Masked in Play

Depictions of Indigeneity from Burgkmair to Rareware

David R. Howard
10 min readJul 14, 2022

The videogames of my youth are haunted. Not in the literal creepypasta sense, no. They are haunted by a figure who has taken on myriad faces, yet the skeletal structure behind them has remained, for centuries, much the same.

Cover of The Pharaoh’s Curse (1983) for Commodore 64

I wanted to write a piece about colonialist themes in platformers. While I believed limiting myself to a single genre within a single medium would yield a finite set of references, things quickly got out of hand. Firstly, as I have previously explored, what constitutes a platformer is highly ambiguous. Do more recent games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Shadow of the Tomb Raider qualify? If so, the best I could hope to do is replicate the cogent arguments of writers like Dia Lacina, who unlike me provides an Indigenous perspective.

So instead I thought to start from the (supposed) beginning: the Summer of 1981. It had long been a pet theory of mine that the iconic opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which premiered that June, and the release of Donkey Kong the following month fused together in the collective pop cultural psyche. Though the similarities to Indiana Jones were likely parallel thinking, it seems no coincidence that we got Pitfall! for the Atari 2600 a mere year later. And while Pitfall! lacks the hostile Hovitos of Raiders, as both Art Maybury and LeeRoy Lewin argue the colonial logic of extraction is baked into the game’s premise (and gaming technology in general).

Of course to lay all of colonialism at the feet of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would ignore the fact that Indiana Jones was merely riffing on earlier source material–movies, serials, comics, et cetera–and that Donkey Kong itself shares a common ancestor in the 1933 adventure film King Kong. Then moving forward there’s videogames directly based on Indiana Jones, at least a few of which could qualify as platformers. The bounds of my project kept growing: What about platformers starring old-timey miners (of which there are many)? What about safari games? What about Tarzan? What about the entire Western genre? What about games set in [insert colonized region]? Did you know there’s an entire website dedicated to games with Easter Island heads? How do you even go about analyzing something as bizarrely cross-cultural as Doki Doki Panic? Ultimately I found that compiling a list of every dated trope in platformers was a task as insurmountable as it was joyless, and so I shelved the idea. But then I played Spelunky 2, and encountered the mask once again…

Born in 1473 in Germany, Hans Burgkmair the Elder was a Renaissance-era painter and printmaker, a pupil of Martin Schongauer and contemporary of Albrecht Dürer. Burgkmair was particularly notable for innovating on the chiaroscuro woodcut in his collaborations with block-cutter Jost de Negker, as well as a one-off experiment with etching. One of Burgkmair’s most famous works was “The People of Calicut” from The Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian series of prints. As art historian Jean Michel Massing writes, “Calicut” in this context refers to both “the city on the east coast of India, south of Goa, but also[…]a generic term for the newly discovered lands, including Africa and America.” (44) These images were accompanied by verses which “were supposed to introduce the people from exotic countries, to indicate their submission to Imperial power.” (Ibid.) While Massing stresses the accuracy and attention to detail of Burgkmair’s depictions of Indigenous peoples (particularly the African Khoekhoen, known then as the Hottentots) — claiming that they “transcend cultural and artistic stereotypes” (46) — his artistic output was always at least partially a work of translation, being adapted from descriptions, sketches and artifacts brought back by Europeans who had actually traveled to Africa, Asia and America.

Black Youth Holding a Club and a Shield by Hans Burgkmair the Elder dated c. 1520–1530

In a curious example, the above drawing by Burgkmair depicts a Black model dressed in a Brazilian featherwork headdress and holding an Aztec shield and club (See Christian Feest 292–293 for an in-depth description). Writes Massing, “[Burgkmair] could not have had much knowledge of the physical characteristics or the artistic production of specific Amerindian cultures, so he chose another culture exotic to him.” (45) Essentially what Burgkmair had created, potentially for the first time, was a costume of Indigeneity that spanned continents. While this drawing was not particularly influential or well-known compared to something like Pablo Picasso’s 1907 painting Le Demoiselles d’Avignon–only being acquired from a private collection by the British Museum in 1753–Massing still notes how traces of Burgkmair’s imagery can be seen in 1500’s costume books (and maps as Sandra Young details) as well as a 1653 depiction of the Indigenous peoples of Delaware by Pehr Lindeströms, which “reflects the permanence of this formula for exotic people.” (Massing 50)

