stand out against Donkey Kong's black background. The use of overalls as opposed to a shirt or a muumuu gave definition to Mario's arms, because it meant his sleeves would be a different color from his torso:
Without sleeves, this would have looked ridiculous.
Next came the hat, which was added not because Miyamoto had a stroke of genius, but because he didn't like designing hairstyles. That's right -- the most famous character in gaming wears a headpiece for the same reason you throw a hat on when you're too lazy to run a comb through your hair. As an added bonus, the hat saved programmers the trouble of having to animate Mario's hair when he jumped. Gamers in the '80s didn't expect much, but they demanded realistic hair physics, dammit!
But the big goofy nose and the famous mustache have got to be intentional, right? Nope. Mario's diminutive size made giving him a mouth and realistic facial expressions impractical, and so, much like putting a chair over the vomit stain on your carpet after a wild party, Miyamoto added the honker and 'stache to hide Mario's mouth while still ensuring that his face was more than a monochromatic blob.
No offense intended to our less-chromatic readers.
The result of all of these patchwork compromises is a character who, instead of being a stereotypical warrior or daring explorer, is a working man with sideburns, a baseball cap, and a mustache ... and who thus oozes more personality than all of the modern "bald space marine" characters combined.
Silent Hill's Fog Is There to Disguise Load Times
Silent Hill came out over a decade ago and is still considered one of the scariest games ever made. Part of that is the game's haunting atmosphere -- an omnipresent fog prevents gamers from seeing into the distance and, more importantly, prevents them from spotting hideous monsters until they're within "claw your face off and eat the gooey insides" range.
That sort of atmosphere had never been seen in a horror game before. It became an icon of the franchise as fans debated its origins and symbolism, and it was even an important part of the movie spinoffs.
Which was good, because the less you saw of them, the better.
All in all, it was a brilliant stroke of mood setting.
The Technical Problem:
The world behind the fog didn't exist because the hardware hadn't loaded it yet.
The size of a game world is limited by the machine running it -- old-school arcade games took place on one screen, later games like The Legend of Zelda had large worlds that still only loaded one screen at a time, and of course modern games span for miles in every direction. So if you want a game that A) takes place in a town the player can walk around in and B) is running on the old Sony PlayStation, compromises had to be made. The game would need to stop and load the next section of town as the player walked toward it, which, as you can imagine, would kind of ruin the mood.
The next turn could reveal a bloodied mess, or a flying beast, or a [LOADING].
Developers use all sorts of little tricks to disguise these loading times -- from door-opening animations to elevator rides, you can bet that any time a game is making you stop for a moment, it's loading the next section of map into the memory. But instead of doing that, Silent Hill just dropped a fog bomb on the landscape, which served the dual purpose of letting the system get away with only rendering the bit of world that's immediately in front of the player while also making it next to impossible for them to see incoming enemies, the lay of the land ... basically anything that wasn't immediately in front of them.
The end result was a perfect mix -- it gave the impression of being in a huge open world where you could go anywhere ... if you weren't too scared of monsters jumping out of the murder fog and eating your spleen. It's like Jaws: Spielberg had to edit around a malfunctioning mechanical shark, and it actually made the movie scarier. When it comes to horror, sometimes less is more. That's why the crude, fog-shrouded landscape of Silent Hill is far scarier than the giant, beautifully rendered monsters that fill the Resident Evil franchise these days.
Team Fortress' Spy Came from a Color-Swapping Glitch
Anyone who's played the multiplayer shooter Team Fortress knows the aneurysm-inducing frustration that is mowing down scores of enemies only to be stabbed to death by the Spy you didn't see creeping up behind you. Anyone who's played as the Spy can tell you just how mustache-twirlingly fun it is to be the person doing the stabbing -- it's almost worth unmuting the voice chat in the hopes that you'll hear your victims' sweet cries of anguish. Almost.
Then drown the cries out with an MP3 of "Stayin' Alive."
The character is a touch of gameplay genius; a good Spy can shift the balance of a match. The Team Fortress Spy will go down in gaming history alongside Mario Kart's blue shell as "the thing everyone hates right up until they're the one using it."
The Technical Problem:
The Spy was never supposed to exist -- the developers got the idea from a bug that caused some players to appear in the colors of the other team. This was a nightmare for the unlucky team that got fooled by it; enemy players could slip right into the middle of their ranks and unleash hell, killing them all before they even realized what was happening. It completely screwed up the team dynamic and turned certain victory into crushing defeat.
Four years getting an engineering degree, all for nothing.
Rather than yell about "cheap ass hacking noobs!!!!111" and patch the bug into oblivion, the creators of Team Fortress realized the potential it had as a gameplay mechanic and decided to create a class geared toward deception. Using the color-swapping error as the basis of their new Spy, the developers crafted a character with a unique play style that eventually evolved into the stab-happy Frenchman players know today. It completely changed Team Fortress and, depending on who you ask, was either a brilliant innovation or the cheapest bullshit to ever ruin a game.
Samus Morphs into a Ball Because They Couldn't Make Her Crawl
Metroid is Nintendo's darker, more serious sci-fi franchise. It's famous for the reveal at the end of the first game where the hero, Samus, takes off his armor and turns out to actually be a woman. It's sort of like Alien meets She's the Man.
Being good at games makes a woman strip for you. Just like in real life.
Metroid games are all about exploring the world in search of power-ups, which allow you to access new areas and find even more power-ups, and so on. One of the upgrades Samus picks up is the Morph Ball, which lets her ... wait for it ... morph into a ball. By contracting her bulky space armor into a sphere, Samus can reach new areas, drop bombs, and ram enemies with a special attack. The physical contortions necessary to do this make absolutely no sense, but who cares? Cool but impractical technology is half the reason science fiction was invented. This was just the development team taking advantage of the setting, right?
