For decades, the premise of Nintendo’s iconic arcade game Donkey Kong was fixed in stone: a squat, mustachioed plumber leaps barrels and dodges fireballs to save a damsel in distress from a giant, cavorting gorilla.
But Mike Mika’s daughter was having none of it: After playing the game repeatedly — even watching the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters from start to finish — she asked her dad “How can I play as the girl? I want to save Mario!”
What a question — and what luck, then, that Mika also happened to be a veteran game designer. As he notes in a piece for Wired provocatively titled “Why I Hacked Donkey Kong for My Daughter,” the question kept nagging him: “Kids ask parents all the time for things that just aren’t possible. But this time, this was different. I’m a game developer by day. I could do this.”
The rest was nose-to-the-grindstone busywork — busywork Mika relays in some detail, describing how he reverse-engineered Donkey Kong‘s sprite-based graphics, then rebuilt Mario and Pauline (the damsel’s name) to accommodate their new bearings, Pauline taking Mario’s place below the game’s interlocking platforms and ladders, Mario helplessly trapped beside Nintendo’s iconic ape at top.
All told, it sounds like it only took Mika part of the night and the next morning to pull it off, and when his daughter woke up ready to play? Writes Mika:
She was excited! But for all she knew, I just figured out how to get Pauline to work. And that was fine. I wasn’t expecting it to change her life. We played for a bit. And some more. And again later. You know what? She really did seem to enjoy the game more. For whatever reason, she was more motivated to play as Pauline than as Mario.
A daughter thoughtful enough to ask the question? Endearing. A parent who can turn that question into a playable answer? Priceless.