I must admit I’m not a huge video game nerd, I will say however that video game culture fascinates me. I worked in a shop for nearly three years that sold games and pop culture items so I’ve seen firsthand how obsessed people can be with escaping the real world for one of imagination…and can I blame them? I escape reality for two hours at a time in movies myself. Anyways that’s a long way of me saying this weekend a new movie comes out focusing on those kinds of people specifically in “Ready Player One” which is only the latest in a long line of actually pretty decent video game inspired films. While Hollywood has a hard time making actual video games into movies, they never seem to have difficulty transforming the love for games and the culture of gaming into a pretty effective movie concept. So before Steven Spielberg’s latest project hits theaters for Easter weekend I decided to look at similar movies that focused on video games as the inspiration for their plot. These are my picks for the Top 10 Video Game-Themed Movies.
For this list I looked at any film NOT based on a specific video game, but that utilized video game culture or video game themes purposefully in their plot and design. These can be movies that work a video game into the story or ones that incorporate video game styles into their plot with the intention of paying homage to the art and entertainment of games in general. I also considered movies that incorporated technology like virtual reality (which I consider a video game medium). If a movie didn’t feature a video game but was inspired by games then the better they captured the spirit of the theme the more likely they were to make this list.
In essence these aren’t just movies that video game players would love, but they are the best movies that speak to the geek in all of us and effectively play off the video game craze enough to create a compelling or inventive product for us to enjoy. I did avoid putting “The Matrix” on this list because it’s less about video games and more about the dangers of technology in general, but it deserves an honorable mention all the same.
What is your favorite movie inspired by video games? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “Ready Player One” this weekend.
10. “Edge of Tomorrow”
This 2014 science fiction hit might not be the closest thing resembling a video game, but it took its main concept directly from the medium. “Edge of Tomorrow” is known as “Live.Die.Repeat” in other countries and follows a soldier who inherits a time-reset ability from the aliens humanity is fighting during a deadly battle on a beach. With the help of a legendary soldier who once used the same ability, the soldiers battles the same aliens over and over again in an attempt to win the war once and for all. This concept of infinite lives and tries is one of the most basic themes in video games as players get many different attempts to defeat boss after boss and make it to the end intact. In fact, the concept inspired not just the movie but the book it was based on according to author Hiroshi Sakurazaka who said it was his resetting of video games to find a winning strategy that led to the idea for the story. While the movie itself is far from a direct depiction of video game culture, it takes a near-universal concept from these games and applies it to a real world setting making for one of 2014’s best mainstream films.
An underrated 2016 offering, “Nerve” focuses more on a modern gaming trend, reality games. Based on a 2012 novel of the same name, this film was actually ahead of its time as the concept of video games utilizing the real world wasn’t truly popularized until “Pokémon Go!” debuted for mobile devices mere weeks before this film’s debut. “Nerve” presents the existence of a truth or dare style mobile game that asks users to perform tasks in the real world in order to earn money from onlookers who dare them. The more they play the game the more popular they get and the higher the stakes become. The story presents the dangers such games could pose for the world today and considering that such reality-based games are now growing in numbers and popularity the possibility of one going overboard like the one in “Nerve” is becoming more and more possible. The story diverges into a conspiracy that takes the concept a bit off the rails, but for most of the movie “Nerve” serves as an entertaining warning about how games and reality probably don’t always mix and how our obsession with mobile gaming and garnering attention online could eventually become a dangerous addiction.
8. “Hardcore Henry”
While it’s not directly based on video games, “Hardcore Henry” was inspired by the use of first person perspective in video games. This trope was a big part of the conceptualization for this 2016 action gem. Following a man named Henry who has been modified with a camera in his eyes and goes on the warpath to save his wife from a super powered enemy, this entire film is in first person meaning we see and experience everything Henry does as he sees it. Many reviewers and even the makers of the film said that this was focused on drawing from the gamer crowd by adapting the same perspective players use in games like “Call of Duty” and many fans have noted the comparison which has given it somewhat of a cult following. Like “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Hardcore Henry” takes a common concept in video games and adapts it to a real world scenario putting viewers right in the middle of all the action as many of the best games tend to do. The only thing missing is a remote control so viewers can take control of Henry themselves and truly immerse themselves in the gunfights and car chases that make up the bulk of this fun film.
The 1999 film “Existenz” is the brainchild of science fiction and body horror God David Cronenberg and follows a game designer on the run from an assassin as she teams with a marketing trainee to test her latest virtual reality game in an era where bio-technical virtual reality has become THE form of video game entertainment. The story unfolds in a way that challenges the boundaries of reality and fantasy leaning heavily on a message that there needs to be a defined separation between the two. “Existenz” is a bit of a mind bender and the social commentary it presents was ahead of its time as it came about in the boom of three-dimensional games in the 90s and early 2000s. It actually might be more relevant today and in an odd twist the movie actually addresses its own criticism of video games in the final act giving it a fourth-wall breaking quality that makes it that much more thought provoking. It would probably be a lot more respected today if a film with a similar premise focusing more on technology as a whole rather than video games specifically hadn’t come out the same year…that movie was “The Matrix”.
