28 videogame cameos in the movies
From the 80s to the present, here’s a closer look at how videogames have evolved, as seen through the filter of movie cameos…
What you’re about to glance through, gentle reader, is nothing less than a chronology of a remarkable three decades in cultural history. Well, this list could also be categorised as a harmless bit of nostalgia, and some of the entries have been designed specifically to provide a brief, geeky rush of recognition.
But also, this list of 25-or-so videogame cameos documents the medium’s irresistible rise, from the dingy arcades of the early 80s, via the bedrooms of young boys of the later years of the decade, and into the general population’s living rooms a further ten years on.
This list charts not only the evolution of graphics, sound and hardware, but also the changing perception of games from filmmakers – and how these once exotic yet simple distractions gradually filtered into our consciousness. And since we’ve restricted this list to the past 30 years (to prevent it from getting too long, if nothing else), we need to head off into the wastes of Antarctica, where our first videogame cameo lurks…
The Thing (1982)
MacCready and his friends may be stuck in the middle of nowhere with an unknowable alien threat lurking out in the snow, but at least their facility’s well stocked with entertainment. Mac himself has a computer chess program to lock intellectual horns with (it’s Sargon II, fact fans); there are video players on which to watch old game shows, while the recreation room has a pool table, a Williams pinball machine (called Heat Wave), and best of all, Atari’s classic coin-op, Asteroids Deluxe.
Sadly, the shape-shifting alien menace begins offing the film’s cast before we can see them getting to grips with the thing – though oddly, the virus computer simulation pored over by Wilford Brimley’s character bears more than a passing resemblance to the tumbling space rocks of Atari’s shooter. A deliberate design choice, or mere coincidence? Perhaps we’ll never know.
If you’re keen to see other Asteroids Deluxe cameos, look out for the machine in the cult sci-fi flick, Night Of The Comet, as well as the music video for Judas Priest’s Freewheel Burning.
Cultural significance: The Thing marks the first time an arcade cabinet has ventured out as far as the south pole – well, actually, it was a sound stage in Hollywood, but we’ll gloss over that.
The Tron (1982)
Unsurprisingly for a film both about and set within the world of videogames, Tron is absolutely packed with references to the then nascent medium. At the beginning, eagle-eyed game nerds can spot all kinds of coin-op cabinets lined up in the arcade belonging to Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) – though notice how he ignores all of them, and narcissistically plays the one he designed instead (that would be Space Paranoids).
The film’s best videogame cameo, though, is surely the one illustrated above. While the evil Sark (David Warner) makes one of his various tight-lipped speeches, Pac-Man’s familiar yellow form can be seen gulping away in the background. If you listen carefully, you can even hear the familiar sirens and gobbling noises which were a familiar sound in 80s arcades.
Cultural significance: That Tron’s the first movie about videogames is significant enough, but what’s remarkable about the Pac-Man cameo is that, when the film was being made, it’s unlikely that the filmmakers who dropped him in knew what a phenomenon he’d remain, years after the game’s arrival in 1980. Paku paku indeed.
Ah, WarGames. A film that managed to sum up not only a generation’s burgeoning fascination with computers, but also a hint of fear of what they might also bring in the future. Although Matthew Broderick’s character spends much of the film hacking into military computer systems, and then frantically trying to undo the chaos he’s accidentally caused, the bit that interests us the most is the arcade scene early on in the film.
Here, we’re treated to a taste of what an 80s arcade was like: there’s pop music coming out over the speakers, soft drinks dispensed from a counter, and a row of kids shoving quarters into arcade machines. And what an array of games: Ms Pac-Man, Jungle Hunt, Dig Dug, Gravitar and Tron, to name a few. Naturally, Broderick’s selected the best of the lot: Namco’s Galaga, inarguably one of the very finest 2D shooters ever created, and bettered only by one of its own sequels, Galaga 88.
