There’s a scene in “Wreck-It Ralph” where an out-of-work, panhandling video game character named Q*bert (remember him?) puts out a cardboard sign that reads, “Game unplugged. Please help!” That should tell you all you need to know about the movie’s target audience. “Ralph” is an 8-bit nostalgia trip, aimed as much at old nerds as it is at anyone who might be a gamer today.
Set to open on Friday, the cartoon recalls the Golden Age of arcade video games, a time when we battled each other in public, not at home on our computers and Xbox 360s. While waiting our turn to play Centipede or Battlezone, we placed a quarter on the coin slot, a gesture that said, “I got next game, spazz.” When we navigated enough mazes or blew away enough aliens, we inscribed our initials on a single machine’s high score board with a clumsy joystick, for all to see.
Flash forward a few decades. The Atari 2600 game console just threw its 35th birthday party; one of the earliest video games, Spacewar! (developed at MIT), recently celebrated its 50th. In “Wreck-It Ralph,” the movie’s Donkey Kong-like game, Fix-It Felix Jr., turns 30, and Ralph and other characters fear their game may soon be “Out of Order” forever. That got us thinking about the depiction of video games in the movies. We don’t mean strict video game adaptations; you can argue that no one’s ever made a decent movie based on a video game. (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Doom,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “Super Mario Bros.,” the “Resident Evil” series — all were derided by gamers and non-gamers alike.) Far more fascinating are films wherein video games play a major role in the plot.
As Pac-Man Fever raged and parents worried into the 1980s, a slew of movies explored whether this diversion was corrupting the souls of America’s youth. Would Space Invaders, Galaga, or Tempest whisk kids away to some pixelated doom? Filmmakers had fun imagining the consequences.
In chronological order, here’s our Top 10 list.
SOYLENT GREEN (1973)
What is the first movie debut of a video game? All laser cannons point to this dystopian science fiction classic where the first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space, makes a tiny cameo. The irony being, the future that “Soylent Green” predicts, that of 2022, features a black-and-white, multi-directional shooter game, released in 1971, about as advanced as a cave drawing.
STAR WARS (1977)
Yes, the holographic monster chess match between Chewbacca and R2-D2 was filmed as stop-motion animation with little rubber puppets. But it’s supposed to be a video game — and one which, at the time, blew the minds of many a nerd. When Han Solo counsels R2 that Wookiees tend to “pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose,” it’s arguably the world’s first reference to gamer rage.
Jeff Bridges plays a hacker and arcade owner converted to data and sucked into a mainframe computer. Stuck inside, he must compete in gladiatorial games and outwit the Big Brother-like Master Control Program. This was the groundbreaking Disney sci-fi movie that, graphically and metaphorically, exorcised our growing paranoia about the digital landscape into which our nascent digital culture was being thrust. The neon future of “Tron” seems so bright, the outfits so fashionable, you gotta wear shades.
“Shall we play a game?” With that enticing line scrolling across a primitive PC screen, teenage slacker and proto-nerd Matthew Broderick, who has accidentally hacked into a US military supercomputer, enters a saber-rattling game of global thermonuclear war. John Badham’s movie helped voice fears about computer security and Armageddon. “The only winning move is not to play,” concludes the computer. Take that, Cowboy Reagan.
One part of this four-part horror anthology features a video-game-crazed (and bleached blond) Emilio Estevez so obsessed that he sneaks into the arcade after hours to finish the final level of a game called the Bishop of Battle. Then the game comes to life: actual spaceships burst from the video game cabinet itself, to blast our hero in the real world. Uh oh.
The next morning, we hear a familiar digitized voice emanating from a game. “Greetings, Earthling. I am the Bishop of Battle, master of all I survey,” says Estevez, now trapped inside the machine. “I have 13 progressively harder levels. Try me if you dare. Insert coin.” An incredulous buddy says, “He’s got you.” What better metaphor for how games would change us (even the blocky vector graphics are light years behind today’s hyper-real first-person shooters).
NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983)
Who would have pegged James Bond as a gaming geek? Yet in this installment, Sean Connery (in his last appearance as 007) faces off against villain Klaus Maria Brandauer in a 3-D video game called Domination that inflicts real pain. If a missile gets through, players get an electric shock — and Bond girl Kim Basinger gets more shaken and stirred. Later, the Connery-Basinger massage scene is less racy than it is ROTFL.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)
Regarded by many nerds as the best and most positive depiction of video games from the arcade era’s Golden Age. A depressed, trailer-park dwelling kid raised by a single mom (see a theme emerging here?) is a wizard at a game called Starfighter. Turns out, that game is being used by lizard-alien Robert Preston (in his final film role) to recruit gunners to fight a real war on Rylos against the Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. Loner kid becomes hero, saves day, moves to distant planet with girl. Highest score ever.
THE WIZARD (1989)
Traumatized by the death of his twin sister, Jimmy (Luke Edwards) escapes from an institution with his half-brother (Fred Savage) to enter a Super Mario Bros. 3 tournament. Naturally, he kicks Mario butt — he finds the rare Warp Whistle, grabs video game glory, and heals his broken heart. Many consider this a feature length commercial for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but “The Wizard” helped legitimatize the notion that gaming might be good therapy for introverts and dorks.
THE BEACH (2000)
Hidden like an Easter egg in this otherwise mixed film about an American college student who stumbles upon a secret “Lord of the Flies”/“Survivor”-like community on a Thai island, there’s a tremendous shout-out to gaming. At one point, newbie arrival Leonardo DiCaprio freaks out, imagining that he’s a character in a video game. Pixelated tigers jump out and spiders claw his face as he runs through the jungle, his score racking up at the top of the screen before his life force drains to zero. Game over, Leo.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)
Fantasy-prone Michael Cera must defeat a girl’s “seven evil exes” to win her over. Every scene mashes up comic book and video game visual cues — from “Bam!” and “Pow!” to fight sequences infused with touches of 8-bit animation. Today, as we lurch further into a more gamified, screen-filled existence, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” shows us an exaggerated, but perhaps not unthinkable, blending of a gamer-geek mind-set with so-called “reality.” Whatever that is.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.