This week John Kirby, a former Nintendo lawyer who the iconic Kirby character is named after, died at the age of 79 in New York from a form of blood cancer called Myelodysplastic syndrome. John Kirby is widely known among video game history buffs as the lawyer who represented Nintendo in their 1984 case against Universal Studios, who had claimed that Donkey Kong was an infringement on their King Kong property.
After many years and millions of dollars, Kirby was able to win the case for Nintendo, who immortalized him by naming the now-infamous pink ball who headlines a franchise of his own. They also gifted him a sailboat named “Donkey Kong” as a sign of thanks, with exclusive permission to use the name “Donkey Kong” for future sailboats. After all, some say Kirby saved Nintendo at a crucial time in their corporate development.
The New York Times obituary described Kirby’s long career in law, before his monumental corporate work in copyright protection. Before his storied wins with Nintendo, Kirby also served as the special assistant to the Head of the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division during the critical moment of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
According to the obituary for Kirby, his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States began with an internship with the Department of Justice, where he “gathered voting records throughout the South that demonstrated evidence of wide-spread discrimination against African-Americans.” Kirby also discovered “literacy tests specifically designed to exclude African-Americans from voting,” which directly contributed to the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Kirby also directly and personally supported the advancement of civil rights in the United States by “escorting African-American children into segregated schools” at a time when doing so was extremely dangerous for students.
Kirby the character was first introduced to the world 27 years ago with Kirby’s Dream Land for Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy, but the Kirby design was originally a placeholder used by designer Masahiro Sakurai who then worked for HAL Laboratories. Sakurai wanted to develop a platforming game that was more approachable than Super Mario Bros., and gave his puffball sprite flight to ease the demands of tight platforming and the ability to absorb abilities to dissuade players from flying over everything.
Since a protagonist does need personality, Sakurai and Nintendo tried to come up with ways to make the generic-by-design sprite more memorable. In an effort to appeal to the growing Western video game market, Nintendo aimed to change the name from the originally proposed Popopo to something more American-sounding. After trying out a few names, including “Gasper” (like Casper the Friendly Ghost), Nintendo named their new mascot “Kirby” after the lawyer who won their copyright case against Universal. Conveniently, naming the character for their copyright lawyer avoids any potential suit from Harvey Comics or the current IP owner DreamWorks.
John Kirby’s New York Times obituary invites anyone interested in honoring Kirby to gift contributions in Kirby’s name to Fordham University’s Kirby Scholarship Fund, as well as the Merton College Charitable Corporation and The Joseph F. Cullman, Jr. Institute for Patient Experience at Mount Sinai Hospital.