ByRob Harris, writer at
Sometimes I play video games.
Rob Harris

Ever wondered who Mario really is? ...or which American president inspired Sonic the Hedgehog's no-nonsense attitude?

Every artist needs a source of inspiration, and it turns out that game designers often look to the strangest of muses when creating their virtual stars. When you find out who some of your favorite characters were really based on, you might never look at them in the same way again...

Mordin Solus (Mass Effect) - Clint Eastwood

Mordin, the lovable, fast-talking Salarian from the Mass Effect series never questioned any enemies regarding the perceived extent of their good fortune. Nevertheless, according to Associate Art Director Matt Rhodes, Mordin's appearance was heavily based on Hollywood's bad boy, Clint Eastwood. Originally designed as more traditional Roswell-inspired Gray aliens, the Salarians ended up looking a lot more grizzled - in part due to the artists trying to capture Clint's dour pursed lips and that frighteningly intense squint he's mastered over the years.

Bonus fact: The artists who designed Mass Effect's characters often took inspiration from fan-made drawings posted on DeviantArt.

Sonic the Hedgehog - Michael Jackson/Bill Clinton

Image credit: Kelevra
Image credit: Kelevra

That's right - two of the biggest icons of the 1990's were partly responsible for producing a third. The speedy blue hedgehog's creator, Naoto Oshima, based part of the character on the style of Michael Jackson's fetching boots he wore in the video for 'Bad.' Strap a pair of those shiny leathers on the 42nd President of the United States and presto! Sonic was born.

Oshima said he admired Clinton's "get-it-done" attitude - presumably not in relation to Monica Lewinsky:

If there was a problem, Bill Clinton took action right away. I saw that American attitude on TV. That was the kind of character I wanted to make.

Bonus fact: Sega had doubts that Sonic would appeal to American audiences, as they were concerned that they wouldn't know what a hedgehog was!

[source: Dorkly]

Kratos - Edward Norton in American History X

I'm not entirely sure how the God of War developers got from neo-Nazi leader to Greek mythical warrior. I guess they're both bald, and - considering the inordinate amount of murderous button-mashing you're forced to do throughout the game - Kratos could be perceived as xenophobic towards living pixels. I'll let the Lead Designer David Jaffe explain:

There's this scene in which the cops arrest him [Norton] and you just see how buffed and built he's gotten. I showed that to the artist and I said, 'Okay, that sense of power and aggression that you just see in his face, can we somehow take that, the essence of what he's exuding, and somehow turn that into a character that fits into this Greek mythology world?

Bonus fact: Kratos can be seen engaging in some rather risqué side-missions throughout the games, which ask the player to aid the Greek God in completing a series of sexual encounters through button prompts.

Mario - Mario Segale

Mario-who?! I hadn't heard of him either, despite the fact that he's the namesake of one of the most famous video game characters of all time! Shockingly, Segale isn't even a plumber. He's a real estate developer from Washington, and his name became immortalized in video game history by complete coincidence.

Originally coined 'Jumpmajun,' Nintendo had no real name for their superstar mascot. However, in the early 1980s a Nintendo employee spotted a man in their building they thought looked kind of like Jumpman - and the rest is history. Seagle was in fact the building's landlord and was renting out Nintendo's headquarters to the company.

In a 1993 article from the Seattle Times, Seagale responded to a reporter's question about the bizarre situation:

So what does Segale think of his name being used for a game that has sold more than 100 million copies and made Nintendo one of the world’s most profitable companies, not to mention the Super Mario Bros. movie just released?

"You might say I’m still waiting for my royalty checks."

Bonus fact: Nintendo's game Mario Party got the company sued after causing hand injuries to children with its arduous mini-games. It cost them over 80 million dollars after they were forced to supply protective gloves for every player!

Riley (COD: Ghosts) - Stephen Gaghan's Dog

This loyal, canine killing-machine from Call of Duty: Ghosts was in fact based largely upon Stephen Gaghan's own pet pooch. The acclaimed writer behind Traffic and Syriana admitted that Riley the dog is a virtual incarnation of his "closest friend ever, Charlie" - also a service dog who unfortunately passed away a few years before the game's release. Gaghan even confessed that he became so attached to his pet's digital doppelgänger that he couldn't face him dying at the end. So, being the game's writer, he wrote in Riley's survival:

Second only to the feeling we wanted players to have at the end of the game, the life or death of Riley probably occupied the most amount of brain space. We liked him too much.

Bonus fact: If you combine the life-long sales of Avatar, Titanic, and The Avengers, it's still less money than the COD franchise has grossed total.

Solid Snake - Kurt Russell in Escape From New York

The creator of Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima used cult movie actor Kurt Russell as inspiration for his protagonist - specifically drawing on his role as the army-hero-turned-criminal, Snake Plissken in Escape From New York. The film's prolific director, John Carpenter, revealed that Kojima actually wrote him a letter asking him for permission to do so:

[Hideo Kojima] has written me and asked me for my blessing on the game and I wrote him back [to say] how about it? He's a very nice man.

Bonus fact: Solid Snake's codename in Metal Gear Solid 2 is 'Pliskin' - a reference to the film.

Johnny Cage - Jean-Claude Van Damme

These two have more in common than just their initials. Cage's appearance in Mortal Kombat was based on Van Damme's portrayal of Frank Dux in the 1988 martial arts movie Bloodsport. Not only that - MK players can actually perform Van Damme's iconic leg split move as Cage.

Funnily enough, Van Damme was asked to play Johnny Cage in the Mortal Kombat movie, but turned the role down to star in another video game adaptation, Street Fighter. The Muscles from Brussels himself would have made an awesome addition to the Mortal Kombat roster, but I guess Cage is as close as we're going to get.

Bonus fact: The brutal nature of the game's Fatality moves sparked a U.S. Congressional hearing reviewing the dangers of violent video games.

Nathan Drake - Johnny Knoxville

During a post-mortem on the original Uncharted game, designer Richard Lemarchand revealed that the slick-talking intrepid adventurer, Nathan Drake, was at least in part inspired by Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame! They're certainly similar in appearance, although Drake doesn't often seem psyched about things hitting him in the groin while he's out treasure hunting.

Interestingly, in an interview with GamesBeat the Creative Director, Amy Hennig, cites an entirely different actor as the source for Nathan Drake:

Drake comes from a long tradition of romantic action-adventure heroes. Cary Grant…and we even went back to the earliest movie serials, movies from the ’30s and the ’50s [...] for that irreverent, roguish sense of humor, that charm.

I guess Drake's just one damn handsome amalgamation of a bunch of different heroes of cinema. Color me jealous.

Bonus Fact: Mark Whalberg was due to star as Nathan Drake in the upcoming film adaptation of the franchise. Though he has now pulled out, production is still due to start in 2015.

Kirby - A Vacuum Cleaner

In 1991 Masahiro Sakurai was tasked by Nintendo to create an accessible game that would be easy to complete, and the result was Kirby. Although Sakurai has said he doesn't remember how the protagonist's odd name came about, it's popular belief that it came from the Ohio-based vacuum manufacturer, Kirby.

The name seems appropriate considering Kirby's signature ability is sucking up enemies and spitting them back out, as players clean up levels with the whimsical pink blob.

Bonus fact: The famous creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto originally requested that Kirby be changed to yellow, but Kirby’s Dream Land was a black and white game due to the graphical limitations of the Game Boy. So Kirby was meant to be yellow, ended up white, and was eventually changed to his iconic pink color.

How many of the characters did you know were based on these real life inspirations?


Did you know the truth behind Mario's origin story?


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