The video game industry is now a global juggernaut, pulling in annual revenues of close to $180 billion, on track to hit a market size of over $250 billion by 2025. That is a tremendous achievement, considering that this sphere did not blow up until the early 1990s when home gaming consoles became a standard item in average-income households. That occurrence led to the slow death of arcades.
A fun bit of trivia is that the first video game got created by physicist William Higinbotham, a member of the electronic team that created the first atomic bomb. In 1958, Higinbotham worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he innovated video gaming with Tennis for Two. A Pong-like game viewed on an oscilloscope. Though, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that arcade titles started to incorporate protagonists. Once the Sega Genesis console launched in 1988, and the Super Nintendo appeared three years later, video games became more complex, featuring branded title characters.
As time went on, the popularity of specific video games figures grew to a point where they entered the mainstream. Today, even interactive gaming products feature hero characters whose names get utilize for bonus codes, casino gambling. Thus, proving that people need an avatar to identify with even when hunting for riches online. Below, we rattle off a few names from the video game world that have expanded their influence beyond their expected fan base, affecting pop culture throughout the decades.
Pac-Man is a maze arcade machine released in 1980 by Japanese developer/publisher Namco. Midway Manufacturing licensed it for its North American release. Virtually everyone that has ever had so much as a fleeting interest in video games has played or at least seen Pac-Man get played on any device. The sound effects complimenting its gameplay are likely as legendary as the game itself. The goal of Pac-Man is to eat all the yellow color dots while avoiding the four ghosts drifting around the maze, pursuing the Pac-Man.
According to Midway, Pac-Man was the first commercial video game played by a vast female audience. Its Atari 2600 version sold almost 8 million copies, and estimates now claim that this franchise is responsible for generating over $12 billion in revenues. Over time, multiple gaming products have paid homage to Pac-Man. In the early 1980s, Hanna-Barbera produced an animated series based on this arcade machine for ABC, which was 1982’s highest-rated Saturday morning cartoon.
Donkey Kong is a fictional ape created by former director of Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, who has stated that the intention behind this character’s name was to convey his stubbornness. The original Donkey Kong game, a side-scroller, got released in 1981 to massive financial and critical success, quickly spawning two sequels in 1982 and 1983. Per Nintendo, this game series has sold over 65 million copies as of March 2021.
The angry Donkey Kong ape appeared in the 1983 Saturday Supercade animated TV show and got its TV series in 1996 called Donkey Kong Country. It aired in multiple regions for two seasons. France 2 created a distinct show aired exclusively in France – Donkey Kong Planet, which reused various content from the Country animated series. The loveable ape also appeared in the Adam Sandler 2015 movie Pixels as its final villain. The game itself served as the backdrop to a highly-acclaimed gamer documentary titled -The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
There are twenty-two entries in the Donkey Kong video game franchise. The Guinness Book of World Records marks the initial arcade machine in the series as the first gaming product to incorporate visual storytelling via cut scenes. In pop culture, it inspired the phrase – It is on like Donkey Kong.
It is a fact that the world’s most famous plumber is Mario, the main character of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros franchise. Yet, what only hardcore gamers know is that the series’ titular character debuted in Donkey Kong. He got his distinct game in 1983, with Mario Bros, which also featured his equally well-known twin brother, Luigi. The pair seek to exterminate strange creatures that emerge from a city’s sewer system.
All entries in this franchise have generated strong sales, totaling over 380 million units purchased globally as of 2021. Super Mario Bros alone sold more than 50 million copies in 1996.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Mario Brothers are pop culture icons. So much so that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressed as Mario to promote the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. The Super Mario franchise includes a Saturday-morning cartoon, a big-budget Hollywood movie, comic books, all forms of merchandising imaginable, and so much more.
Nintendo strikes again. The Legend of Zelda got unleashed on the world in 1986. It is a trailblazing high-fantasy for the Disk and NES consoles, one of the first titles to bring RPG gameplay to the forefront of the gaming industry, introducing many concepts that are mainstays today.
The main protagonist of The Legend of Zelda is Link, a young Hylian adult, that traverses the Kingdom of Hyrule, a medieval-based fantasy land, battling evil forces on a quest to rescue Princess Zelda. According to the franchise’s lore, Link is the reincarnation of a hero prophesied to defeat the evil plaguing Hyrule.
Throughout the years, Link transitioned over into other Nintendo franchises. These include Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart, the Sonic Series, and Soulcalibur. He had a thirteen-episode animated series in 1989, and in 2011, Empire magazine ranked him as the sixth-best comic book character of all time.
When it comes to more modern video game characters, Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series likely has little competition in terms of notoriety. However, many believe that has more to do with the two Angelina Jolie movies elevating Lara Croft’s profile than the video game franchise seeping into the mainstream.
Still, no one can deny that Lara Croft has an iconic look that most people under the age of forty can instantly recognize. Croft has also gotten credit as the catalyst for developers to feature more female leads in video games, with many gamers that Lara is synonymous with girl power. The official PlayStation magazine, IGN, and Edge have all labeled her a cultural icon.
The initial Tomb Raider title hit GameStop shelves in 1996 and got praised for its 3D graphics and novel gameplay. The Guinness World Record Book lists Lara Croft as the most recognized female video game character ever.