Cultural significance: as well as immortalising Galaga forever on celluloid, WarGames was the first film to depict what would soon become an entire breed of tech-savvy, game obsessed youngsters. And providing hope to such fanatics everywhere, Matthew Broderick manages to earn the affection of Ally Sheedy, even though he spends much of his time staring at a computer screen.
Never Say Never Again (1983)
It’s important to remember that Atari’s Gravatar was brand spanking new when the Bond movie Never Say Never Again was being filmed, which might explain why a young Kim Basinger acts as though she’s walking among a forest of screaming badger ghosts in the film’s arcade sequence. “What in God’s name are these things? I’d better call my agent,” her expression seems to say.
Arcade machines mean nothing to Sean Connery, of course, who’s more interested in gaining Ms Basinger’s attention than pumping a few coins in the slot of Atari’s vector-based blaster.
Cultural significance: Gravitar had made movie cameos before (see WarGames, above, and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, which we’ll get to later), but it marks the first time an arcade machine had appeared alongside a Sean Connery wig.
The brief appearance of Atari’s arcade racer Pole Position is a good example of how little attention filmmakers paid to the nuances of videogames – something that still often holds true today. In the scene in question, part robot, part human boy Daryl impresses his new friend Turtle by notching up a highscore on the Atari 800 XL computer version of Pole Position – but notice how the game mysteriously speeds up until the screen’s filled with a flurry of pixels. In reality, Pole Position chugged along like an old Volvo with its handbrake on.
Cultural significance: with the Atari company undergoing considerable upheaval between 1984 and 1985, the appearance of Pole Position in D.A.R.Y.L. coincidentally marked the beginning of the end of the videogame dominance it had enjoyed in the console and arcade markets.
Death Wish IV: The Crackdown (1987)
There are some videogames with noises so distinctive, you don’t even have to see them to know precisely what they are. In Death Wish IV, a couple of scenes in an arcade are accompanied by the immediately recognisable sounds of Galaxian. This is in spite of the apparent absence of Namco’s 1979 shooter in any of the shots. Look carefully, and you’ll see Spy Hunter and Gravitar cabinets squatting behind Charles Bronson’s scowling face, and later on you might spot a gigantic poster for a pinball machine called Hercules if you’re quick enough.
Cultural significance: in line with the Death Wish series’ consistently reactionary storylines, The Crackdown depicted amusement arcades as dingy dens of iniquity where innocent younglings could potentially die from lethal doses of crack cocaine. Two years later, Sega would release a videogame called Crack Down in an act of snarky revenge. Possibly.
Bad Dudes Vs DragonNinja
“Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Ronnie?” asked the introductory text to Data East’s walking and punching simulator, Bad Dudes Vs DragonNinja. Unfortunately for Justin, the young son of Steve Martin’s character Gil, the answer’s no. When Justin asks why the hell Data East made their scrolling brawler so hard (I’m paraphrasing here), Gil quickly replies, “They’re bad dudes. That’s why they call the game Bad Dudes.”
Cultural significance: Parenthood marked the first time a world-famous comedian name-checked a side-scrolling beat ’em-up in a Ron Howard comedy drama.
NES Advantage Joystick
Ghostbusters II (1989)
If you were to take the helm of a Statue of Liberty brought to life with the power of ‘mood slime’, what would you use as a controller? Why, a NES Advantage joystick, of course.
Cultural significance: although released years earlier, the Nintendo Entertainment System really became a North American phenomenon in the late 80s and early 90s. And as we’ll see in the preceding entries, it was during this period that interest began to gradually swing away from the noisy amusement arcade, and towards the little grey NES boxes that sat under millions of American televisions.
