With Ready Player One now in cinemas, and revolving around a contest that takes place in virtual reality, we thought it would be a good time to look back at video game movies. Not films based on video games mind, as those are usually pretty bad. But movies inspired by the mechanics, components, conventions, and technology of games. With the following our favourites, in chronological order…
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Wanting to cash-in on interest surrounding the forthcoming Rollerball, producer Roger Corman fast-tracked this futuristic sports movie about a murderous road race. Organised by the government as a blood sport to both entertain and pacify the people, drivers won points for hitting pedestrians. And the simplicity of that grim premise appealed to arcades, with a Death Race game — unconnected to the movie — released in 1976. Controversial 1997 smash-hit Carmageddon was also inspired by the cult classic.
In 1982 home computers were quickly becoming all the rage, and Disney wanted to cash in on the trend, with Tron the result. Jeff Bridges plays a programmer transported into the mainframe of a computer. Here, he participates in games that resemble what families were playing at home. Most obviously Pong, the title that inspired writer-director Steve Lisberger in the first place. Response to Tron was mixed and the box office disappointing, but a cult built up around the film over the years, resulting in a sequel being released in 2010. On the gaming front, an arcade version was released by Bally Midway in 1982, followed by a slew of sequels and spin-offs on computers and consoles.
Cloak & Dagger (1984)
This spy movie for kids stars Henry Thomas as a young teen obsessed with the Cloak & Dagger game of the title. He embarks on a real-life adventure with help from the game’s lead character, Jack Flack. It’s a terrific movie, with a unique behind-the-scenes story. Atari was developing an arcade game called Agent X at the time, and when they heard about the movie decided to collaborate with the filmmakers. The game’s name was duly changed and appears in the feature, with both titles helping to promote each other. A ploy which became an industry norm soon after.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
If you haven’t seen The Last Starfighter, remedy that immediately, as it’s one of the unsung gems of the 1980s. And a film that actually revolves around a fictional arcade game. The Last Starfighter machine is less a game, however, and more a test to find gunners for a galactic war. The film’s hero Alex Rogan achieves the high-score, and so ends up doing battle with aliens in space. An arcade version of The Last Starfighter was promised during the end credits, but Atari abandoned their plans when they saw the finished flick. We’re still stinging from that one.
The Running Man (1987)
Based on a 1982 Stephen King novel of the same name (written using the pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man revolves around a TV show in which convicted criminals — or “runners” — are chased down by killer “stalkers.” With nicknames Subzero, Buzzsaw, Dynamo and Fireball. Making them less movie villains, and more colourful end-of-level bosses from a video game. The film’s hero — played by Arnold Schwarzenegger — must defeat each one to reach the end of the show with his life intact. While the film was fun, a deeply average Running Man video game was released in 1989, while 1990’s Smash TV was also clearly inspired by the movie.
Die Hard (1988)
One of the greatest action movies of all-time is also a pretty good celluloid take on the side-scrolling platform games that dominated the industry in the late 1980s. Though in this case, the protagonist goes up and down the building as well as side-to-side. Bruce Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop trapped in a high-rise office block the night terrorists/thieves take the place hostage. McClane kills the terrorists one-by-one, as if working his way through a violent platform game, before finally reaching the big bad in the shape of Hans Gruber. Predictably, the film — and its sequels — inspired a series of pretty bad Die Hard side-scrolling platformers. On the film front however, if you like this kind of thing, check-out The Raid (2011) or Dredd (2012) for more action-packed tales of men taking out bad guys as they work their way up buildings. Or Old Boy (2003) for a side-scrolling sequence that needs to be seen to be believed.
The Game (1997)
A video game that’s played “on rails” is one where the journey the player takes, and the things they see or do, are pre-determined. This was largely due to technical limitations in the early days of gaming. But the format is still used today, when the makers of a game want the player to have a specific experience. That’s exactly what happens to Michael Douglas’s character in The Game. Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an investment banker whose brother gifts him a “game” run by a mysterious company called Consumer Recreation Services. Soon strange things start happening to Nicholas, his life spiralling out of control. With Nicolas slowly realising that his own life is now on rails.
Existenz examines the way in which immersive games might be damaging to our health. David Cronenberg’s dark and disturbing film is set in the near future, when games are mainlined into players via “bio-ports” that have been surgically inserted into their spines. The plot revolves around the war between rival developers Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, with a group of rebel “realists” doing battle with both in their efforts to put a stop real-world “distortions.” Which happen thanks to a new virtual reality game called eXistenZ, wherein fantasy and reality become merged. Being a Cronenberg film, it has much to say about how we interact with games and technology. While also featuring lashings of queasy body horror.
