6 Surprising Inspirations Behind Your Favorite Games

The word "inspire" derives from the Latin term "inspirare," which means "to breathe into," because creativity blows in from some transdimensional reservoir of ideas; when it feels like it, at least. Video game developers are particularly susceptible to these fancies, which is great, because without these oddly-inspired classics we’d have to spend a lot more time, ugh, outside. 

1. The Sims was made after its creator lost everything in a housefire


On October 19, 1991, an unextinguished grass fire in California’s Berkeley Hills quickly turned into a massive suburban firestorm that engulfed 1,500 acres across southern Berkeley and northern Oakland. Officially called the Tunnel Fire, the disaster caused more than $1.5 billion in damages as it consumed over 2400 homes. 

It just so happened that one of those homes destroyed by the fire belonged to video game designer Will Wright. He was a founder at Maxis, the game developers that helped kids across the world tolerate computer class with their 1989 classic, SimCity. As the story goes, Wright was one of the first to react to the blaze and even saved a neighbor, fleeing with the flames nearly licking at his tailpipe.

As he surveyed charred remnants of his home and the molten globs of metal formerly his cars, Wright was surprised by an overwhelming feeling of apathy. He realized he only needed a few essentials: a toothbrush, preferably clean underwear, a roof over his head, and maybe two or three Lamborghinis. Despite this feeling, Wright enjoyed redecorating his home with new furniture so much that he decided to give gamers the same experience. Minus the firestorm. 


Around this time Wright and Maxis released their third title, SimAnt, which is exactly what it sounds like. Wright came up with the idea of an ant simulator simply because he liked watching ants. Scaling the idea up to human colonies, Maxis pitched an initial version of The Sims, called Dollhouse, to EA. The concept mixed the feeling of watching insects scurry around their habitat with the satisfaction Wright felt while rebuilding his life from the ground up. The original version was judged too sterile, but once The Sims themselves become more lifelike in their reactions, an eventual epic was born, allowing you to vicariously live a better life through a virtual avatar that’s more attractive, hygenic and all-around likable than the real you. And all it took was one person’s life being ruined.


2. Pokemon is based on a 400 year-old card game


As a burgeoning Pokemon master, you traversed the globe and enslaved endemic fauna and to fight for your whimsy and honor. The dynamics changed with the introduction of the card game in 1996, which replaced the persistence of hunting with the persistence of annoying your parents for another deck, which contained exactly three Magikarps, some grass energy cards, and another goddamned Dugtrio.

More importantly, no longer could you overlevel your way to victory and crush early-game rivals with a level 57 Butterfree. Instead, the card game required masterful cunning and strategy to reduce opposing children to tears, continuing a historical tradition that stretches several continents and over 500 years into the past.

It starts in the 16th century, when numbered playing cards reached Japan via European traders. The cards offered a distraction from the mélange mindboggling new diseases that mysteriously originated around the same time. Until 1633, when the Tokogawa shogunate banned all numbered cards to discourage gambling as well as stifle the influence of Westernization.


But the already-addicted populace skirted the draconian card ban by producing "artistic" pictorial cards, including a variant known as "obake karuta," which depicted monsters and ghouls from Japanese folklore, known as yōkai. Every card had its own type and special abilities that would help it succeed (or doom it to failure) when battling it out with other cards. The player who collects the most cards by the end of the game wins — in other words, you "gotta catch ’em all." Sound familiar yet?

These were Japan’s first collectible monster cards, emblazoned with figures from popular mythology, as number of Pokemon are, with some directly inspired by their yōkai forebears.

art credit Weird N’Wild Monsters of the Mind

In 1889, shortly after the card ban was lifted, a man named Fusajiro Yamauchi established a small card-manufacturing concern to mass produce Hanafuda decks, composed of 48 flowery cards of four different suits. You may have heard of that company. It’s called Nintendo.


3. Star Fox was inspired by a famous Japanese shrine

star fox

Star Fox recounts the struggle of a 30-year-old vulpine aeronaut and his subordinate animal wingmen to save their home planet Corneria from the malicious astral shapeshifter Andross. But this particular intergalactic adventure wasn’t the result of an adolescent science fiction binge or even drugs, but a Shinto shrine that Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto frequented as a youth.

Fushimi Inari-taisha’s multitudinous vermilion torii, those traditional red gates you see in most pictures of Japan, are recreated in Star Fox as the Cornerian arches and other obstacles that added to the game’s mind-blowing sense of three-dimensionality were.

 star fox

Torii are doorways into sacred places, and Fushimi Inari shrine boasts supposedly boasts 10,000 of them, but that number may be closer to 30,000 — one for each of its subsidiary shrines in Japan. The largest are donated by businesses hoping to get on the Gods’ good sides, but you can donate one yourself for a measly several thousand dollars.  