Back To The Future II (1989)
Here’s a tiny yet important cameo from a couple of NES games in the marvellous Back To The Future II. When Marty McFly travels forward in time to 2015, he stumbles upon an antiques shop stuffed full of late-80s curios. Marty’s more interested in the Gray’s Sports Almanac sitting prominently at the front of the display, but for our purposes, take a look at the other items laid out in the shop window: there’s a cheeky little grey Mac Performa peeking out, and most pertinently, copies of Jaws, Jaws II and Burger Time for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
These apparently random items have more significance than is initially apparent; Jaws and its sequel were programmed by a studio called LJN, who made the tie-in video games for Back To The Future II and its sequel, as well as another Robert Zemeckis hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Cultural significance: possibly the first time a movie has suggested that old games and computers may one day become collector’s items – which they now are, of course.
Back To The Future II (1989)
Here’s another videogame cameo from Back To The Future II. This time, it’s the turn of Wild Gunman, a lightgun shooter for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The makers of the film have taken a few liberties with its content (the sounds are the same, but the graphics are completely different), and a dedicated Wild Gunman coin-op never existed – though it did make it into arcades as one of several games on Nintendo’s PlayChoice-10 machines.
Cultural significance: to the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a videogame has been used as a means to set up a film sequel; McFly’s demonstration of his gun slinging abilities (“Let me show ya, kid. I’m a crack shot at this”) is a foreshadowing of the cowboy themed Back To The Future III.
Super Mario Bros 3/Power Glove/Stuff
The Wizard (1989)
No other film exemplified Nintendo’s late-80s dominance better than The Wizard, which was effectively a cross between Barry Levinson’s Rainman and an extended videogame commercial. Within the space of six years, the industry once dominated by US companies such as Atari had shifted radically, with the videogame crash of 1983 providing the flashpoint for Nintendo’s meteoric rise.
The Wizard, then, was a 90-minute hymn to the success of Nintendo of America; its plot is based around a group of kids (among them an autistic boy with awe-inspiring joypad skills) and their journey to a videogame tournament in California. Along the way, they spend much of their time playing Nintendo games or gazing adoringly at various add-ons and peripherals.
The film’s absolutely stuffed full of game cameos, not least from those PlayChoice-10 cabinets mentioned earlier, which means you can catch glimpses of classics such as Metroid, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Ivan Ironman Stewart’s Super Off Road and Doki Doki Panic (sorry, Super Mario Bros 2).
If you’re patient enough, you’ll also be treated to the edifying sight of Christian Slater and Beau Bridges playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is quite wonderful:
The funniest cameo, though, comes from Nintendo’s ill-fated Power Glove. An ungainly peripheral which failed to live up to its promise, the commercial disappointment of the Power Glove meant that The Wizard was probably the first and last time anyone saw it.
Cultural significance: The Wizard marked the US debut of Super Mario 3, a game which would go on to become a highly-regarded phenomenon. With the line, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad,” the movie also marked the first time a company inadvertently insulted the product it was attempting to sell.
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
Included here for the sake of completeness more than anything, this Nightmare On Elm Street sequel contained a death scene in which Freddy Krueger uses a modified Power Glove to send a young victim to his doom…
Cultural significance: probably the first time a videogame related device was openly mocked in a movie. Though in fairness, the movie was no better than the peripheral it parodied. “Now I’m playin’ with power!” No Freddy. No you’re not.
RoboCop 2 (1991)
“Officer Duffy, take a seat.” In one scene from the somewhat disappointing RoboCop 2, our metal-clad hero is seen stomping around a typical period amusement arcade. Closer inspection reveals that the chamber is stuffed full of Data East coin-ops and pinball machines – the run-and-gun classic Midnight Resistance being the most prominent. The reason for this? Data East was the company responsible for the RoboCop arcade game and its sequel.
Sadly, this cameo appearance in RoboCop 2 marked the end of Data East’s heyday; its success waned with the popularity of arcades in the west, and after struggling finances through the 90s, the company closed its doors for good in 2003.
Cultural significance: the first instance of an arcade machine being knocked over by a cyborg policeman. Possibly.