I see a similar sort of cultural pastiche at play in Mossmouth’s Spelunky, originally developed as a freeware game by artist and programmer Derek Yu. While the overall use of symmetry is most reminiscent of Aztec artwork, the game combines elements of Egyptian, Buddhist and Hindu mythology along with references to Indiana Jones and Legends of the Hidden Temple. Though canonically Spelunky takes place in a “Colossal Cave” — a nod to Will Crowther’s inaugural text adventure — it may as well take place in a Colossal “Calicut” Cave.

The original Spelunky Classic received some criticism for its use of damsels in distress, who the player can choose to save for additional health points via a kiss. This lead Yu et al to include two additional damsels in the HD remake, a pug and a Chippendales-style hunk, although this maneuver received its own criticism for misapprehending the issue of gender-based stereotypes; thus in Spelunky 2 all damsels are dogs. However Spelunky’s use of colonial tropes and Indigenous stereotypes (such as the boomerang-wielding “Tiki Men”) was never directly addressed by its developers, mainly because the critique was not really leveled. This may be because as a light-hearted indie title filled with cartoony nonsense such as literal space aliens, one might be accused of taking the game too seriously to view it through the prism of authenticity.

In fairness Yu, who is Asian-American, has continually incorporated elements of Chinese culture in successive iterations of Spelunky; from the Jiangshi zombies of the original to the tutorial/secret ending character Yang in the remake to the Tide Pool area and biracial protagonist Ana in Spelunky 2. I also feel as though having Spelunky 2 take place in a cave on the moon as opposed to Earth is a subtly reflexive re-framing of the cultural otherness implicit in its setting. Sadly Spelunky 2 moves one step forward and two steps back with its inclusion of the extremely annoying “Witch Doctor” enemy, who can attack the player with a Voodoo doll effigy and floating phantasmal skull.

US arcade flyer for Fantasy (1981)

Videogames are no stranger to these sorts of depictions of Indigeneity. SNK’s 1981 arcade game Fantasy is notable for being one of the first games to combine both top-down and side-scrolling gameplay (along with 005 and Space Seeker), as well as being one of the first Donkey Kong clones; though to call it a platformer would be a stretch in my opinion. While the game is initially more of a swashbuckling pirate affair, it quickly transitions into a jungle environment with coconut-throwing apes then eventually to a village where primitive creatures have captured the player’s love interest and tied her to a burning stake. Skulls adorn both the triangular huts of the villagers and the four posts that line the central fire, while a synthesized “oom wadda wadda wadda oom wadda wadda” voice clip plays.

The creatures themselves are nondescript yet clearly inhuman; horned yellow figures who move about in an awkward shuffling motion. To kill one with some sort of bludgeon nets the player 200 points, and it is only when they are all dispatched that the game continues to a helicopter fight sequence over what looks like London’s Tower Bridge. Fantasy as a fantasy of Indigeneity is both disturbing yet oddly tame compared to more egregious examples such as Universal’s Jumping Jack or the spear-chucking “Angry Eskimos” and “Angry Aborigine” from Kao the Kangaroo; but I also think its tactical dehumanization gets at something different that has bothered me for a long time about another witch doctor.

Who is Mumbo Jumbo? That’s easy, he is a shaman and ally of Banjo and Kazooie in the Banjo-Kazooie series. What is Mumbo Jumbo? That’s harder to answer. Look at his first appearance in BK, in the eponymous Mumbo’s Mountain. Where is this level supposed to take place exactly? It contains a structure which resembles Stonehenge, Conga the ape and Chimpy the monkey, Juju the totem pole, several thatched huts, a termite hill and of course Mumbo’s skull-shaped domicile. Taken as a whole it’s an incongruous mishmash of cultural references even before we get to the sequel Banjo-Tooie, whose first level Mayahem Temple uses Mumbo’s trademark vocal chants as part of its background music.

