You Oughta Be in Pictures: Games in Movies

I didn’t know how to describe it at the time, but there was such pure, unadulterated joy in catching even just the slightest glimpse of someone playing a video game while watching a movie. Immediately, I would want to play, too; this was a feeling that was certainly exploited in shows like Video Power or Nick Arcade. Nowadays, I can check out a streamer on Twitch or a Let’s Play on YouTube to get all of the same feels. But back then, when my exposure to games was limited, this was the cream-of-the-crop kind of advertising that left me craving for more.

In case you’re wondering, there’s a word for this: Mudita. “Mudita” is a Buddhist term that means “sympathetic or vicarious joy.” It is taking delight in others’ experiences. With the 2022 Oscars just behind us, let’s take a moment to recognize the Top Ten Mentions of Video Games in Film! And the Oscar goes to…

10. NARC
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

So, you’re telling me that every time that the Ninja Turtles fought members of Shredder’s army, they were actually beating up a bunch of teenage hooligans? In this iconic scene from the original live-action TMNT movie, we see that the Foot Clan hideout was really just the coolest hangout in all of New York. Bubble gum, pool, skateboarding, music – kids were free to do whatever they wanted. On top of all that, a fully-stocked arcade was at their disposal to “go, play.”

Although it’s only shown for a fleeting moment, the camera stops to focus on two children playing the 1988 arcade classic NARC (“Say no to drugs!”). What’s going on in the game?? Well, they’re fighting the final form of the game’s antagonist, Mr. Big! I don’t know about you, but if I was fighting a final boss in a game as hard as NARC, I’d be losing my mind. Perhaps these guys have already gained that ninja focus from all of their Foot Clan training.

9. Hardball
The Princess Bride (1987)

Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true loves, miracles – how would you start a movie about all this stuff? With a video game, of course!

Home “sick” from school, Fred Savage (simply known as “The Kid” in the script) is shown playing Hardball (1985) for the Commodore 64 before his mother comes in to tell him that his grandfather is here to visit. In the game, it looks like he’s playing as the “Champs” against the visiting “All Stars,” and he’s getting destroyed. It’s the third inning, one out, and he’s losing 0-6. His pitcher is southpaw “Euler” who is facing off against the All Star’s leading second baseman, “Allen,” who has a batting average of .283. Allen, who is also a switch hitter, is able to take a swing at Euler’s pitch, but it ends up going foul. “The Kid” is going to really need to step it up if he wants to turn this game around!

8. Super Mario Bros 3
Beethoven | 3 Ninjas (Both from 1992)

from “Beethoven”
from “3 Ninjas”

Super Mario Bros 3 (1990) had its big North American reveal in The Wizard in December of 1989, but Nintendo continued to push the franchise through marketing campaigns in movies all the way through 1992 (and beyond). Like we needed more reasons to want to play this game?

In Beethoven, a story about a giant St. Bernard dog, the Newton children, Ted and Ryce, are somehow both tackling World 5-3 at the same time.

“Alright, Ryce, I’m gonna get that thing right there,” Ted hastily explains as a Super Leaf flutters down from a question block. “Okay? That leaf’s mine!” he motions to the TV with his hand fully covered in the legendary Power Glove, his other hand vigorously tapping away on the controller on his wrist.

“I get the next one!” Ryce chimes in while also lunging to the left with her controller.

Did movie directors honestly think we were that stupid? Mario 3 doesn’t have a two-player co-op mode! The only time they could possibly be playing together would be if they entered the battle mode by pushing “A” on the world map when standing on Mario or Luigi’s space! Gosh!

Meanwhile, coming off the success of the early 90’s ninja craze (new article coming soon about this!), the kids of 3 Ninjas are hanging out in their room. Rocky is talking to his crush (“ROCKY LOVES EMILY! ROCKY LOVES EMILY!”) via a can connected to a string, Colt is bouncing on a trampoline, and Tum Tum is in the corner playing Nintendo. At the start of the scene, we can hear the sound it makes when Mario enters a level. We then see Tum Tum attempting a section of stairs guarded by Nipper Plants in World 5-1 (what’s with only world 5 being shown in these movies?). Throughout the scene, he makes significant progress, and he even finishes the level. By the end of the scene, an alarm goes off signaling that their mom is coming. In a rush, Tum Tum returns to his game which has somehow gone back to the title screen. Instead of turning off the Nintendo, he just turns off the TV. So much for that World 5 progress!

7. Galaga
War Games (1983)

Matthew Broderick plays a hacker that accidentally triggers a potential nuclear strike from the Soviet Union. Before things get too crazy, though, he heads down to 20 Grand Palace (Food, Family Fun, Games) for a round or two of Galaga (1981).