Terminator 2 (1991)
It’s Terminator 2’s Galleria Arcade, where a young John Connor plays the classic nuclear war sim Missile Command (an obvious nod to the anti-nuke theme underpinning both this movie and the last). There’s also a bit where John enjoys a spot of After Burner. And there’s Space Invaders. And Trog. And Arch Rivals.
Cultural significance: Missile Command’s memorably gloomy ‘The End’ at the conclusion of each game was used to memorable effect in 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, but its usage in Terminator 2 is perhaps the most significant. The Cold War era threat of nuclear destruction, which permeated both Missile Command and the original Terminator, drew to a close in 1991 – the very year T2 appeared in cinemas.
Sonic The Hedgehog
Wayne's World (1992)
Take a close look at the snippet of Wayne’s World footage captured below, and you’ll clearly see a blue mammal rolling and bouncing around behind Noah Vanderhoff, the slow-witted arcade owner. It’s the Starlight Zone level from Sonic The Hedgehog, which would have been brand new when the movie was being filmed. The presence of UFO-like objects in the background have led some to suggest that the footage is from a beta version of Sonic. If this is the case, how did the filmmakers get hold of it? Mike Myers was unavailable for comment.
Cultural significance: it’s the big-screen debut of a videogame mascot which became ubiquitous at the start of the 90s. Sonic’s appearance may be the first time a videogame’s been used to make a joke at a film character’s expense, too – after all, Sonic The Hedgehog was a console game rather than a coin-op, so its presence in the Noah’s Arcade commercial may have been a way of underlining just how little its proprietor really knew about his chosen industry.
Super Mario Bros 3
Three Ninjas (1992)
This is the first of several toe-curling movies about three pre-teen ninjas, made at the height of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze in the early 90s. Jon Turteltaub directed it, who’s since carved out a niche as a maker of nice films for family audiences. At any rate, the most interesting thing about Three Ninjas, as far as this article’s concerned, is the cameo appearance from Super Mario Bros 3. Eagle-eyed viewers may note that the kid parked in front of it doesn’t appear to be playing – he’s just mashing buttons as a demo warbles away to itself. Disgraceful.
Cultural significance: it’s a late appearance for the Nintendo Entertainment System, since the 8-bit era had already given way to the 16-bit epoch by the time Three Ninjas came out. As a snapshot of early-90s childhood in North America, though, the scene illustrated above takes some beating: there’s a ninja scene painted on the wall, an indoor trampoline (shockingly, without a protective fence around it – dangerous times, the 90s), plus that once ubiquitous slab of grey plastic. God bless the NES.
Surf Ninjas/Sega Game Gear
Surf Ninjas (1993)
This children’s outing almost beats The Wizard in terms of cynical cash grabbing. Hollywood studio New Line made a deal with Sega of America to make Surf Ninjas, a videogame and movie which would be made concurrently, with one entity effectively serving as an advertisement for the other. This explains why, around half an hour into the film, one of the major characters is seen clutching a Sega Game Gear – the device, we learn, can be used to control real-world events. Assuming the notoriously energy-hungry handheld doesn’t run out of batteries, that is.
Cultural significance: a rare instance of the movie and videogame industries attempting to work harmoniously. The results on both sides of the creative fence were quite dire.
Street Fighter II
City Hunter (1993)
Martial arts genius Jackie Chan turned his attention to the world of videogames in his comedy manga adaptation, City Hunter. Chan’s collision with a Street Fighter II cabinet results in a fight sequence where both he and his opponent take on the characters of the game’s colourful combatants. It’s silly, funny, and actually far better than the dismal Street Fighter movie that dribbled out of America the following year.
Cultural significance: such a prominent reference to a videogame is proof of just how phenomenally popular Street Fighter II was in the early 90s. Indeed, it was probably the last arcade game to become a truly global success – the gigantic queues that formed in front of SFII and its derivations would gradually wane as the mid 90s approached, and by 2004, an arcade industry once worth around $7 billion had shrunk to just $866 million.