The Matrix (1999)
A fun feature of video games is being able to acquire skills, knowledge, speed, power, weapons and the like with just the touch of a button. In 1999, The Matrix made that fantasy a reality. Kind of. Keanu Reeves plays computer programmer Neo, who discovers that intelligent machines waged a war against the humans, won, and are now harvesting humanity for biometric power. With ‘The Matrix’ the simulated world that pacifies the human world. Neo learns to control what’s happening on this artificial plane, downloading kung fu and then bending the laws of physics to pull off some awesome action movie manoeuvres. He also develops superhuman abilities, eventually stopping bullets in mid-air, then flying off, in the ultimate mic-drop.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
This isn’t just a great documentary about video games. It’s also one of the best documentaries ever made. As it revolves around a genuine battle between good and evil. The good guy is Steve Wiebe, for whom little has gone well in life. But Steve’s Donkey Kong skills have resulted in his having a final shot at glory in the shape of the all-time high-score. Billy Mitchell is the villain of the piece. A gaming legend who has topped the scoring charts since records began, he stands in the way of Steve and success. And he uses any means necessary to stop him. We won’t say any more for fear of spoiling the film’s many shocks and surprises. Just watch it.
Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
2015’s Hardcore Henry was a first-person shooter brought to life via a film that maintains a first-person viewpoint throughout. But it wasn’t very good. 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up doesn’t employ that conceit, but it’s a much better celluloid take on the video game genre. Clive Own plays a drifter who, within the first few minutes, has delivered a stranger’s baby, and stabbed a man in the face with a carrot. He picks up a pistol, and spends the rest of the movie shooting bad guys while protecting said baby. It’s ridiculous stuff, but captures the twisted joy of shoot ’em up games. For more of the same, check out 2014’s John Wick and its awesome 2017 sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Video games and video game conventions have influenced director Edgar Wright’s work throughout his career, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is perhaps the best example of that synergy. The film is first and foremost a comic book brought to life, being an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series about a guy having to defeat his girlfriend’s evil exes. But video game staples are everywhere. Proceedings kick off with the Universal logo appearing 8-bit style. Scott receives points for every ex defeated. Zelda, Tetris, Double Dragon, Sonic, Street Fighter and many, many more are referenced or discussed. Gideon Graves turns into millions of coins when he’s finally destroyed. And Scott even receives an ‘Extra Life’ when he defeats Kyle and Ken. But more on extra lives further down the page…
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Another documentary, Indie Game: The Movie provides a riveting insight into the making of independent games. The film focuses on Phil Fish as he works on Fez, Jonathan Blow’s efforts to turn Braid into a hit, and Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they put the finishing touches to Super Meat Boy. Indie Game charts the highs and lows of development, capturing the blood, sweat and tears of this talented group. In the process providing a fascinating insight into creators for whom gaming isn’t a just a job; it’s a way of life.
Wreck-It-Ralph is a hugely entertaining animated feature that pokes fun at the games industry while at the same time paying homage to it. John C. Reilly voices the title character, villain from the Donkey Kong-like arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr. Tired of being the bad guy, Ralph leaves the game and journeys to Hero’s Duty (where first-person shooters are satirised) and Sugar Rush (where driving games are sent up). It’s a fun film that features an important message about being yourself. And cameos from the likes of Pac-Man, Q*bert, Frogger, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a whole bunch of Street Fighter characters.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Back in the day, if your character died in an arcade game, you could simply pump more coins into the cabinet to bring them back to life. Encouraging those playing to learn from their mistakes. This convention was carried over into games on the home systems, though it’s rarely seen in films. Though there are a few fine examples. Groundhog Day (1993) finds Bill Murray living the same day over-and-over again until he gets it right. Franka Potente repeats the same 20 minutes in Run Lola Run (1998) in an efforts to save her boyfriend. And Source Code (2011) features Jake Gyllenhaal re-living the last few minutes of a commuter’s life to stop a train being blown up. But Edge of Tomorrow is the film that has the most game-like fun with the concept. Following an alien invasion, Tom Cruise is caught in a loop that sends him back every time he gets killed. Which is a lot. But like a gamer, his character is able to hone his skills each time, turning Cruise into the ultimate warrior, and enabling him to save the world.