So let’s turn to the manual, which describes Mumbo thusly: “A former teacher of Gruntilda, this mysterious shaman was betrayed by his pupil before he could prevent her from putting his magic to bad use. The witch transformed Mumbo’s face into a mask of horror to remain that way until the day she’s overthrown…” Having read this only in the recent past I was surprised by the Mumbo/Grunty connection, as it is never referenced within the actual game. In fact the most that those two characters interact is in the infamous Game Over cutscene where Mumbo becomes attracted to post-beautified Grunty and offers her a flower. But it’s the part about transforming Mumbo’s face into a “mask of horror” that doesn’t sit right, and not only because it doesn’t actually revert to show Mumbo’s true form once Grunty is overthrown.

To get some clarity we can look at other paratexts. In a documentary produced for the 2015 Rare Replay compilation we can see an early Mumbo render that includes the back of his head, showing protruding ears which are absent from the in-game model. Says character designer Ed Bryan, “in those days you could literally draw the character, get someone to approve it, model it, animate it and have it in the game in two or three days.” (Timestamp 5:02) If one were to look at this render alone they might assume that Mumbo’s head was not turned into a skull but that he is wearing a mask. While it might seem as though I am being pedantic about the distinction between the face and the head, this difference actually mattered enough that Mumbo’s appearance was altered in Banjo-Tooie to better match the in-manual lore (or perhaps alternately to retcon that Mumbo’s face was ever anything else).

Comparison of two Mumbo renders from Banjo-Kazooie (left) and Banjo-Tooie (right) (Source:

This still doesn’t answer our question however. In another video produced for Rare’s YouTube channel Bryan states that “Mumbo[…]started off life as one of the Jinjos, and I took the Jinjo body and stuck a skull on him, and some feathers, and the legend was born. But he’s not actually a Jinjo.” (Timestamp 5:14) However when the aforementioned reverse view render of Mumbo resurfaced on Twitter in 2019, Bryan had this to say: “He’s part Jinjo? Maybe? Or human? I don’t know.” If Mumbo’s own creator is inconclusive about the character’s identity, then there is not much else we can do but speculate. If Mumbo Jumbo can be said to have any specific origin, it is probably the 1958 novelty song “Witch Doctor” by Ross Bagdasarian aka David Seville, creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

While Mumbo’s depiction was indeterminate enough to warrant his inclusion in the Spiral Mountain stage of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (which had its own controversy over a Mr. Game & Watch move that referenced the Native American foes from Fire Attack), Banjo-Tooie’s Humba Wumba is more generally disliked for being a caricature of Native Americans who speaks in Tonto talk and mostly stays inside her “wigwam” that is actually a tipi. Though some have argued that the Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts redesigns of Mumbo and Humba were an improvement, that game leaned further into Mumbo’s “eekum bokum” catchphrase and presented a Humba who is still sexualized but in a different manner with a pin-up girl inspired outfit. With recent rumors of a Banjo-Kazooie revival in the works, I can only hope that its developers find the courage to abandon Mumbo and Humba altogether and go back to the drawing board.

Here I’ve hardly scratched the surface of depictions of Indigeneity in videogames broadly and platformers specifically. For example, I could further trace the cultural tides of the 1980’s Crocodile Dundee hangover that bled into 1990’s tiki revival which combined to give us Crash Bandicoot, or the subsequent era of Bionicle and Ed Hardy in the aughts where white people seemed to think the “poly” in Polynesian meant the culture was ripe for anyone and everyone to pilfer, for it wasn’t uncommon to see platformer mascots like Mario and Crash sporting tribal tattoos. Nor do I have the space or the desire to break down what exactly is going on in games like Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, Tak and the Power of Juju or the later Pitfall games which overwhelmingly feature Indigenous kidnapper villains. What I hope to impart is that when one uncritically uses character archetypes like the witch doctor they kick the can of cultural appropriation further down the road for future generations to reckon with, dozens if not hundreds of years later. It is also imperative then that Indigenous people are fostered within game development communities, not merely as consultants but active participants in the shaping of the medium.