Unknown Konami handheld
Carver's Gate (1995)
At some point in the mid 90s, a prop designer on this low-budget sci-fi movie had to come up with a futuristic gadget to place in the hands of lead actor, Michael Paré. Assuming that no one would notice, the prop designer took one of Konami’s handheld games and stuck a few lights and plastic buttons on its case. It’s difficult to tell which of Konami’s games it is – there were several, all based on Konami arcade and console properties, including Gradius, Contra and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but its distinctive shape is immediately recognisable.
“Carver holds the future of mankind in his hands,” the trailer’s voice-over man tells us. The future of mankind, it seems, was designed by Konami.
Cultural significance: none.
Sega Game Gear
Rumble In The Bronx (1995)
It’s always nice to see Sega’s battery-munching Game Gear on the big screen, if only for a few seconds. The little kid in Jackie Chan’s Rumble In The Bronx seems to be really enjoying the experience of playing one, too – which is quite remarkable, since there isn’t a cartridge in the back of it.
Cultural significance: it’s the only instance in cinema history of a martial arts legend giving a handheld console to a disadvantaged child. Hearteningly, the kid resisted the temptation to throw the thing back at Jackie and demand a Game Boy instead.
NHL All-Star Hockey
Layabout character Brodie (Jason Lee) is spotted playing NHL All-Star Hockey in Kevin Smith’s 1995 cult favourite, Mallrats. “Breakfast? Breakfast, schmrekfest,” Brodie says to his girlfriend Rene, played by Shannen Doherty. “Look at the score. I'm only in the middle of the second, and I'm winning 12 to two. Breakfasts come and go, Rene.”
Cultural significance: by the mid 90s, videogames were undergoing a change in public perception. The arrival of the PlayStation brought the medium out of arcades and kids’ bedrooms and into the living rooms of trendy 20-somethings. Mallrats is the first entry on this list to feature an adult (a cool slacker adult at that) playing a videogame.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Doom II – along with its predecessor and Wolfenstein 3D – was one of the most important videogames to appear since Space Invaders. Not only did these games define the first-person shooter genre, but they also established the PC as a unique and vital gaming platform, with Doom’s open, editable design allowing users to create their own maps and modifications.
How odd, then, that the one-of-a-kind 90s black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank should feature a Doom II coin-op – such a thing didn’t exist, so the cab must have been constructed especially for the movie. Still, its placement provides a decent, fun gag, in which a convenience store owner is so engrossed in the game that he completely misses the screaming gunfight taking place behind him.
Cultural significance: like the Street Fighter II cameo in City Hunter, Doom II’s presence here shows just how prominent the game was at the time. The fake coin-op is also quite symbolic, if you want to view it that way; the cabinet referencing back to an industry on the wane, the game inside pointing the way to a future dominated by first-person shooters. But that’s probably being a bit pretentious.
Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
It’s the ultimate horror comedy, and a pivotal movie for director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The classic shooter Timesplitters 2 gets a cameo, too, since we see the game running on a PlayStation 2 sitting in the flat shared by Shaun and his friends Pete and Ed. Sharp-eared fans will also have noticed that a bit of Timesplitters 2 music (from the Scrapyard level) can be heard in one key scene.
Cultural significance: the defining image of videogames in the 80s and early 90s was of kids with bowl-cuts hunched over Nintendo Entertainment Systems or arcade machines. By the 2000s, that image had been replaced by the one established here: two slacker guys, lounging on a sofa, killing things on a PlayStation 2.
We’re also at a point where videogames are influencing the work of a new generation of writers and filmmakers; Shaun Of The Dead was inspired by an episode of Spaced (called Art) where Simon Pegg’s character suffered zombie-filled hallucinations after playing too much Resident Evil 2. On a somewhat related topic, the monsters in Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block were inspired by some similar looking creatures in the 16-bit era classic, Another World.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance
40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
Here’s a cameo that’s strikingly similar to the one in Shaun Of The Dead’s Timesplitters 2 appearance the year before. The difference, though, is that Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance’s cameo is presented with less geek savvy than the one in Shaun; note how Seth Rogen’s character appears to be playing the game with a third-party N64 controller. MK: Deadly Alliance was programmed for the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube, but not the N64. “Geek fail”, as I believe the kids all say these days.
