Nine of the Most Memorable Arcade Appearances in Movies

Posted by Dave 27 FEBRUARY 2014
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A couple of weeks ago, in my post on History’s Craziest Gaming Peripherals, I talked about The Wizard, the feature-length movie that existed purely to showcase Nintendo, including the debut appearance of Super Mario Bros. 3, a huge collection of NES games, and, of course, the Power Glove.

The Wizard

"It’s so bad."

Although that was a poorly-disguised advert for various games and accessories, there have been several instances in movie history where arcade games have fit in much more appropriately, and so I thought I’d use this week’s blog post to showcase a few of them. Sadly, this trend seems to be dying off at the same rate as amusement arcades themselves, with home consoles appearing much more frequently to highlight the film-makers’ attempts to connect with video game culture. This shift in focus is a sad one for all lovers of the arcades; while I’m sure I saw a Tekken arcade machine in Eastenders a little while back, and there was a Ms. Pac-Man arcade machine around which the entire plot of an episode of Friends revolved, movie appearances are thin on the ground.

With that in mind, here are some of the most memorable appearances of arcade machines in movies.

Wild Gunman (Back to the Future 2)

For those few of you unfamiliar with the plot of Back to the Future 2, Marty McFly, an 80s kid who has previously travelled back to 1955, goes forward in time to the distant and futuristic year of 2015 in this sequel. At the time of writing, that’s next year, so I’m looking forward to my hoverboard, power laces, self-drying jacket and flying car within the next twelve months.

One memorable scene has Marty walk into a “retro” 80s cafe, where he finds an old arcade machine and helps some kids turn it on. The machine is Wild Gunman, a light-gun machine which has you shooting bad guys in an Old West setting.

Despite the kids being entirely unimpressed with the machine or Marty’s skills, this scene was unforgettable for any arcade fans. The game itself, however, was entirely forgettable; it was actually a game for the NES that had been put into an arcade cabinet and made to look like far more fun than it really was.

Fun Fact: One of the kids in the video clip is none other than Frodo from the Lord of the Rings movies: Elijah Wood. Wasn’t he adorable in 2015? Hang on, I’m getting confused again. What year is it?

After Burner (Terminator 2)

The T-1000 Terminator is pursuing John Connor, in order to kill him and stop the revolution against the machines in the future. Another Terminator (the T-800) has been sent to protect him at all costs. But what is John Connor doing that’s so important and pivotal to the history of all mankind? That’s right, he’s playing After Burner.

After Burner

This gigantic machine would roll in concert with your joystick movements, making it all the more immersive. Frankly, it needed all the help it could get, if you ask me. I never thought much of the original After Burner (though the sequel, After Burner Climax, was a lot more fun). Regardless, this is one of the most memorable appearances of an arcade game in a movie, at least for me, though your mileage may vary.

The arcade scene is all part of John Connor’s characterisation in the movie. We’re supposed to infer from the fact that John is wasting time in an arcade that he’s a rebel, and therefore a revolutionary in the making. If wasting time in arcades really led to that sort of thing, I’d be running the world by now.

Fun Fact: Previously to this, John is also seen playing Missile Command. It’s a much better game than After Burner, but it wasn’t the one that made every gamer watching the film say “I want to play THAT”.

Doom 2 (Grosse Point Blank)

This wasn’t a real arcade cabinet, sadly. Doom 2 was originally only a PC game (though it later made its way to Xbox Live Arcade and, improbably, the Game Boy Advance), and the cabinet seen in the movie was made purely as a one-off. However, it was an important prop in one of the best scenes in the entire movie, as Martin Blank (played by John Cusack) faces off against an assassin sent to kill him.

I do hope they didn’t really blow up the arcade cabinet with that Ultimart.

The games in the Doom series courted their fair share of controversy, and this scene played on that by showing how the violence in the game was far less extensive and brutal than the real violence going on around the store clerk, yet managed to keep him wholly engrossed (along with listening to Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”).

Fun Fact: Doom was adapted into its own movie in 2005. It was so dreadful that I watched it twice.

Galaga (WarGames)

WarGames was released in 1983, starring that 1980s staple, Matthew Broderick. As a bored student hacker, his character unwittingly comes close to starting a global thermonuclear war (because clearly NORAD has terrible security loopholes). One of the earlier scenes has him playing Galaga instead of paying attention to Ally Sheedy, which I can sympathise with as a dedicated gamer, though it wouldn’t be my arcade machine of choice.

The rest of the movie sees Broderick’s character getting into all sorts of shenanigans involving telephone exploitation, criminal proceedings and a narrowly-averted World War III, all from playing videogames instead of being an upstanding citizen. He does manage to save the day in the end, but only by teaching a computer that “the only winning move is not to play”. Sounds like World of Warcraft to me.

Fun Fact: Matthew Broderick was given unlimited access to a Galaga arcade machine in order to practise for his part in this movie. Hollywood actors have such a hard life when preparing for a role.

