It’s impossible to watch Disney’s new 3D computer animated movie, Wreck-It Ralph, and not think back to the glory days of arcades — assuming, of course, you are old enough to have lived through that era. While arcades still exist in some form today through places like Chuck E. Cheese, Dave & Buster’s, and the odd forgotten corner of an aging mall, gaming has migrated to the home and portable screen.
That sense of arcade nostalgia is central to the upcoming film Wreck-It Ralph, which tells the story of an arcade game’s Donkey Kong-esque villain deciding that after decades of destruction, he no longer feels content to simply play his role as the heel to the player controlled avatar of Fix-It Felix, Jr. Despite attending bad guy self help groups for support and discussing his plight with numerous well-known game enemies, Ralph yearns for the life of a hero and escapes his lot, jumping from one game to another in search of something that will make him feel complete. But although Ralph’s intentions are noble, his actions lead to consequences that threaten the entire arcade.
Brimming with big name talent, most of the cast and crew of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s latest CG spectacle actually lived through the arcade waves of the ‘70s and ‘80s that saw games like Pong, Pac-Man, and Battle Zone usher in the next generation of entertainment.
“My favorite video game memory would be the first time I put a quarter into a Space Invaders machine at the bowling alley,” said John C. Reilly (Cyrus, Step Brothers), who brings Ralph to life in the film. “After a life of pinball machines, Skee-Ball, and wild bowling, it was pretty cool to suddenly be thrust into the future.”
Jack McBrayer (30 Rock, A Thousand Words), who plays Felix in the film and also appeared with Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) , said he sought out good grades at school because his parents would reward him with video games.
“I have to say going to the arcade on report card day was the best,” said McBrayer. “You get your report card and go to Super Scooper. You’d get three tokens for every A you got, two tokens for every B, and nothing for a C. It was just fun to be at the arcade. That’s where all the cool games were, like Dragon’s Lair and also Punch-Out.”
“I got Cs in school so I never played,” quipped Jane Lynch (Glee, The Three Stooges, who stars as Sergeant Calhoun, the star of Hero’s Duty, a shooter that Ralph finds himself in. “I’m not a big gamer; I haven’t been. I got a whole education doing this movie.”
Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore (multiple episodes of the Simpsons and Futurama) joked that he spent his entire life, one quarter at a time, preparing for this film. And it shows. Wreck-It Ralph offers a nostalgic look back at an 8-Bit era, while also traversing the advances in interactivity over the decades since.
“The game that my character, Sergeant Calhoun, is in is like a virtual experience,” said Lynch. “It’s a first-person shooter game. It’s so realistic. It feels like you’re in the middle of a war. It’s really violent. There’s one scene where Ralph comes into the camera and says, ‘When did video games become so violent?’”
“But it’s true,” said McBrayer. “I have a nephew who’s seven years old and he’s doing stuff… I don’t even understand the controls anymore, because back in my day it was press a button, move the stick. It ain’t like that no more.”
Throughout Ralph’s quest for a token, an object that he feels is the only way to convince his co-workers to see beyond the villainous persona he has been created for, different eras of video games are celebrated throughout the film. Along with countless cameos from several established gaming characters, the film created several titles for Ralph to explore. There’s the first-person shooter Hero’s Duty, the colorful kart racer Sugar Rush, and of course the 8-Bit classic that Ralph calls home, Fix-It Felix, Jr. All three games can actually be played on the film’s website, and Moore and producer Clark Spencer even had Fix-It Felix built as a real arcade cabinet game that was distributed for the movie.
“I actually thought the Fix-It Felix game was pretty fun,” said Reilly. “You can also play it online, which is also pretty fun. It’s pretty simple, but I like simple games. I’m a big checkers fan. I think some of the modern video games are more complicated than they need to be. I still like games like… just chasing other people in tanks is still pretty fun. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that for me.”
“I love that it looks retro and the plastic over it is cracked, like it’s been around since 1982,” said Lynch. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s very simple. It moves very linearly, and the sound, ‘bop bop bop bop,’ as opposed to Hero’s Duty. Yeah, it’s a great game.”
The filmmakers have created a video game homage with Wreck-It Ralph. Characters from dozens of classic games like Pac-Man and Street Fighter II will be easy to spot, but the movie is crammed with dozens of such references, so many that it will certainly take multiple viewings to catch all the references and cameos.
“A lot of it was just recalling the games we played, like Q*bert shows up, and you have all these cameos from game characters,” said McBrayer. “Then the Game Central Station is just a mixer of sorts, and you’re seeing all these familiar faces from way back. That’s pretty fun.”
The film focuses most of its attention on the original characters that these actors bring to life, allowing for an engaging storyline that would connect with gamers and non-gamers alike. Actors had different inspirations for their virtual counterparts though, and while some turned to gaming, others looked to their own personal experiences that go beyond gaming.
“I just recalled my days of Atari 2600 way back in the day, which was kind of appropriate because Fix-It Felix, Jr. is an 8-Bit guy,” said McBrayer. “Think back to your Frogger and your Burger Time, and there you are.”
Reilly found inspiration for Ralph from himself, from the script, and through some of the large, kind-hearted men he has known in his life like uncles that used to play football. Big, hulking guys who are real sweethearts underneath, much like the character of Ralph.
But while the movie celebrates video game technology and the evolution of an industry that began as a novelty and has grown, and continues to grow, into one of the biggest industries in entertainment, not everyone is ready to log in for some game time.
“I think video games have come a little too far, frankly,” said Reilly. “This whole immersive thing of video games, where people are online with each other, talking to each other, and living in these worlds; I think we’re dangerously close to a Matrix-like situation where people have become veal calves in suspended animation. Just using their brains to play games and sucking in nutrients through a straw.”
Wreck-It Ralph‘s immersion into the world of video games cuts both ways though. While the film will use several game references, the film is bleeding into gaming. Sega is offering gamers a more family-friendly multiplayer racing offering with its new Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which actually features Ralph as a playable character.
“I say best of luck to him on that,” said Reilly. “I was not consulted or involved in that part of Ralph’s life, but who knows, maybe I will be. Never say never.”
Activision is also working with Disney Interactive to create movie tie-in games for Nintendo’s Wii, DS, and 3DS, to be released in conjunction with the film. And that’s just the beginning of what this unique new universe opens up, beyond potential movie sequels.
“It’s limitless,” said Lynch. “Even in the movie, they’ve created all these very distinct worlds. The fun part for me was when these characters go and visit these other worlds that they’re not used to and have no experience with, and to see how they fare in those games. It’s a challenge for everyone.”
With the free online versions of the games found in the film, along with the Fix-It Felix arcade stand-up accompanying the aforementioned Wreck-It Ralph games, there’s plenty to play around with before and after the movie opens on November 2. If Disney magic turns Ralph into a Thanksgiving blockbuster, it’s likely this cast will be back for more virtual adventures in the near future.