March 11, 2013 at 3:47 PM ET
If you've ever played the "Donkey Kong" video game then you know how it goes: That big bad ape Donkey Kong kidnaps a helpless lass named Pauline. You, the player, then control daring plumber Mario as he jumps barrels, climbs scaffolding and traverses elevators until he finally triumphs over the great ape and rescues the damsel in distress.
Mike Mika's 3 1/2 -year-old daughter Ellis loves playing "Donkey Kong." She's been playing it with her dad since she was 2 years old. But last week she decided she wanted to play the game a little bit differently. She wanted to play as Pauline ... and she wanted Pauline to rescue Mario.
The wee gamer had just played "Super Mario Bros. 2" — a game that allowed her to play as Princess Toadstool. And she really liked playing as a girl character. And so she was bummed when Mika told her that she couldn't play "Donkey Kong" as Pauline.
Or could she?
"I make games for a living, so I realized I should be able to solve this problem," Mika told NBC News in a recent interview.
Mika is the chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive and has worked on games like "Super Street Fighter" and "Rock Band." After getting some advice from a friend, he found the tools he needed. And so he hacked the 2010 NES "Donkey Kong" ROM and created "Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition."
He posted a video of his work to YouTube, which you can check out below. (And if you want to read more about the technical tinkering check out Mika's guest editorial over at Wired.)
When Mika showed Ellis what he'd done, "She was very excited. She wanted to play that character pretty bad," he said. Of course, she had no idea how much love went into the project. "For all she knew I just figured out a way to make the character show up. She didn’t realize I’d spent the time on it."
But while Mika had expected his daughter would be thrilled with this new "Donkey Kong," he had not anticipated the reaction he'd get from the rest of the Internet.
"I was expecting that it would be something that other people like me — my nerdy friends who like to hack ROMS or make games or whatever — that they would find interesting," he said. "I didn’t expect the gender role debate that just exploded with it."
Video games have a long history of featuring male protagonists rescuing female damsels in distress. Mario, for example, has rescued more than his fair share of luckless ladies. And though this is changing with time, it has been a point of contention for many a woman gamer tired of seeing this trope played out time and time again.
Mika's changes to "Donkey Kong" have fired up the discussion again. His YouTube video has racked up more than 150,000 views — and some 500-plus comments. It has also inspired a lengthy discussion on Reddit and on numerous gaming sites where the news of his "Donkey Kong" modification has appeared.
Many women (and men) have not only hailed Mika as the "WORLD'S BEST DAD!!!" that he clearly is, but have lauded him for his efforts on behalf of gender equality in gaming.
Others, however, have been less kind about his efforts. Some critics are simply ugly, misogynistic trolls who decry any effort that seems vaguely "feminist," but others have wondered whether it's appropriate to change the hard work of other game developers to please the whims of a child.
"Well that ruins the game....not to mention teaches her a bad habit of not appreciating gaming and game design," writes commenter WarrkaStrauss in a discussion on game site Kotaku. "He can't rewrite a book to appeal to her or reshoot a movie so why change a game?"
For his part, Mika says he's found the discussion fascinating (if sometimes disturbing). "For me, being a guy growing up, I’ve never been able to see through the eyes of a girl and I’m seeing it right now and it’s pretty interesting," he says.
He points out that he didn't have an agenda when he changed "Donkey Kong" other than, "I just wanted to do whatever it took to keep my daughter playing games with me."
But in response to those who criticize him for altering someone else's work, as a game developer himself he points out, "For game makers it’s the ultimate satisfaction when people who enjoy your game try to modify or extend it," he says, pointing out that highly respected companies like Valve have embraced and encouraged exactly this. "It’s the ultimate praise for a work. And so 'Donkey Kong,' in that respect, is long overdue."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.
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