Donkey Kong and Sprite Hacking

| #Social Studies |

I could just as well have titled this post Historical Revisionism in Video Games

I used to play devil’s advocate without considering my words first. I’d rage against anyone and anything that seemed to be putting forth ideas I didn’t like, and I didn’t care if anyone was upset by it.

Now I’m older, and I pause and think for a moment before doing the same thing, consequences be damned. From time to time however I do wonder if I have become the thing I rail against. Am I the knee-jerk angryman grinding axes against things that really aren’t so bad? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.


Like with this Donkey Kong sprite hack, which seems to be making big ol’ headlines because women and games or what the fuck ever. I can’t decide if I’m more pissed off at the trolls who spew vitriol and hate at anyone who dares suggest a gender imbalance in video games, or the people who wax scholarly about the same thing. The former are unbearable children who just freak out because they can, the latter are probably well intentioned but are often trying to change the world just because they can. I hate both camps, and sadly, I can see myself reflected in both sides.

Anyway, a dad asked by his daughter how can I play as the girl? hacked the NES Donkey Kong ROM so that she could actually play as Pauline, the damsel in distress. Good job, dad. His story in Wired suggests a hacker ethic: let’s change things up because why not? The daughter was happy and hey, hacking is fun. I did a very similar thing once, hacking my printer’s ROM to change the character set, using a NES ROM hacking program similar to the one this guy used.


But the internet, wow. First off, forget the trolls. They’re angry because there’s stuff changing around them, whatever. What really shits me, and here’s where I worry if I’m raging unnecessarily, are people like this guy who claim to be evaluating this Donkey Kong hack in the light of some sort of feminist revolution. The stuff he says is just daft, and I want to point out that hey, I am alive and I read this and I think it’s fucking daft.

First off, he suggests that the video game industry went with the boy-rescues-girl theme because Shigeru Miyamoto set the standard with Donkey Kong, while also saying later that this story element is very old, and even the first King Kong movie was damn near 50 years old when the game came out. So if Miyamoto didn’t use this tried and true theme, the video game industry would entered a modern golden age of story telling or something?

While countless other companies and developers have followed suit in relying on this story contrivance, Miyamoto set the tone and pace of the 80′s and 90′s console games industry with his design decisions. An entire generation of videogame developers grew up subtly accepting the values of a Japanese man born in 1952…

…these damsel-in-distress stories have been around for millennia, but that they only became common in videogames with Miyamoto’s 1981 Donkey Kong.

Yeah, and we all know how many pre-1982 video games had any kind of story at all, never mind one with gender roles. Games were so primitive back then we were impressed by games with colour. It pisses me off that this guy suggests Donkey Kong changed the path of games when, in fact, there was no previous path. We went from Asteroids and Tempest and PacMan to Donkey Kong (the second-ever game with ladders for fuck’s sake) and somehow it ruined all games for women?

He goes on to say that because the game wasn’t further modified, that instead of Mario retrieving Pauline’s lose purse and umbrella she’s now collecting them for herself, this is empowering. This is exactly where I start to think I’m one of the trolls, ’cause I am unreasonably pissed off that somehow a graphics hack is empowering. All I see is intellectual projection, trying to make important shit out of the chaos that is life.

It reminds me of school when we were asked to list 20 instances of symbolism in a book, when all I wanted to do was read the damn thing and get on to the next book. I actually wonder now if this author was trying to fill space that his teachers wanted filled, ’cause I note it is categorized under ‘assignments’… But IMO trying to find depth in shallow places is dumbassery. And I’m probably a curmudgeon for pointing it out. I don’t like it, therefore it sucks. I disagree, therefore you’re wrong.

It’s difficult to hypothesize how any of Shigeru Miyamoto’s franchises – least of all his breakout success with Donkey Kong – might have fared differently in domestic and overseas arcades and consoles in the 1980′s or early-mid 1990′s with a female main character (as one reference point, Ms. Pac-Man seemed to fare quite well around the same time).

This is head-bangingly ignorant of the context surrounding Ms. Pac Man, a game which was itself a graphics hack created by a pair of guys selling upgrades without permission from Midway (who snapped it up and released it without permission from Namco, who still don’t really consider it an official Pac Man game). Ms. Pac Man wasn’t popular because it had a female protagonist, it was popular because it fixed all the things that were old and stale in the original game – it was a faster, harder sequel to the best selling arcade video game ever made. Gender didn’t have anything to do with it, and besides, she had a bow and lipstick and a beauty spot. That was the extent of her female-ness, and how the fuck does that matter to anyone!? If anything, it further perpetuates the stereotype that women need makeup and pretty clothes. Seriously, WTF.

He closes with this:

This hack also serves as a vivid reminder to creators of new game concepts and properties that fail to consider females risks making a game appear obsolete to at least half of (quite possibly all of) the next generation of players.

I dunno, is there a chance that including women unnecessarily risks making your game look silly to the Future People who look upon this era of political correctness as a laughably childish time in our history? Better to not make games at all than risk making something that Future People won’t like! Geez.

I probably should point out that I like having girls in games, and generally speaking I choose the female players over the male ones because they’re smaller and faster which suits my play style. I like it when girls play games, I like playing games with girls. I grew up in a house where my sister and I competed for game time and cooperated to reach the higher levels. My mom was an avid player too. Girls today are playing a lot more games, more openly, than ever before, and I would wager it’s got a lot more to do with what society tells them is OK than what’s in the games themselves. It sure as shit wouldn’t have been any different if Donkey Kong’s protagonist was a chick.

What I don’t like is revisionism and anyone who uses the word empowerment, which sets off all the alarm bells in my head ’cause it almost always indicates a philospher counting angels on pin heads.

[ Mar 15 2013 ]

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