The Technical Problem:
Metroid had a lot of tight corridors Samus needed to crawl through, but the designers couldn't come up with a satisfactory crawling animation. Frustrated and tired of staring at their colleagues' butts as they crawled on the floor as a visual aid, the designers came up with the idea of contorting her into a position that wouldn't be considered realistic even in pornographic fan art.
If the ball ended up resembling a flaming vulva, that was a total coincidence.
So one of the most famous weapons wielded by one of the most famous female gaming heroes was created because drawing her crawling was hard. It was a clever solution, considering what they were working with back then -- Nintendo's flagship character got bigger by eating mushrooms, so they weren't exactly going for realism in their games. It wouldn't surprise us if the ball was pitched as a joke, and then, after a few solid minutes of laughs, they realized it was actually a good idea.
Just try not to think about how silly the concept is now that we've seen it in modern games -- contracting into a ball half your size shouldn't lead to new avenues of exploration, it should lead to a Game Over screen accompanied by the sound of every bone in your body snapping in half. But the moment you start dropping those little bombs and bouncing the rolling Samus around the level like a rubber ball, suddenly nothing else matters.
Kirby's Design Was Just a Placeholder
The pink puffball Kirby is one of gaming's most lovably simple characters. Everyone recognizes his big innocent eyes, his charming portliness, his stubby little hands and feet, and his perpetual, adorable smile. They also know that underneath those layers of cuteness lies a being with the deeply disturbing ability to swallow whole the bodies of those who dare oppose him, absorbing their powers for his own use like some sort of shape-shifting cobra-vampire hybrid.
Swallower of a thousand unwilling souls.
The Technical Problem:
Do you think Kirby seems like a somewhat, well, lazy design? Like maybe he was just the first thing they could think of? Almost like, we don't know, he was supposed to be a temporary placeholder for the real design?
Because he totally was.
The original Kirby game (Kirby's Dreamland) was to be released on Nintendo's black-and-white Game Boy system. Once again, we're talking about extremely limited hardware (see: lack of all color). So, while they were working on the actual design of the character, they just created a simple round shape to occupy that space:
To name him, they just mashed random keys and hit "Enter."
The shapeless blob was named Popopo, but as time went on, Kirby's creator, Masahiro Sakurai, found himself increasingly charmed by the simple design of his temporary hero, or maybe he was just charmed by the idea of not having to make a more complicated one. Eventually, Sakurai said fuck it and just added some details to the blob to give it a bit more character.
However, since he had only appeared on a monochrome system, Kirby's official color remained up for debate. Sakurai thought Kirby should be pink, while Shigeru Miyamoto pushed for yellow (and a mustache, probably), leaving the fate of Kirby as a choice between an anthropomorphic boob and an anime-ized Walmart smiley face. To make things more confusing, the box art of his debut game made him white (and he got rad sunglasses in this hilarious commercial).
Pink eventually won out and probably prevented a lawsuit from the creators of Pac-Man, but now you know why yellow is available as an alternate color in some Kirby games. And thus the look of Kirby, along with one of the most compelling cases for simplicity in character design ever created, was finalized.
Metal Gear Is a Stealth Game Because It Was Developed for a Terrible Computer
Metal Gear is a franchise famous for its tense stealth gameplay and lengthy, coma inducing cutscenes. It actually helped create the stealth game genre despite the fact that the first game was released in 1987 during an action-packed decade full of Schwarzenegger movies and video games where if you weren't killing everything on screen, you were playing them wrong. We're surprised a game about not killing your enemies wasn't banned for being un-American, but it was certainly an ingenious way to release a game that stood out from the rest of the heavily armed, bullet-spewing pack, and the countless sequels prove that it was a smart choice.
How do you hide in the desert? Stealthily, that's how.
The Technical Problem:
If you're wondering how and why Metal Gear's developers, Konami, decided to make a stealth game, the answer is that they didn't. Metal Gear was originally intended to be an action title that would have been largely indistinguishable from all the other action games out there. But the computer they were developing the game for, the MSX2, wasn't able to handle more than a few enemies and bullets on screen at a time without crashing. Making an action game on the MSX2 would be like trying to win a street race in your grandma's PT Cruiser.
If you can't animate a truck moving, good luck coding a battle.
The bigwigs at Konami grabbed a young developer by the name of Hideo Kojima, said, "Hey, kid, fix this," and ran off to a cocaine karaoke bar, or whatever Japan had in the '80s. Kojima, realizing that an action game with only a couple of enemies on screen at a time would make for a pretty terrible action game, decided to change the fundamental premise of the project.
Under Kojima's direction, the game stopped being about murdering everything in sight and instead focused on sneaking past enemies. But he figured gamers would find skulking around boring if they weren't given a reason for doing so, which is how the first of many needlessly complicated Metal Gear plots was born.
No giant robot dessert till you finish all the philosophical tangents on your plate.
Kojima is a huge movie buff -- the stealth gameplay is inspired by The Great Escape, while the hero, Snake, is based on the protagonist of Escape from New York. And while we can't prove that the ridiculous, overwrought storylines of the Metal Gear games were inspired by access to a time machine and Lost, we're not going to rule it out, either.
Related Reading: Video games can lead to some pretty impressive things, including a mastery of invisible Tetris. For another sobering look at the state of the video game industry, click here. Sexism in video games goes deeper than Laura Croft's breasts. After all that, why not take a look into the future of being screwed over by video games.