Looking at the screen, Mathew appears to be hyper focused as the alien swarms challenge him to avoid a continuous onslaught of dive-bombs and enemy fire. With around 42,000 points, he’s probably on Stage 8. He was also able to rescue a captured ship in order to gain the advantage of “dual fighter” mode indicated by the two starships that he’s now controlling. With one fighter remaining, he enters the “Challenging Stage” only to realize that he has to leave. Thankfully, “boy in arcade” (Howie Allen) enters just in time for him to take over. Don’t squander this high score, Howie!

6. Title Fight
Blank Check (1994)

11-year-old Preston Waters gets into a bike accident caused by criminal Carl Quigley who was in the midst of a money laundering scheme with the town’s bank president. Wanting to shut the kid up quickly, Carl hands him a signed blank check in hopes that the situation will resolve itself. Well, Preston puts his computer skills to use and hops on his trusty Macintosh to craft a check for ::holds pinky to lip:: one million dollars! In a strange turn of events, the bank president believes that Preston is part of Quigley’s plan, so he loads up the kid’s backpack with bills and sends him on his way. Let the montage of fun begin!

In a scene that shows off some of Preston’s antics after getting his wad of dough, he and limo driver-turned-friend, Henry, can be seen playing Sega’s 1991 arcade hit Title Fight. After doing a little research, we can tell that Preston (red) is playing as Chuck Denver (10 Wins, 0 Loses, 0 Ties) while Henry (blue) is playing as Tony Buntz (26 Wins, 0 Loses, 1 Ties). Only 22 seconds have gone by so far in their three-minute round and Tony Buntz has lost a significant amount of health.

Ten seconds of film time later, it looks like Preston has suddenly declared victory – even though only two seconds of the game time has counted down since then. Additionally, you can hear audio of the referee counting to ten, but when it cuts back to Preston’s excitement, it shows that the ref has only counted to three! Did Preston buy a time machine with all of his money, too?!

5. Rad Mobile
Encino Man (1992)

Caveman, Link (Brendan Fraser), is brought back to life in the early 90’s when Pauly Shore and Sean Astin find him frozen in ice. He quickly becomes one of the hottest guys in school when his classmates pin him as an exotic foreigner, but his primitive brain still lives in the past and modern day distractions run rampant.

In this scene, Link is creating ketchup and mustard cave art on the protective glass of a hockey rink while one of his female admirers, Ella, tries to convince him to leave his “Estonian girlfriend” for her. Suddenly, a voice comes from behind them.

“Rad Mobile! Rad Mobile!” the 1990 driving game beckons to Link. Intrigued, he has to check it out.

Moments later, it cuts to a shot of him having the time of his life as he zooms through the streets of Kansas City. But wait… what’s this? If you look in the upper right corner of the screen, it says that he’s already on Round 10! How in the heck!? He eventually drops to 8th Rank and is slammed with a Game Over screen. But dang, he sure got far in a short time! Cheat codes, anyone?

4. Wild Gunman
Back to the Future Part II (1989)

“This is a video game!” young Elijah Wood declares from behind the cabinet of Wild Gunman (1984). “I got it working!”

The screen lights up and the two young boys run out to see what they’ve done. “My dad taught me about these,” one says to the other.

Meanwhile, 1985’s Marty McFly (disguised as 2015’s Marty Jr) walks over to the machine, excited to recognize something from his own time period. A former “crackshot,” Marty shows the kids how it’s done (they’re immediately turned off at the fact that you have to use your hands to play. “That’s like a baby’s toy!”)

Interestingly, there never was a Wild Gunman arcade version of the game that’s shown in the movie. The NES game was released in 1984 and used the NES Zapper peripheral. When Marty picks up the gun connected to the cabinet, it looks more like the gun used in the 1974 version of Wild Gunman which featured live action footage that players would have to react to appropriately. The full cabinet was also a beast of a machine, and it didn’t host any joysticks like the ones shown in Back to the Future Part II.

So, my only guess is that in Marty’s 2015 future, somebody created their own Arcade version of 1984’s Wild Gunman. In fact, it has already happened!

3. After Burner
Suburban Commando (1991)

“No way you’re winning the galaxy this time, Dragos!” shouts young Mark Wilcox (Michael Faustino) who is taking his frantic game of After Burner (1987) a little too seriously. Enter interstellar warrior Shep Ramsey (Hulk Hogan) to save the day.

“Use your phasers!” he screams to the distressed child.

“I can’t! I’m in hyperspace!” Mark responds.

“Then launch photon torpedos!” Shep retorts.

“You’re crazy! Dragos absorbs photons to get more power!” says Mark matter-of-factly.

“Impossible! I thought only Zennites could do that!!!” perplexes Shep.

“My shield’s failing!” Mark is nearly in tears.

“Try boosting your injectors,” gives another solution from Shep.