So why is Fox McCloud a fox? Because Fushimi Inari is Japan’s most prominent shrine devoted to Inari, the Shinto patron spirit of foxes, fertility, and agriculture.

inari shrine

Unlike Greek and Roman gods who appear mostly as older white men in togas and sandals, Inari is ambiguous, but generally depicted two ways: either as an ethereal fox goddess, stylized like an early 80s Avengers villain, or a jovial senior flanked by several fox companions like the one seen above. Historians have yet to confirm whether said foxes were friends with annoying frogs. 

4. Mii Avatars

mii avatar

The wonderfully customizable Mii avatars allow gamers to recreate themselves, though for obvious reasons many would rather adopt an alternate likeness and have replicated a variety of celebrities and historical figures. Including former presidents, like Barack Obama, stern Barack Obama, and the new blissful retirement Barack Obama. For this we can thank the Japanese lumberjacks of the mid-to-late Edo Period.

Around 200 years ago, loggers in the well-forested Tohoku region were frustrated that the miserable winters made work an impossibility. So the lumberjacks frittered their time away sculpting wooden dolls for their children and lounging at hot spring bathhouses known as onsen. Eventually, to earn some offseason cash, the lumberjacks sold prototypical kokeshi to bathhouse patrons, who came for the special massage but left with Japan’s hottest-trending handicraft.


As kokeshi fame spread across Tohoku’s onsen, eleven distinct styles emerged, each with distinct regional influences. The kokeshi all feature a bulbous head and a long slender body, but the exact dimensions and shape vary by locality(http://www.http://ift.tt/2oPbjfdkokeshi_02.jpg). Each area has its preferred style of dress, be it floral, ideological, or simple everyday working garb. The dolls from Naruko, Miyagi Prefecture, can also swivel their heads and squeak, supposedly uttering the name of their hometown. There’s even a short, stubby Cartman-esque kokeshi.

Making a kokeshi is a sacred experience akin to a religious ceremony. The art is passed down through many generations of masters and apprentices, and it’s believed that each kokeshi carries its crafter’s soul. Let’s hope the same isn’t true of the Miis.

5. Bowser


Nintendo’s most iconic antagonist Bowser, King of the Koopas, is more uniformly and universally recognized as a villain than some real-life dictators with seven digit body counts. Also known as The Sorcerer King as per the original US game manual, Bowser first appeared in 1985 in the inaugural Super Marios Bros. game, Super Mario Bros.

In Japan Bowser went by the appellation Daimaō Kuppa. Daimaō meaning something like "terrible demon god" and kuppa being a rice soup. Kuppa is a Japanization of gukbap, a Korean dish belonging to a family of soups fortified with rice and other solids. The naming committee chose gukbap over two other Korean dishes, bibimbap (rice bowl) and yukhoe (Korean beef tartare).

So in the end, "Koopa" is really just a synonym for lunch. We can only imagine what Bowser would have been named had they served chimichangas at the Nintendo cafeteria that day.


As far as appearance goes, Shigeru Miyamoto initially designed an ox-like Bowser, inspired by a despotic bovine antagonist in Alakazam the Great, an animated Japanese musical about a macaque monkey who learns magic from Merlin and pisses everyone off with it until an otherworldly king kicks his ass. As you can see from the Japanese cover art for the original NES Super Mario Bros, it wasn’t until later installations that Bowser received a testudinal design to better mesh with his turtle-ish Koopa underlings.


Thankfully, somewhere along the line they got rid of Toad’s visible bellybutton, too.

6. Tetris


In the 34 years since its release Tetris has surprisingly become one of the most influential titles in gaming history, despite a severe lack of explosions and exaggeratedly large breasts. 

Before Tetris Pajitnov developed something that can generously be described as a game called Genetic Engineering. Based on all the information on actual genetic engineering made public by tight-lipped Soviet scientific institutions, the goal was to reconfigure four square pieces into different shapes.

It was a slightly simpler version of a puzzle game popular in Russia called pentomino, a jigsaw game consisting of pieces each made of five adjoined squares, because anything past five was considered Western luxuriance.


Pajitnov kind of borrowed the pentomino pieces and his game morphed into the more sophisticated, vertically-scrolling version we know today. Pajitnov derived the name Tetris as a marriage of the words "tetromino" and "tennis," his favorite sport, which he had apparently never seen.

But Tetris wasn’t initially designed as entertainment. Pajitnov created it and other small, infinitely more obscure puzzle games to test the mettle of Soviet computers for the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Pajitnov describes Tetris as a "feel-good game" focused on creation rather than destruction, as all the feel-good games nowadays are. The fact that your constructs are transient and quickly disappear is a slightly less feel-good but fitting metaphor for life in general.


Yet Tetris may have never graced the capitalist global quadrant if not for game developer and entrepreneur Henk Rogers. The Sickle and Hammer owned the Tetris rights, because the Soviet Union owned everything, though through some smooth negotiating Rogers somehow avoided lifetime imprisonment in a salt mine and secured the rights to the game. Afterward, Tetris co-creators Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov were removed from the record. Everything else, as they say, is history.

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