Thursday, September 17, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Thirteen: Name Origins for Miscellaneous Nintendo Series

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather lengthy “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


I’m pretty sure Nintendo has never said anything official on the subject, but it would seem very likely that they got the name for their character Kirby — a puffball whose main source of attack involves inhaling anything and everything, much in the manner a wind-powered carpet-cleaner might — would come from the Kirby Company, whose chief products are vacuum cleaners. Commenter awa64 points out another theory: that the name of Kirby the sucking entity could also come from the name of attorney John Kirby, who defended Nintendo in a lawsuit by Universal Studios alleging that Donkey Kong was illegally inspired by King Kong. Kirby and Nintendo won. Kirby’s creator, Masahiro Sakurai, now apparently claims to “not remember” where he got the name.

kirby as croquet: colored balls and one guy with a mallet

Longtime gamers should take a some interest in the fact that the Kirby games contain a subtle reference to another series that has long since fallen by the wayside. The games feature a recurring antagonist in the form of King Dedede, a mallet-toting penguin. Matching his three-syllable name pattern are two minor underlings, Lololo and Lalala — respectively blue and red block-pushing thingamajigs who bear a striking resemblance to the protagonists of the series known in the U.S. as Adventures of Lolo and in Japan as the Eggerland games. Both the Lolo-starring series of puzzle games and the Kirby games were developed by HAL Laboratory. In the older series, Lolo and Lala are heroes, who advance from one level to the next by pushing blocks much as Lololo and Lalala do. I have no idea why the addition of an extra syllable should follow their transformation into villains, but it’s an interesting development nonetheless.

pikmin’s olimar and louie, plumbers in space

Another Nintendo series, Pikmin, stars Olimar, a sprout-tossing, round-nosed spaceman, and his sidekick, Louie. The pair’s appearance plus Louie’s name should be tip-off enough that Nintendo wanted to reference its big mascots, the Mario Brothers, but, as this post notes, Olimar’s name is more subtle: It’s the three characters that spell Mario’s name — mah-ri-oh — reversed and then anglicized in a way that makes the connection hard to spot.

Though this series may put my geek credentials over the top, I have to make an admission: I know next to nothing about Pokémon. The series does gangbusters, so good on it, but it has for the most part escaped my attention. That doesn’t mean I don’t know who Pikachu is. He may well now be a more famous rodent than Mickey Mouse.

The Pokémon games, as I understand them, are a fertile breeding ground for puns, but I’m sure there’s someone else out there with the passion and free time to collect them all. World, have at it. I have read, however, that Pikachu’s name comes from a combination of two Japanese onomatopoeia: pika pika, which represents the sound of sparkling electricity, and chuc hu, the noise mice make. Given the mascot’s status as an electric mouse, this makes sense, so I have to assume the name’s resemblance to that of a certain species of rodent-like lagomorph — the pika, whose name may come from the Russian pikat, “to squeak” — may be entirely coincidental.

The single other Pokémon I have any awareness of is a lesser critter — known in the U.S. and Kadabra and in Japan as Yungerer or Yun-Gellar — simply because supposed psychic Uri Gellar unsuccessfully attempted to sue Nintendo on grounds that the character infringed on his trademark spoon-bending and, in its Japanese form, his name as well. And although I may not know much about Pokémon, any video game that can enrage Uri Gellar is okay in my book.

What I know quite a bit better, however, is Animal Crossing, which offers puns and wordplay in spades. Some of them are rather simple. There’s a sheep named Baabara, for example. That’s not clever. Though since I’ve brought her up, it bears mentioning that this particular sheep is now known more for her inappropriately racist language than for her dumb pun name. (The game allows players to “teach” characters new words, and a promotional copy of Animal Crossing sent to reviewers had Baabara using the “N” word. Bad ewe.)

two kinds of salty language: baabara and kapp’n

Other instances are more complex. Some requires a basic familiarity with Japanese culture. Like I said earlier about the kappa, Animal Crossing features a character named Kapp’n. Understanding the connection to Japanese mythology helps to make sense of the pun in his name — in addition to being a kappa, he’s also a sea captain who talks like a pirate. But if if you didn’t know what a kappa was, you’d probably just assume he was some kind of turtle and his abnormal penchant for cucumbers would go unexplained.