Feeling defeated, Mark decides that there’s no way he can win. “They’re out! I’m doomed! It’s over!”

“IT’S NEVER OVER!” Shep grabs the control stick and faces his enemy with pure determination.

“Forget it! No one can defeat Dragos!” Mark wails.

“That’s what they said about General Suitor,” Shep barks. “Give it up, Dragos! Give it up! Give it up!!!!”

The arcade cabinet begins to whir and in a flash of sparks, smoke rises up from behind the machine. Suddenly, a panel bursts open, and a small white flag protrudes from the back. It is done. Dragos has been defeated!

Of course, the best part of this scene is that NONE OF THIS actually happens in After Burner. The real game has the player commanding an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet that has to fly though eighteen stages of very much Earth-like territories. Additionally, many of these arcade cabinets featured a hydraulic seat, akin to a real cockpit, that would move in conjunction with the player’s actions. So maybe they hyperbolized a bit with this one, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.

2. Surf Ninjas
Surf Ninjas (1993)

Keno from the second Ninja Turtles movie (technically the first, too) and Rob Schneider from SNL team up with Keno’s younger bro, Adam, to defeat the evil….Leslie Nielsen? Wait. Seriously? I’m supposed to believe that the main funny guy from the Naked Gun series is an evil warrior named Colonel Chi? Okay, well, it’s a comedy and ninjas are super cool right now, so I’ll go with it. How do they do it?

Well, Adam just happens to own a copy of Surf Ninjas (also 1993) for his Sega Game Gear that can predict the future by showing them scenes in the game that will actually happen in real life. I’m not making this up. The Game Gear is what drives the plot forward for the entire movie. For example, in the game, they see a bunch of ninjas go into a building to kidnap a girl, and suddenly a bunch of people run out of a building nearby to where they are standing.

“Don’t worry, bro! I’ve played this level before.” Adam is confident that he knows how to handle an onslaught of fully-trained ninjas (with swords, I might add).

If this wasn’t enough to suspend all disbelief, Adam learns that he can select actions in the game that will come to fruition immediately afterward. In the very same scene, he chooses an octopus on his handheld (which costs a whopping 500 points to purchase), walks over to a fish tank, grabs an octopus, and then proceeds to open the helmet of his opponent so he can shove the cephalopod in his face (“Eat squid, Poncho!”).

When Keno suddenly is able to defeat all of the attackers, Adam notices that he beat his best score. “I love this game,” he declares!

Well, I played the real Surf Ninjas game for Game Gear at my cousin’s house, and it was absolute garbage. The gameplay was rigid, and every sound would interrupt the music because the system didn’t have enough power to process two noises at the same time. See it for yourself below:

Honorable mentions:

Mario Tennis
Runaway Bride (1999)

The music we hear during this scene is from the TITLE SCREEN! That’s a lot of extra movement for trying to select a new game.

Mortal Kombat: Deception
40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

Despite them using an N64 controller, this game was never on a Nintendo system!

Rampage: World Tour
The Beach (2000)

This game was made specifically for Game Boy Color, but…. nope!

Wolfenstein 3d
The Net (1995)

Don’t forget your red pen while you play this one.

Donkey Kong & Mortal Kombat
Billy Madison (1995)

No game was actually depicted here, but this exchange is glorious.

1. Rad Racer
The Wizard (1989)

“I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” While I’ve already mentioned the big reveal of Super Mario Bros 3 at the end of The Wizard, the glaring inconsistencies of that scene have already been discussed time and time again.

Lucas Barton shows off his Nintendo skills (interrupting a rousing game of Hollywood Squares) by donning the fabled motion-control device to play bit of Rad Racer (1987) for the traveling trio. He selects the 328 Twin Turbo car, and then dives right into the Sunset Coastline stage. What’s missing, of course, is the opportunity to show off Rad Racer’s stereoscopic 3d mode that required players to wear the old-fashioned red and blue 3d glasses while they played the game. RR‘s boppin’ soundtrack is also replaced by some edgy 80’s guitar music – you know, for drama. 30 seconds later and he’s done (the first course actually takes around two and a half minutes to complete). We all knew that this entire movie was just a big 90-minute ad for Nintendo. It only took the big N 17 years to finally perfect their motion control technology.

Anyway, Fred Savage isn’t impressed. “Just keep your power gloves off her, pal, huh?” as he puts his arm around his female companion, Haley.

Thanks for stopping by to read my article! What are some of your favorite memories of seeing games in movies? Can you think of others? Leave me a reply below to let me know! Also, be sure to follow and/or subscribe to my blog so you can have content delivered directly to your inbox the second it’s published!

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Published by erichagmann

Arranger / Pianist / Vocalist / Educator / Gamer

4 thoughts on “You Oughta Be in Pictures: Games in Movies

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