"Wreck-It Ralph," Disney’s latest animated feature, takes audiences on a wild journey through the history of video games. It also reintroduces viewers to a number of familiar characters. Even though arcades are mostly a thing of the past, their influence is inescapable. In fact, many of the characters from the old classics are still around and as popular as ever. So, for anyone going to check out “Wreck-It Ralph” this weekend, here’s a brief history of some of gaming’s most iconic characters that got their start in the arcades.
At a time when most arcades were inundated with space shooters and “Pong” clones, Namco’s “Pakku-Man” — which, in the U.S., was re-titled “Pac-Man” — offered a new type of game play.
Released in the states by Midway, "Pac-Man" went on to become the most popular arcade game of all time, selling more than 300,000 units worldwide and starting a pop culture phenomenon. At the height of “Pac-Mania,” Namco’s ghost-chomping hero was licensed for everything from a cartoon to a hit song (“Pac-Man Fever”) and even a line of Chef Boyardee pastas. Pac-Man earned a spot in history books, though, as arguably the first real character in video games.
In 1982, Midway released its own Pac-Man follow-up, the independently produced “Ms. Pac-Man.” With new maze maps and faster game play, it sold an additional 100,000 units, making it the most successful American arcade game of all time.
Unable to secure the rights to make a Popeye game, a Japanese company named Nintendo (which, translated, means “leave luck to heaven”) instead turned to first-time designer Shigeru Miyamoto to invent something new.
“Donkey Kong,” as his 1981 creation came to be called, introduced the world to two of gaming’s most iconic characters, albeit in nearly unrecognizable forms. Playing as a mustachioed carpenter referred to as “Jumpman” (later renamed Mario), gamers had to dodge barrels thrown at them by Jumpman’s belligerent pet ape while scaling a construction site. Along with pioneering a style of game play known as “platforming,” “Donkey Kong” was influential as the first arcade game to have a storyline programmed into the opening scenes.
“Donkey Kong” was followed in 1982 by another arcade hit, “Donkey Kong, Jr,” which reversed the characters’ roles, pitting Donkey Kong’s son against a villainous Mario in an attempt to rescue Donkey Kong from his cage.
The brainchild of Warren Davis and Jeff Lee, 1982’s “Q*bert” started out as an experiment with in-game physics. “Q*bert” went on to become the one and only arcade success for Gottlieb, an American company better known for its pinball machines.
Following in the footsteps of earlier titles like “Pac-Man,” the game’s titular long-nosed protagonist was aggressively merchandised. Q*bert was turned into boardgames, plush toys, lunch boxes and even starred in his own CBS cartoon. But after mostly disappearing from pop culture for the last couple decades, he may achieve his widest level of exposure yet thanks to a small, but pivotal, role in “Wreck-It Ralph.”
As historically important as “Donkey Kong” was, 1983's “Mario Bros.” was the title that established a lot of Nintendo’s Italian-American mascot’s most recognizable characteristics.
Along with creating a new setting for the game in an underground labyrinth of green pipes, Miyamoto changed Mario’s profession from carpenter to plumber, adding the ability to jump on foes as a way to kill them. What’s more, as the title implies, “Mario Bros.” also allowed gamers the opportunity to play as Mario’s brother Luigi.
“Mario Bros.” was the last arcade game to feature the iconic plumber prior to the release of Nintendo’s 8-bit home console, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, or “NES.”
Mario and Luigi became staples of the new platform thanks to a trio of classic games, beginning with 1985’s “Super Mario Bros.,” which, among other things, also introduced a new villain, King Koopa (aka Bowser).
Mario and the other denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom have returned to arcades in recent years thanks to the popular “Mario Kart” series of racing games.
The first entry in Capcom’s “Street Fighter” series, which arrived in American arcades in 1987, was only a modest success, beating out similarly conceived competitors like Konami’s “One-Two Kung Fu” thanks to a bonus challenger mode that allowed a second gamer playing as Ken to challenge the first player at any time.
However, the original “Street Fighter” was all but completely eclipsed by its 1991 sequel. With “Street Fighter II: The World Warrior,” Capcom revolutionized the fighting game formula, adding a full roster of playable characters to choose from. Along with Ryu, Ken and Sagat from the first game, “Street Fighter II” introduced a number of new characters, including series favorites like Chun-Li, Dhalsim and a burly Russian wrestler named Zangief. Years after arcades had already begun their decline, “Street Fighter II” brought back hardcore gamers before eventually making its way to home consoles.