The era of arcade gaming defined an entire industry. It was a time of seemingly limitless possibility, in terms of hardware, software, and creativity. Step into an arcade, and you could be anything: a marauding warrior, a mutant superhero, or a red diamond trying to contain a frenetic group of lines.
It’s no wonder that arcade games continue to be a pervasive influence in pop culture. Games may have evolved several levels beyond their humble arcade cabinet roots, but the retro classics continue to live on, sustained by the nostalgia of a generation and the curiosity of younger gamers looking to pay tribute.
Below are some of our favourite movies and documentaries that celebrate the golden age and the games that started it all.
Ready Player One is the movie adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name. Directed by legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, the film is a love letter to video games, from the way games are designed to the iconic titles that have left their mark on generation upon generation of players.
On the nose: Parzival standing next to the Easter egg of all Easter eggs
The cameos of characters are a veritable who’s who in the video gaming world. Stuffed from opening to end credits with Easter eggs, you can blink and miss tens of them. Just some legendary arcade game characters that appear are the race car from Pole Position, Mortal Kombat’s original four-armed champ Goro, and the large ostrich mount from Joust.
Wreck It Ralph’s unique premise–of real worlds and people living inside game cabinets–makes it one of the most remarkable movies to be made about arcade gaming. And the most star studded. Several arcade gaming icons make an appearance in the film including Qbert, the bartender from Tapper, Pacman and his fruit power-ups, and Bowser. Ralph and his rival Fix-It Felix himself were inspired by none other than Donkey Kong and Mario.
Retro déjà vu: Angry red guy vs intrepid handyman
The Disney film’s strong retro influence can be attributed to the fact that Wreck It Ralph is a product of its time, literally. An early concept of the movie was created in the late 1980s under the name High Score.
Teens, a jar full of quarters, a black-lit arcade, and Pacman chomping after his pellets. Pixels’ opening sequence leaves no doubt about what ride you’re strapping into. Although the film was critically panned–largely because of Adam Sandler’s performance–the video game character cameos and nifty special effects make it worth a watch for gamers looking to indulge in a little nostalgia. After all, there isn’t really another movie that lets you watch creatures from Centipede bearing down Hyde Park.
Pacman: All out of fruit
Pixels isn’t the first to play with the trope of gamers getting enlisted to fight against invading aliens. Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter in 1984 started that daydream for many. Ernest Cline–author of Ready Player One–released Armada a few weeks before Pixel’s premiere.
Kong isn’t the only ape with a taste for leveling entire cities to the ground. Rampage’s George roared onto the big screens in 2018. With the help of Dwayne Johnson’s equally gargantuan star power, the film grossed 428 million USD worldwide. That makes it one of the most successful game-to-screen adaptations, even ahead of movies from more popular franchises such as Mortal Kombat or Doom.
POV: It’s 1986, and you’re having a very unfortunate day at the office
Rampage’s secret to success? Much like the source material, it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than silly, destructive fun. Pretty par on the course for a movie inspired by a game where the only objective was to eat people and turn buildings into rubble.
If there’s anything game shows like Total Wipeout and The Floor Is Lava have taught us about ourselves, it’s that we find physical capers–and misfortunes–entertaining. Konami is banking on this slightly sadistic penchant and the iconic status of Frogger to deliver its next TV hit.
Frogger: Now with 100% meatier splats!
The Frogger game show, which premiered just a couple of days ago on streaming site Peacock, retains much of the mechanics that players are familiar with. Only this time, it’s not a pixelated frog that gets bulldozed by cars or falls into fast-moving rivers, but people. Host Kyle Brandt summarises the craziness quite succinctly: “You're down to your last quarter and you put it in and it says, ‘Ready Player One.’ But then instead of pressing the buttons on the controller, you actually dive into the screen like Wreck-It Ralph”.
High Score is a six-part documentary by Netflix. The series covers nearly the entirety of the arcade gaming sphere, from the peak of the scene during the ‘80s to the creation of the titles that define genres as we know them today.
Spacewar! The shots that sparked an industry
The show also shines the spotlight on the visionaries who gave birth to the scene. Nolan Bushnell shares the spark that possibly started it all. “I knew that if I could put a coin slot on that screen, then it could make money,” says Bushnell about his first time playing Spacewar, one of the earliest video games.
The King of Kong chronicles the story of challenger Steve Wiebe as he guns for Billy Mitchell’s record high score in Donkey Kong. Mitchell is called the “best classic gamer of our era”; a “primo joystick dude”, one American country singer croons. Their epic rivalry equals that of Kong and Mario themselves
Bushnell’s Law in action
Released in 2007, the documentary is regarded as one of the best on arcade gaming. King of Kong captures the competitive spirit of arcades, a nostalgic window into the jousts for the much coveted top spot of leaderboards. What’s revealed: the intense dedication and skill of the last crop of great classic arcade players, and the lengths some people will go to to defend their crown.