Killer Shark (Jaws)

Jaws, the classic Spielberg movie from 1975, featured a similarly classic arcade machine called Killer Shark. Though it looked like a traditional light gun game such as Time Crisis or Operation Wolf, it predated the technology and was in fact a mechanical game, not a video game. You can see it briefly in the video below:

Killer Shark operated in a similar manner to a zoetrope, with a series of pictures of a shark flashed in sequence to offer the appearance of animation. I can’t help but wonder if the shark in the movie would have looked better if done on a zoetrope instead of the terrible animatronics, though it must have looked realistic enough for most people, since it gave my sister nightmares about a shark living under her bed.

The machine itself makes only a minor appearance in the movie, though it highlighted an important plot point about ignoring warnings of killer sharks in the area, offering a strange moment of levity.

Fun Fact: Killer Shark was made by SEGA as their final mechanical game before switching to video games. That was a great thing for the industry, but it did eventually lead to the steaming pile of drivel that was Sonic the Hedgehog 2006.

Starfighter (The Last Starfighter)

Okay, so this wasn’t a real arcade game. It nearly was, but although promised in the end credits, Atari’s arcade machine never materialised.

The plot of the movie sees a bored teenager, Alex, playing a video game obsessively (I know, that part is so unbelievable), which transpires to be a machine designed to test those who play it and assess them for their suitability in a real intergalactic conflict between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire. Those names just ooze 80s charm, don’t they? Here’s Alex breaking the record and proving himself the best ever at what actually looks like kind of a fun game:

Alex then goes on to be taken into space and used to help fight an interstellar war, all while being replaced by an android so that no-one will be the wiser.

Having your favourite game turn out to be real, while a childish fantasy, makes for a compelling story that any gaming aficionado can find relatable. I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen with some of the games I played obsessively, however - getting sucked into the world of Manic Miner would have been a hellish experience. If they made this film now, maybe the protagonist would be sucked into the world of Boong-Ga Boong-Ga and go insane instantly.

Fun Fact: In 2007, a PC version of the game seen in the film was made and released for free. It wasn’t as fun as it looked back in 1984. Apparently 23 years in development doesn’t make for the world’s best game.

Street Fighter II (City Hunter)

This off-beat comedy from Jackie Chan in 1993 was almost entirely unmemorable, except for one scene which has Jackie’s character suffering an electric shock from a Street Fighter II machine, leading to his hallucinating that he’s turned into Chun-Li.

I know, it’s an awful piece of cinema. But now that you’ve watched it, I’ve saved you from watching the rest of the film (which is far worse). It’s amusing to watch Jackie doing his impersonation of Chun-Li, but it’s certainly not worth watching an entire terrible movie.

Jackie Chan thankfully made a whole plethora of movies that are better than this one (as well as one or two that are worse), but there has never been a more memorable (and seemingly aribtrary) appearance of video game characters in any of them, or any other movie.

Fun Fact: This scene, terrible as it was, is still better than the Street Fighter movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue.

Street Fighter - The Movie

Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Wreck-It Ralph)

Oh fine, it’s another one that’s not exactly real. It is loosely based on a real game, however: Donkey Kong Jr., from Nintendo. In the movie, Fix-It Felix Jr. is a classic arcade game with a hero (Felix) and a villain (the eponymous Ralph), that breaks down when Ralph leaves the game and decides to try and be the good guy for a change. Watch the trailer:

In the same vein as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph sees cameos from a host of characters famous in their medium. The whole movie is a tribute to the glory days of arcade gaming, filled with little touches that have arcade fans nudging each other saying “did you see that?”, but manages to remain enjoyable even if you’re not completely obsessed with gaming. Did I mention I’m a huge fan of this movie? Well, I’m mentioning it now.

Fun Fact: Though it didn’t come out in the 1980s as the movie suggests, Fix-It Felix Jr. is now a real arcade game that can be played at Disneyland.

Donkey Kong (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters)

This isn’t just an appearance by a game in a movie; the game is the entire premise of the movie. The King of Kong is a documentary about two people competing for the world record score on the classic game Donkey Kong, and if that sounds dull, you’re dead wrong. Here’s the trailer:

What was intended to be a documentary about all the people competing for various classic game high scores turns into a classic “underdog” story as Steve Wiebe takes on Billy Mitchell for the right to call himself the world’s best Donkey Kong player. Parts of the movie have been edited to enhance the tension, and to play up the rivalry between Steve and Billy, but it still tells a broadly true story and is made all the more compelling for that. Plus, whether the rest of the film is misrepresented or not, it’s still hard to see how Billy Mitchell can be anything but a piece of @!#?@! (to quote Q*bert), and so you’ll find yourself rooting for Steve.

Fun Fact: Donkey Kong was the first video game to feature Mario as the protagonist, though at the time he was known as Jumpman.

So, those are my picks for the most memorable arcade appearances in movies. I can’t recommend all of the above movies, but I could have done if I hadn’t included City Hunter. If you want to watch a Jackie Chan movie, try one of the Police Story movies instead.

I’m sure I haven’t included all the memorable arcade appearances in movies, though I think I’ve covered a wide range of them, so if you have any to share with me then please feel free to drop me a line and let me know! You can get in touch with me through the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or email [email protected].

Written By: Dave Morgan

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