6. “The Last Starfighter”
If you’ve played video games, whether it’s a MMO or a sports game, you’ve probably fantasized about what it would be like to live the game in real life. Well this 1984 film was one of several in ’83 and ’84 that explored this possibility. Focusing on a young teen named Alex who spends his free time playing a game called “Starfighter”, Alex discovers that the game is more than just a simulated experience. He was actually proving his ability to pilot a real ship and thus becomes a recruit in a battle for the fate of the real world counterpart of the game’s Frontier. While the film departs from its video game roots to become and epic space opera, “The Last Starfighter” remains one of the earliest popular movies to feature a video game in its concept and remains a fun piece of nostalgia to this day for its ability to bring a popular gamer fantasy to life. Like many films on this list it was ahead of its time and while the movie might not have been made with the gamer fantasy concept in mind the strides the gaming industry has made since “The Last Starfighter” premiered have helped it age quite well.
5. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”
The newest film on this list, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is one of the coolest video game themed movies you’ll ever see because it actually takes place inside a game. Picking up after the events of the original Robin Williams classic, “Welcome to the Jungle” sees four kids magically transported into a “Jumanji” video game taking on the personas of the avatars they chose to play when they started things up. Their adventure puts them face to face with numerous video game clichés, including character-based weaknesses, nonplayable characters, different levels and bosses, and, above all else, the concept of truly dying should they lose their allotted lives. In some ways it’s a basic video game film, but this makes it easy to follow thus it serves as an entertaining option for those unfamiliar with games and a fun tribute to the gamer community in general. Many people doubted whether or not this movie could truly live up to the lofty expectations considering the legacy of the original, but it more than proved its worth and even stands on its own as a fun adventure flick that puts its characters, and the audience, right in the middle of the action in a way few actual video games have ever managed to accomplish.
4. “War Games”
A 1983 classic, “War Games” features a young hacker who inadvertently accesses the WOPR, or War Operations Plan Response, a supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. Believing a war simulation to be a computer game, the hacker finds himself nearly starting World War III when he is unable to determine real world implications from in-game consequences. This film is among the most legendary of video game inspired movies and the fact that it came out in the early days of video games, only a month before the game console that would change the world, the Nintendo Entertainment System, was released, makes it all the more fascinating in its ability to predict the relevance of video games in culture. In fact an actual game based on the movie was released on the ColecoVision and other systems allowing fans to immerse themselves in part of the actual “games” from the film. “War Games” established a legacy as a must see for geeks and video game nerds everywhere and knowledge of the film has become somewhat of a right of passage. It also perfectly presented the need for strategy and creative thinking that is required to solve the puzzle and conflicts within a video game.
3. “Wreck-It Ralph”
The only animated movie on this list, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a 2012 Disney film that will get a sequel later this year, but the original quickly became a much beloved classic for video game lovers young and old. The film focuses on its titular character, a video game villain who finds himself an outcast in the society within the arcade where he is housed. As he tries to prove himself something more than a home-wrecking monster Ralph uncovers a conspiracy within another video game and attempts to right the wrongs within that game for a newfound friend. What makes this movie so fun and fascinating is that it pokes fun at many classic video game themes and tropes and offers an opportunity for the bad guy to shine. The style and visuals are also amazing tributes to video games of old and we even get licensed cameos from many video game villains and heroes including Bowser, Q*Bert and Sonic the Hedgehog. This Academy Award winner was a true blue unapologetic tribute to video games and video game culture and showed respect and appreciation for beloved games of the past that helped make the medium such a powerhouse. And, if nothing else, it perfectly utilizes the “Roger Rabbit” effect, bringing together characters we thought we’d never see on the big screen together from various video games and making them all feel like one big community. So cool!
2. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”
Sometimes just taking the feel of a video game and adapting it to film is enough to make it memorable. Take “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” for example. An amazing, colorful, immersive and entertaining offering from director Edgar Wright, this movie focuses on the titular hero as he fights off the seven evil exes of his newfound flame in order to win her heart once and for all and it’s all done in the style of a real-life video game. While the world around Scott seems to function as normal, he himself is a video game obsessed nerd and every fight feels like a natural boss fight from a game complete with special powers, video game sound effects, power ups and level ups, and to top it all off coins for Scott when he defeats his enemies. Scott must play each battle as if in an actual game and death is a real consequence. It’s probably the closest representation we’ll ever truly get to a world where reality does work like a video game and seeing it play out on screen is undeniably fun and nostalgic in many ways. For me, “Scott Pilgrim” is an underrated classic and is a rare film that is able to take a concept and revolutionize it to something truly original. If you love video games and comedic action this is the one for you. But, even my love of this film can’t help it top the granddaddy of all video game movies, which comes in at #1….
Before “Pokemon: The First Movie” became the first internationally recognized animated video game adaptation in 1998…before “Super Mario Bros.” became the first live-action video game adaptation in 1993…before Japan released the first animated video game adaptation in 1986…and before “War Games” and “Nightmares” became classics for video game fans everywhere in 1983…there was the granddaddy of them all. The first movie to ever feature video games as a major plot point. That was 1982’s Disney film “Tron” and, thankfully, not only did it introduce the world to the concept of a video game movie, it did it in the best way possible. One of the earliest movies to utilize heavy CGI, “Tron” focuses on an arcade game designer who gets sucked into the world he created, and he must fight his way out competing in the many challenges he designed for players within the game. While underappreciated at first, “Tron” has become an undeniable classic and its concept helped inspire many of the films on this list, including the forthcoming “Ready Player One”. While the 2010 sequel didn’t quite do the film’s legacy justice (look it up you’ll know why that’s a pun) the original is undeniably a legend of a film worthy of recognition at the top of this list. It’s not only one of the best video game movies in general, it’s the quintessential one that started a theme filmmakers have been trying to perfect ever sense.