In Pixels, Adam Sandler and a group of former video game champions take on jumbo sized 8-bit video game characters that have invaded the earth. As off the wall as that concept sounds, it’s not the weirdest merger between video games and TV/film, and it’s certainly not the first. Here are some of the most noteworthy moments in movies and TV that celebrated video games and the characters that played them.
Flynn, a video game engineer, played by Jeff Bridges, finds himself scanned into a digital world, where he’s forced to play gladiatorial games in order to survive. The long-beloved sci-fi classic, which features a notorious video game Easter Egg, eventually spawned a sequel, Tron: Legacy, in 2010, as well as the TV series Tron: Uprising in 2012.
On a search for the latest video games that aren’t yet released to the public, David (Matthew Broderick) ends up finding a back door to the military mainframe computer known as the WOPR, or War Operation Plan Response. While David thinks he’s playing a simple strategy game, it turns out he may be setting the stage for an actual global thermonuclear war.
The employees and patrons of a town’s lone video arcade band together to fight back against an evil businessman looking to shut them down. Joysticks also licensed the use of Atari’s Pac-Man, along with gameplay footage of as-yet unreleased Super Pac-Man in the film’s climactic video game-heavy showdown.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Finding himself in a go-nowhere life, Alex takes solace in his trailer park’s one escape, the video game Starfighter. After he earns the all-time high score, he learns it was actually a recruitment device for an intergalactic alliance meant to save the galaxy from evil invaders. This film also became the mile-marker for every arcade-dwelling kid who saw it growing up.
The Wizard (1989)
Once Corey (Fred Savage) discovers that his emotionally distant brother, Jimmy, has an incredible talent for video games after scoring more than 50,000 points while left alone playing Double Dragon. The two then venture cross country to get Tate to compete in Video Armageddon, a huge tournament out west that promises a huge cash prize. The (more or less) two-hour Nintendo commercial also starred child star-come-rock star Jenny Lewis as Haley.
The Simpsons, “Moaning Lisa” (1990)
After being repeatedly humiliated by Bart while playing Super Slugfest, even giving him nightmares, Homer goes to the local arcade to enlist the help of gaming wizard Howard. Quarter after quarter is spent until he believes he’s acquired the skills needed to defeat Bart. Once he goes home to challenge him, he once again finds the plug pulled on even his simplest aspirations.
Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, “Jerry: Portrait of a Video Junkie” (1991)
Parker and Mikey grow increasingly concerned over Jerry, who’s penchant for video games has become an addiction, causing him to withdraw from everything and everyone around him. I wonder what they’d say about kids today and their damn smartphones.
Taking place in the virtual city of Mainframe, ReBoot was was not only technologically groundbreaking as the first all computer-generated animation, it was also amazingly high-concept. Each episode involved an unseen character called The User, who by playing a game, a game cube would descend on a part of Mainframe. The hero, Bob, would then reboot himself into one of the game’s characters before entering the gamescape to defeat The User, thus saving the day.
NewsRadio, “Arcade” (1996)
Dave is horrified to learn that after removing Bill’s beloved sandwich machine, it ends up being replaced by Stargate Defender, a game that occupied a considerable amount of his life. It’s not long before he’s once again dangerously obsessed, thanks to his all-too personal approach to playing.
Seinfeld, “The Frogger” (1998)
After finding out that their old high school hangout Mario’s Pizza is closing, George acquires their old Frogger arcade cabinet once he learns he still holds the game’s high score. The problem arises (“why does there always have to be a problem?”) in trying to figure out how to move it without losing George’s high score, which ends with one of the shows best homages.
Similar to his 1983 film Videodrome, David Cronenberg again examines the human relationship with technology, this time focusing video games. After a botched assassination attempt, a top virtual reality game designer (Jennifer Jason Lee) and her marketing trainee (Jude Law) go underground to test if her newly designed game, eXistenZ, has been damaged. Along the way, the line between reality and virtual reality becomes increasingly blurred.
South Park, “Make Love, Not Warcraft” (2006)
Immersed in World of Warcraft, the boys find themselves unable to complete quests, thanks to a high-level player who continues to troll them. After a failed attempt to bring him down, Cartman recruits Stan, Kyle and Kenny to hide out in the game’s forrest, killing boars to gain enough levels to defeat their infuriating opponent. The episode alternates between the typical South Park animation and fully rendered graphics resembling the game, a similar story was done by The Simpsons the following year, so, for once, no one could claim, “Simpsons did it!’
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
A 2007 documentary following the quest of gamer Steve Wiebe to unseat reigning champ Billy Mitchell as the all-time high-scoring player on Donkey Kong. Despite the film causing some controversy regarding it’s authenticity, a sequel has been discussed since the first film’s release.
After perfecting technology that can replace human brain cells that allows gamers to control live human beings, programmer Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) develops an entire game platform called Slayers, a real-life 3rd-person shooter. Enter John “Kable” Tillman (Gerard Butler), the longest-surviving character in the game.
Bob’s Burgers, “Burgerboss” (2012)
After having the game Burgerboss installed in his restaurant, Bob’s rival, Jimmy Pesto, takes the high score before entering his name as BOB SUX. Desperately wanting to take it off the scoreboard, Bob plays the game to the point he develops carpal tunnel, and after enlisting the help of expert gamer Darryl (Aziz Ansari), he eventually runs wild in a local arcade thanks to painkiller-induced hallucinations.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Disney’s reference-packed love letter to video game culture and characters involves Ralph, who finds himself in the midst of an identity crisis. As he struggles to become the hero, he ends up wreaking havoc throughout his world.
Community, “Digital Estate Planning” (2012)
After Pierce’s father dies, he and the rest of the study group must participate and win the video game Journey to the Center of The Hawkthorne before he can claim inheritance. While they’re foiled at first by his father’s old assistant, Gilbert Lawson, Abed’s video game savvy, along with his love for its character Helga, helps them ensure their victory.
Atari: Game Over (2014)
Going back to where it all started, Atari: Game Over looks at the heyday of Atari, and its absolute dominance at the dawn of the home video game era. It also investigates into the once popular urban legend of the video game adaption of E.T., which was said to have bankrupted the company, creating such an embarrassment that the company simply buried all unsold copies in a New Mexico landfill.