There’s no mistaking it: The Wizard was a commercial.
Roger Ebert said as much in his review of the film. The Angry Video Game Nerd, as he is wont to do, tore it a new one. It’s a movie forever to be defined by its worst moments, like the introduction of the Power Glove and the three days that the “heroes” of the film spend on the phone with the Nintendo help line, which, if memory serves, would have cost about $50,000.
It’s 100 minutes of pure propaganda, complete with some of the most improbable twists and turns ever put to film. You don’t have to pick holes in it – they’re already there in plain sight, completely apparent to anyone who’s watching. And yet, if you were 10 years old, this flawed, overwrought big-screen advertisement was pure movie magic.
The Wizard was a nexus of brazen marketing and unrestrained consumerism. to the point where it may never have been possible – or, at least, as readily accepted by the moviegoing public – to make a movie like it in any year other than 1989.
In 1989, a movie about video games had to be a movie about Nintendo, because Nintendo was the only game in town. No disrespect to the Sega Master System, but Nintendo was riding a wave of success that simply hadn’t been seen in videogames to that point, all of which led up to perhaps the most highly anticipated videogame release of all time: Super Mario Bros. 3.
There wasn’t a Nintendo owner who wasn’t looking forward to Super Mario Bros. 3, and at a time when the internet was barely more than a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye, details on the game were almost impossible to come by. When word got out that there was a movie with a full five-minute scene devoted to it, well, every 10-year-old in the country needed to see it.
As it turns out, 10-year-olds may have been the only ones who needed to see the movie; it debuted at No. 5 and quickly fell off the charts and out of theaters.
Unfortunately, as much as the movie tried to show otherwise by having stiffs in business suits at an arcade machine and the bumbling dad, played by Beau Bridges, learning the intricacies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the gamer constituency at the time was remarkably limited – devoted, sure, but limited. Games were kid stuff. They were candy coated and colorful, and their mechanics were simplistic enough for a prepubescent audience to master. A directional pad and two buttons was more than enough to do everything that gamers could imagine, because “gamers” in the NES’s sense weren’t coordinated enough for much more than that. The complicated control schemes were left to a niche PC market that was entirely too sophisticated to get caught up in the kid stuff.
Twenty years later, games have changed and the world has changed. Those of us who were 10 in ’89 are 30 in ’09, and we’re still playing games. Controllers have dual thumbsticks, eight buttons, motion controls and digital D-pads, and every single one of those buttons can be overloaded with two, three, even four functions. Games are no longer kids’ stuff. The most popular ones are rated M, particularly the ones that are played competitively. The Call of Duty franchise, the Gears of War franchise, the Grand Theft Auto franchise – these are the games that capture the imagination of the gaming public today. These are the games for which fans salivate and sop up every last bit of information before release day, and not a single one of them is remotely appropriate for a PG-rated movie.
None of this is even to mention that we are in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out console war. The Wizard is a commercial for Nintendo products. A similar movie today would be an advertisement for … what exactly? Yoke it to any of the big three’s consoles, and you risk alienating a tremendous portion of your intended audience by neglecting their favorite console or game. If you make it a commercial for a single game, you’re playing to an audience even more limited than the gaggle of 10-year-olds that held The Wizard near and dear.
So who’s going to make this era’s defining mass-market videogame movie?
A pro gaming league would likely be the perfect candidate, Competitive gaming has actually picked up a surprising amount of traction in recent years, with gaming tournaments landing arena-sized venues and television contracts with national networks. (Did you know ESPN covers videogames?) They’re a readymade sponsor, and Major League Gaming could provide the backdrop, the reason for the movie to exist. After all, what better way to increase the visibility of pro gaming than with a big-budget movie?
Of course, there are plenty of plot concerns to address. Even if we make our tortured player and his half-brother a little bit older than Fred Savage and [checks IMDB] Luke Edwards were when they made The Wizard, we still run into a problem: There have been some recent, high-profile cases of teens running away from home motivated by games, and at least one of them ended tragically. A similar plot today, no matter how implausible the rest of the movie is, might actually be enough to spark protests. Instead, a nonconforming parent trying to relive his youth might facilitate the boys’ voyage.
Rather than the sunny desert locales of The Wizard, the whole movie would be shot in browns and grays, paralleling the sense of gritty realism that pervades the M-rated multiplayer-heavy games of the current generation. It could be set on the East Coast, or perhaps portray a Midwest journey that makes its way through the stark urban settings of Detroit or Chicago. The final scene, the big tournament in the big city, would feature an against-all-odds frag in a furious one-on-one deathmatch between our protagonist and the mohawked, heavily pierced “Lucas” of our new movie – perhaps a pistol triumphing over a vehicle-mounted Gatling gun.
Finally, our movie would need a name. A gut-wrenchingly cheesy name that is instantly identifiable by the culture. It’s easy to imagine that such a movie would be adorned with a name already years out of date, yet still inexplicably and widely used: Pwned. Yes, our movie would be called Pwned.
It would, of course, be just as awful as its moniker, and it still wouldn’t matter as long as the audience was given 10 minutes to watch, say, Modern Warfare 2 a month or two before it hit the market. It’s a surefire hit, right?
The problem is that the internet exists. The hunger for preview footage of games isn’t nearly as all-consuming as it used to, because there is an absolute glut of preview game coverage on major gaming websites already. All the modern gamer needs is an internet connection to satiate his hunger for the details of upcoming games. The promise of more of such footage is simply not enough to get people to the theaters – if it’s the game footage people want to see, it’ll be easy enough to find on BitTorrent or likely even YouTube mere days after its release.
We’re never actually going to see another Wizard in our lifetime. There are simply too many competing factors to allow another movie anything like it to exist. And maybe that’s okay. Gaming has grown as a medium to the point where nearly everyone who plays games defines the hobby differently. To try and encapsulate gaming culture in a two-hour movie would be not only an insurmountable task, it would likely be borderline insulting to the millions of gamers who wouldn’t find anything to relate to in the characters or the story.
But in a way, it’s a shame that we’ll never see another take on The Wizard, because it was a movie that spoke to a tremendous number of children. It made them – it made us – feel like we were doing something more important than just twiddling our thumbs and making colorful little sprites run around a television screen. Perhaps it wasn’t high art, but to plenty of us, it meant something. And if nothing else, it introduced our generation to the Power Glove. “It’s so bad,” indeed.
Mike Schiller is a Buffalo-based writer who blogs about and reviews games and music at PopMatters.com. He also writes game reviews for the Raleigh News & Observer.