Cultural significance: the Shaun Of The Dead paragraph about slacker cool applies. By now, movies have established a new gamer stereotype: the lazy man child, who prefers to sit around reading comics and playing games to going out and seizing life by the horns (which sounds just great to us). We should point out, too, that this scene contains a NES cameo; it’s sitting on a shelf, wires wrapped around it, unloved.
Shadow Of The Colossus
Reign Over Me (2007)
Shadow Of The Colossus is one of the most atmospheric and moving games ever made, so it’s fitting that its usage in the 2007 drama Reign Over Me was so sensitively handled. Adam Sandler plays Charlie, who’s grieving over the loss of his family during the 9/11 tragedy. Cutting himself off from the outside world, Charlie finds a release in Shadow Of The Colossus – the act of felling towering giants, it seems, provides its own kind of therapy.
Cultural significance: it’s a rare instance of an intelligently employed videogame cameo. The story of how Shadow ended up in the movie, instead of the generic alien shooter as originally scripted, is a fascinating one, as captured by Kotaku.
Gears Of War
Die Hard 4 (2007)/The Hurt Locker (2008)
Two cameos for the price of one here, since Gears Of War makes a brief appearance in both Die Hard 4 and The Hurt Locker. The Die Hard cameo was probably a nod to director Len Wiseman’s intended Gears movie adaptation, which has been trapped in development hell since 2008.
In The Hurt Locker, we see a young soldier blasting away on the game while stationed in Iraq. As pointed out by dozens of blogs since, there’s only one with this scene: the film’s set in 2003 or thereabouts, but the Xbox 360 wasn’t released until 2005, and Gears didn’t come out until 2006.
Cultural significance: The Hurt Locker presents us with the first appearance of a cover shooter in a Best Picture Oscar film. Gears Of War, it seems, is the first game to ever leap back through time, like a post-modern take on the Philadelphia Experiment.
The Legend Of Zelda
Scott Pilgrim Versus The World (2010)
A film loaded with a veritable avalanche of great geeky references, not least to The Legend Of Zelda – you can read an entire feature devoted to Scott Pilgrim Easter eggs here.
For the purposes of this article, though, the best Zelda cameo is surely the use of a choral version of Zelda’s Great Fairy’s Fountain song. Providing the backdrop for one of Scott’s dream sequences, it’s enough to make a geek’s spine tingle.
Cultural significance: videogames are now freely referenced in movies of all kinds. Just look at the nods to Street Fighter II, The Clash At Demonhead, Pac-Man, Zelda and Dance Dance Revolution in Scott Pilgrim, or to cite a more recent example, the delightful Galaga gag in this year’s Avengers.
Wii Sports Boxing
Another Earth (2011)
Like Shadow Of The Colossus’ appearance in Reign Over Me, the brief Wii Sports Boxing cameo in the indie sci-fi movie Another Earth is a sensitive, emotional one. The film sees a guilt-ridden young girl (Brit Marling) become romantically involved with a composer (William Mapother) whose family were killed in a car accident years earlier. What Mapother’s grief stricken character doesn’t know is that the girl was responsible for the crash.
In one key scene, the two bond over a game of Wii Sports Boxing. It’s a simple yet touching moment, as the characters work out some of their respective guilt and anger in a flurry of waving arms.
Cultural significance: it’s example of how videogames have gradually emerged from the bedrooms of children, and into our collective everyday lives. As this list has hopefully demonstrated, games have come a long way from the slightly weird, bleepy things favoured by kids and nerds.
By now, games have a history that is almost as rich and familiar as cinema itself.