I always wondered how Q*bert got his name. For many years, that kind of information was at best very difficult to uncover and a much more laborious process than it is now. Thanks to the magic of the internet and resources such as Wikipedia, information of this nature is pretty much instantly at our fingertips. So let’s have a look, shall we?
Note: All of the below information is sourced from each game’s respective Wikipedia article. There’s an awful lot more content on each game to check out in those articles, so I’ve included links to them in the title of each section. Sources for the information provided can be found on the Wikipedia pages too.
Being the slow-witted nincompoop that I am, it didn’t even occur to me that the word ‘cube’ is part of the name Q*bert. It’s obvious now, of course, but it was only in researching this article that the world’s slowest lightbulb finally lit up, after close to 40 years of seeing the name written and speaking it aloud.
Initially, the game was untitled in production (aside from having a working title of ‘Cubes’). The VP of Marketing at Gottlieb wanted ‘@!#?@!’ to be the title of the game (and it’s at this point you have to wonder how he became Vice President of MARKETING), but it was rejected – quite rightly – by staff as being ridiculous and unpronounceable (somewhat unbelievably, some test models of the machine did have this name on the artwork!). The consensus seems to have been that it was best to name the game after the title character, though he didn’t even have a name at that point. The name ‘Hubert’ was suggested – and it was then that ‘Cubes’ and ‘Hubert’ were combined to make ‘Cubert’. The name was then change by Art Director Richard Tracy (initially there was a hyphen rather than an asterisk) to ‘Q*bert’ and voila, the legend was born.
This one’s a more famous story – initially, the Japanese version of Pac-Man was called Puck Man, but this was changed in other territories to avoid vandalism of the machines, where the name could very easily be changed to that F word. Interestingly, the Pac-Man name stuck and was changed in Japan too, giving our perennially popular little yellow hero the same name worldwide.
As with Pac-Man, I think this story is quite widely known, but there are definitely some misconceptions around it. It seems that legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto, being told that the game needed an English title, simply thought that the name Donkey Kong would give the impression that the eponymous character was a ‘stupid ape’; there was, perhaps, a slight misunderstanding in the translation, with Miyamoto believing that ‘donkey’ could refer to ‘silly’ or ‘stubborn’. Regardless, the name stuck – and of course, as with fellow early 80s gaming hero Pac-Man, we still see Donkey Kong in games to this day.
Far lesser known than any of the above – unless you frequented arcades in the early to mid 80s, as I did – Gorf was a very memorable machine due to its hugely impressive (for the time) usage of synthesised speech. It’s another game I always wondered about the name for, but it turns out there’s nothing particularly exciting or mysterious about it; apparently, the name was advertised as an acronym of ‘Galactic Orbiting Robot Force’. I was expecting there to be a longer and more interesting story about this one, but the game’s origins as a tie-in to Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a far more intriguing discovery for me; elements of Trek-esque ship design can, however, be clearly seen in the released game. Go check out the Wikipedia page for more on this!
I did check out some more titles for this article, but information was either incomplete or so dull as to be pointless to include it (Xevious, for example, is noted to have been initially called Zevious, but the X made it sound more exciting – which still doesn’t explain why they settled on that particular name in the first place).
Generic Game Names and Art
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I also have a real fondness for the somewhat optimistically naïve generic titles that early console games had, particularly for sports games – titles such as Football, Soccer, Golf or Ice Hockey for example (with the most notable – and popular – non-sports game being Atari’s very generic sounding Combat). The assumption being that if you have an Atari or a NES and you want a specific sports game, you just need to know which sport it is. There couldn’t possibly be any competing sports games, right? That one’s all you need! As was often the case – especially as these games came so early in the console’s life cycle – competing, more fully-featured games did of course appear, making the earlier games – and their generic titles – seem incredibly quaint by comparison. I find that oddly charming, much like the uniform box art of Atari’s games, or those by Activision – even the black box NES games and the Master System’s ‘grid’ style cases with simplistic artwork all have a charm and uniformity. These go beyond simple nostalgia, each giving their respective system a very different feel and identity.
I’ve enjoyed taking a look behind the names of some of the most famous (and not-so-famous) arcade games of yesteryear; it may be something that I delve into again. Let me know in the comments if you’ve come across any interesting stories about games and their sometimes unusual names.
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