It’s not every day that the passing of a single person makes news in the video game industry. It’s even rarer that the passing of a lawyer would get any attention. Yet few would argue that John Kirby didn’t end up contributing to gaming in a sizable way. Like the name suggests, he’s one of the main reasons that Nintendo’s Kirby franchise is the thing it is today.
Sadly, John Kirby passed away this past Wednesday, October 2, age 79, due to complications of a blood cancer known as a Myelodysplastic syndrome. In addition to his surviving family, consisting of his wife, siblings, children, and grandchildren, he left behind the legacy of a career in law that stretches back several decades and saw him represent multiple high-profile clients, including Nintendo.
It was in the early 1980s when that career brought Kirby to Nintendo and into the video game spotlight. In one of the first and most important video game-related lawsuits, Universal Studios sued Nintendo claiming that the company’s hit arcade game Donkey Kong infringed on its copyright for the classic movie monster King Kong. As Nintendo’s defense attorney on the case, Kirby managed to tear this claim apart by successfully arguing that King Kong had entered the public domain by that point, and that therefore Universal had no exclusive right to the character or anything inspired by it in any way.
The courts sided with Nintendo in 1984, opening the door for Nintendo grow unfettered, and to expand Donkey Kong into the franchise it would go on to become. As thanks for his part in that, Nintendo gifted Kirby with a sailboat suitably christened “The Donkey Kong.” Then a few years later, his name became forever solidified in gaming history. When Nintendo was trying to figure out what to call the cute new ball-shaped hero it was designing at the time, Kirby’s name was included in the list of potential names.
As for why it was ultimately chosen, Shigeru Miyamoto has gone on record to explain that in addition to reminding them of Kirby’s services, the designers liked the odd contrast between the harsher sounds in the name “Kirby” and the cute softness of the character. Another reason is that Nintendo just thought it would be funny if the two had that connection.
And it is kind of hilarious when one stops to think about it. John Kirby was a man who served as the attorney for business giants such as Pepsi and America Online, as well as prestigious Wall Street law firms. He sat in the boards of multiple universities. He worked in the United States federal government for over 40 years, where one of his earliest roles was aiding in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. John Kirby was an impressive figure, and now, thanks to video games, he is forever connected to the Kirby that purrs like a cat. May he rest in peace.