Around ten years ago I went to university and found shallow, joking 80's nostalgia to be incredibly fashionable. It was a time when one of the most popular topics of conversation - in real life or online - was to discuss which Saturday morning cartoons you remembered from your childhood. Our biggest university-run club night was promoted with images of Thatcher and Reagan, and featured all the "cheesy pop hits" we had been too young to be seriously exposed to as children. One thing I've had to come to terms with over the years is that this bullshit has somehow become sincere. Instead of sitting in a pub and trying to remember the theme tunes to Transformers, GI Joe and Alvin and the Chipmunks, we now spend billions of dollars making movies about them. People watch these movies. They are profitable.
Another thing I've had to come to terms with while writing about videogames is that many of my readers are under the age of 20, and won't really appreciate what the world was like at the time of my birth. If you only take one thing away from this article, please... please let it be this: The 1980's were shit. The global political compass swang heavily back towards 'self-centred dickhead' and everyone was told they could do whatever they want so long as they could establish an adequate line of credit. It was the age of Reaganomics and deregulation. Money became the ruling power in the world. Governments became subserviant to big business. Rich white people discovered cocaine, securing the drug trade's future indefinitely. People celebrated this age of amoral hedonism by abandoning all notions of taste, giving their hairstylists free range to experiment on their locks like scissor-wielding Doctor Moreaus. I hate the 80's, and all that came out of it.
It is in this context that I write today about The Wizard, a 1989 film starring Fred Savage and That Woman From Rilo Kiley. For the uninitiated, Fred Savage was the child star of The Wonder Years, a popular 80's TV show that (perhaps ironically) sold itself on the back of 60's nostalgia, and was probably at the height of his fame around the time this film was released - he was a big name, a bankable star. Here he plays some kid whose main contribution to the plot is to serve as a mouthpiece for his younger brother, who appears to be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic autism. The younger brother - the titular 'Wizard' - suffered a horrible experience as a child, and now his main means of communication seems to be 'being good at videogames'. As is often the case in 80's films they go on the run to escape their traumatic home lives, meet up with a young girl who is also on the run to escape her traumatic home life, and together their traumatic home lives chase them to some giant videogame contest in LA where the kid who is good at videogames solves everyone's problems by being good at videogames.
The plot isn't really important. The point is this: In keeping with the swaggering corporate culture of the 80's, the entire film is quite openly a 100-minute advert for Nintendo games. Characters are seen playing arcade games and breaking their NES out from the boot of their car in the most unlikely circumstances, intercut with lingering clips of games like Double Dragon, Castlevania, Mega Man 2 andthe Super Mario Bros. series to name but a few, culminating in the (then) first US appearance of Super Mario Bros. 3; Lest we forget, this film was released just in time for Christmas. At one point Fred Savage even compares That Woman From Rilo Kiley's broken family life to the plot of The Legend of Zelda, somehow. To her credit, this offends her.
The thing is, aside from the weird political distaste I have in my mouth for this kind of product placement, The Wizard paints an image of quite an appealing world. Everybody plays videogames for recreation, as if it is a perfectly ordinary pastime. In one scene, two businessmen are seen hunched over an arcade cabinet in a bar, unaware that a group of kids are about to hustle them in a Super Mario Bros high score battle. One of the finalists in the VIDEO ARMAGEDDON contest that serves as the film's finale is a young girl, and nobody is surprised. A withdrawn father and his rebellious teenage son bond over their shared experience of playing on a NES. This is the world Nintendo wanted to create back in 1989, and it's a far cry from modern-day Wii and DS commercials - genteel, Ikea-decorated loft apartments, where happy families gather on the sofa to play brain-training games. And for a film of this era to depict playing videogames as a normal activity instead of Generation X deviancy, or a shorthand for antisocial nerdom, is rather lovely in itself.
In conclusion, here is a link to Roger "Video Games Can Never Be Art" Ebert's 1989 review of the film, in which he calls out the director for showing a clip of the wrong level of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.