Veteran GameRoom readers may recall a column we inherited in 1998. It was called Movie Watch and originally appeared in the defunct Coin-Op Classics magazine. It was bequeathed to us and written by Dick Bueschel, his ongoing chronicle of coin-op appearances in movies. It was interactive, bolstered by reader submissions that Dick would integrate with his own discoveries. Its first and only appearance in our pages was March 1998 shortly after Coin-Op Classics ceased publishing. Sadly, the column was cut short by Dick's untimely death the following month.
Movie Watch was a popular column, and it was always my intention to revive it if a qualified writer could be found. And now one has. Scott Voisin joins the GameRoom stable of scribes as we resurrect the Bueschel legacy with the all-new Screen Watch, re-dubbing it so to include coin-op appearances in movies and television. Screen Watch will appear this month and next month, then continue as a bi-monthly feature.
-- Tim Ferrante
Slots, jukeboxes, pinball, arcade games... All of them have a rich background in cinema history. And by background, I really do mean "background". The majority of films that utilize these collectibles do so only as props and set decorations. For instance, moviegoers watched in awe as Tom Cruise romanced Kelly McGillis and kicked enemy butt in 1986's Top Gun, but how many of them do you think noticed the Wurlitzer 1050 jukebox in the final scene? I'd bet not a lot, but if you spotted it, then I think this column is for you.
To kick things off, let's start with a relative rarity in the marriage between cinema and coin-op. It's not often the games actually play a role in a movie's plot, but 1989's Back to the Future Part II is a notable exception. For those not familiar with the adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the time-traveling DeLorean, Part II begins in the year 2015. One of the futuristic places Marty visits is the Cafe 80's, a retro-theme restaurant showcasing items and images that defined the decade (complete with a computerized Ronald Reagan reading the menu specials ala Max Headroom). But the main attraction in this particular diner is Wild Gunman, a point-and-shoot video game released by Nintendo in 1984. About 14 minutes into the movie, Marty watches two kids trying to figure out how to play, and he attempts to impress them by showing off his quick-draw shooting ability. He grabs the black plastic revolver chained to the machine and instantly kills four desperados. The children of the future, however, are less than enthusiastic ("You mean you have to use your hands? That's like a baby's toy!"). One can only hope the real youngsters in 2015 will be a little more appreciative of their coin-op heritage.
What makes Back to the Future Part II different (aside from actually being a good sequel) is that Wild Gunman isn't just window dressing. It's used to show that Marty has obviously spent many hours -- and a small fortune in quarters -- mastering it, a plot detail that comes full circle in 1990's Back to the Future Part III, where Marty is stranded in the old West and is forced to rely on his gunslinging skills to survive.
Another movie even more reliant on a video game is 1984's The Last Starfighter. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is an ambitious teen who dreams of his escaping the trailer park he calls home and doing something meaningful with his life. To pass the time, he immerses himself in Starfighter, a combat simulator where the player must save a planet from the invading forces of an enemy armada. One night, after beating the game and setting a record high score, Alex is abducted by a mysterious man and whisked away to another planet. He soon learns that the game was designed by aliens as a test to find the best Starfighters in the galaxy, and Alex must decide whether or not to participate in a very real battle during a very real intergalactic war.
Unfortunately, Starfighter is a game that does not exist. The upright you see in the movie was built specifically for the film (with my personal kudos going to whoever designed the controls and cabinet mock-ups; they're awesome!). A close look at the end credits reveals that the game was going to be available from Atari, but it was never released. In anticipation of the film's success, a full-size prototype was designed and scheduled to be produced as a tie-in. However, The Last Starfighter performed poorly in theaters, and the costs were deemed too high to mass produce a game based on a film no one went to see. An 8-bit home version was later released for the Nintendo system, but it has little in common with the actual movie.
Turning to a case of art imitating life (or is it art imitating life imitating art?), 1982's Rocky III has a great scene about eight minutes into the film. As the movie begins, the underdog hero (Sylvester Stallone) is boxing's world heavyweight champion and has successfully defended his title in several fights. His meteoric rise to the top has landed him the covers of major magazines and endorsements for some high-profile products. Meanwhile, his perpetually grumpy brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), begins to feel alienated and grows to resent Rocky's fame and fortune. One booze-filled night, Paulie wanders into an arcade and comes face to face with a Gottlieb Rocky pinball machine. Seeing the object of his hatred immortalized in a game and unable to control his rage, Paulie hurls a whiskey bottle at the machine and shatters the backglass.
To have a coin-op tie-in based on a film is nothing out of the ordinary, but Stallone knew the character he created had become a pop culture icon, and for him to use this game as a promotional gimmick (the actual machine was released a few months after the movie's debut) and also as a self-referential part of the script is nothing short of pure genius. In one fell swoop, he managed to commercialize Rocky Balboa both in film and real life, a plot point that later paved the way for two more sequels and millions of dollars at the box-office.
And that's all the time we have for this month. Join me next time when I'll feature more movies, more machines, and... well, you'll just have to wait to find out. Until then, keep watching the screen... You never know what you might see!