nook, a tanuki scrotum attack; and super mario bros. 3’s tanooki mario

A similar case is that of Tom Nook — a raccoon-looking shopkeep who serves as the game’s de facto villain. He’s actually a tanuki — either the real-life Japanese Raccoon Dog or its mythological counterpart, the latter of which is known for trickery and a giant ball sack. (Seeing as how Nook first appears sporting a strategically crotch-blocking apron, I’m inclined to guess he’s the latter.) When Nintendo debuted the first Animal Crossing and introduced Nook to American audiences, I remember some muttering about the character also having racist implications. (If you wanted, you could associate his first name with Uncle Tom. As some even pointed out, his last name pronounced backwards also happens to sound like the word coon, which is both a shortening of the word raccoon and a racist term for a black person. The slur may or may not actually have an etymological connection to raccoon.) I remember reading some of this online years ago, but Baabara’s dropping of the N-bomb seems to have pushed discussion any other racist Animal Crossing interpretations to the other reaches of the online world.

The name that took me the longest to get was the one attached to a certain lady pig who sells turnips that the player can then sell at either a profit or a loss, depending on the given day’s going rate. This system’s resemblance to the stock market now makes it seem obvious that Sow Joan’s name is a pun on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but I didn’t get that until years after I initially wondered why she had the name she did. And when I finally did, I wrote a post about it, of course.

In all, the game has more than a hundred characters, so I won’t bother to list them all, but I will say that I appreciate the humor in naming some of Animal Crossing’s anthropomorphic villagers after the things their real-life counterparts would be slaughtered for: an alligator named Boots, a pig named Rasher, a frog named Jambette, a duck named Pate, a cow named Chuck. And extra bonus points for a cross-dressing dog named Butch — yes, again, its own post here — and anteaters named Cyrano and Nosegay.

don’t shoot: mr. peepers and not-the-hogan

Two Nintendo light gun-related bits: The spiteful, laughing dog from Duck Hunt has a name, apparently: Mr. Peepers. (You, however, should feel free to call him “That Goddamn Dog.”) And in case you ever wondered where Hogan’s Alley, Nintendo’s shooting gallery simulator, got its name — you may have have noticed that it features no character named Hogan — know that the matter is complicated: There exists an FBI training facility by the same name, but it didn’t exist until after the video game Hogan’s Alley debuted in Japan. Both the game and the FBI location take their names from the titular crime-ridden slum from the late-19th-century comic strip of the same name. I explain it in somewhat greater detail here.

Early in the days of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo released a now mostly forgotten title, Pilotwings 64, which itself was a sequel to the first Pilotwings, released early in the days of the Super Nintendo. The later game features six selectable characters, each named after birds: Goose, Hawk, Lark, Ibis, Kiwi and Robin. The last of these is notable in that she’s known differently in Japan: as Hooter, which is both another bird name — if you consider Hooter close enough to Owl — and a reference to the character’s enormous breasts.

lark and robin, nester, nester and hester

Lark, the smallest of the male characters, is himself notable in that he’s the former Nintendo Power magazine mascot Nester, renamed to merit his flocking with the Pilotwings crew. Nintendo Power admitted that Lark and Nester were one and the same, though the character appeared later in another title, Nester’s Funky Bowling, which featured him with his original name and also paired him with a look-alike sister, Hester. Nester, like Ninten in Mother, takes his name from the first-generation Nintendo console.

nintendo’s aquatic he-she

Back in the eight-bit days, Nintendo released a very Pac-Man-like title called Clu Clu Land, the protagonist of which has suffered from some gender confusion issues. In some regions, the character’s name is Bubbles and seems to be female, while in others the character is called Gloopy and seems to be male. Essentially, he/she is Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man rolled up into one. Eat your heart out, Birdo. I have a previous post on this strangeness, if you’re interested.

The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

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