Nostalgia for the 1980s is hardly new, as cheeky homages to big hair, leg warmers, The Breakfast Club and Billy Idol—to name just a few of the era’s beloved touchstones—have run rampant throughout pop culture since the mid-‘90s. Yet there’s one aspect of that cherished decade that hasn’t gotten its proper due, at least until now: video games.
Whether it’s with regards to the movies, literature, or games themselves, the ‘80s video game renaissance is now upon us, with the spirit, style and icons of Atari and Nintendo’s heyday reemerging to assume a preeminent pop culture position. To see traces of that development, one need look no further than Pixels, a big-budget sci-fi comedy coming out on July 24 in which Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and Peter Dinklage face off against invading aliens who’ve taken the form of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and other classic 8-bit characters. If everything old eventually becomes new again, then the games that dominated kids’ time and attention thirty years ago are again boasting the sheen of a straight-from-the-factory-floor arcade cabinet.
As evidenced by its trailer, Pixels is the latest in Sandler’s career-long exploitation of the era of his own youth for goofball comedy—a process that began with 1998’s The Wedding Singer and has since continued unabated, most glaringly in 2012’s That’s My Boy. More notable than Sandler’s continued ‘80s fetish, however, is that Pixels assumes that audiences both young and old will not only recognize its shout-outs to Pac-Man and Centipede, but will be thrilled to see them receiving the A-list summer-blockbuster treatment. It takes, as its founding premise, the idea that the old-school games it’s celebrating aren’t just memorable, but—to young and old moviegoers alike—cool.
When viewed through the larger context of what’s happening in the pop culture landscape, that’s a fairly reasonable supposition. Last year, Xbox released (for free, via its console’s online marketplace) the documentary Atari: Game Over, about the thousands of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial cartridges that Atari infamously buried in a landfill after the title failed to sell. That film arrived on the heels of Jeremy Snead’s 2014 documentary Video Games: The Movie, a sprawling non-fiction overview of the origins of the industry.
Far more notable still, though, was the recent news that, after he completes production on his big-screen version of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Steven Spielberg will be helming an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. Cline’s popular book recounts the saga of a teenage boy named Wade Watts, who lives in a run-down future America where, in order to go to school, work, socialize, and more generally escape a collapsing society’s ills, everyone spends their days and nights in a virtual reality universe known as OASIS. Part of what makes OASIS unique is that it was created by a famed designer named James Halliday who adored the ‘80s and, in particular, ‘80s video games and Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing games. When Halliday dies, his will reveals that he’s buried an “Easter Egg” (i.e. a secret, hidden feature) deep within OASIS, and the person who finds it becomes the sole heir to his billion-dollar estate.
Ready Player One details Wade’s quest to unravel Halliday’s riddle-like clues and claim his fortune—a mission that requires Wade to become a veritable historian of ‘80s culture, and a master at ‘80s video games. The book is practically overflowing with references to games, movies, TV shows, and music from the decade, and thus a faithful adaptation necessitates acquiring the rights to an avalanche of copyrighted properties—something that makes one wonder how Spielberg will manage to do proper justice to his source material. Nonetheless, the fact that the director is tackling such a project, which is steeped in allusions to not only well-known games like Space Invaders and Pitfall, but also to more obscure gems like Swordquest: Earthworld, Joust, Kaboom! and Yar’s Revenge, further reconfirms the still-formidable vitality and relevance of the original PC, console, and arcade titles upon which the industry was first built.
If Sandler and Spielberg’s upcoming works suggest that ‘80s gaming is back in vogue, then the current gaming landscape definitively proves it. And I don’t mean contemporary console gaming. While it’s true that Nintendo continues to churn out high-tech entries in its most popular series (Super Mario, Zelda), the PS4 and Xbox One thrive on games that are light-years more complex, polished, and aesthetically stunning than their 30-year-old predecessors. In just about every respect, modern systems’ favorite franchises (Call of Duty, Halo, Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy) bear no resemblance to Tetris, Galaga, Frogger, Q*Bert, Burger Time, Bubble Bobble and the rest of their ‘80s brethren.
But consoles have increasingly become a specialized market, at least when compared to the way most people now game: their phone. And iPhone and Android-friendly games, which prize simple mechanics and mounting levels of difficulty, are the direct descendants of ‘80s titles. Plants vs. Zombies, Angry Birds, Canabalt, Temple Run, Candy Crush and their ilk all adhere to the same basic formula set by their 8-bit forefathers: easy to play, tough to master. Furthermore, in most cases, they also emulate the same colorful, cutesy graphics and bouncy, repetitive music of their ancestors, if not reverentially copy them wholesale (see: Flappy Bird).
The resemblance between today’s smartphone games and early Atari and Nintendo efforts is at least partly a result of functionality. Touchscreens aren’t amenable to the complex interfacing required by a console title like Halo (which needs a multi-button controller). Consequently, games made for our phones have to be operationally simpler. By reducing gameplay to directional swipes and taps, smartphone titles evoke the type of straightforward, joystick-and-single-button interactions of a Dig Dug or Defender. Through sheer necessity, our current crop of highly addictive games evoke yesteryear’s classics—and that also extends to their highly repetitive nature, as Candy Crush, Angry Birds and their modern compatriots often involve replaying similar scenarios and stages over and over again, each time with the difficulty ratcheted up a notch.
As such, the fact that Pac-Man and company are enjoying a mainstream multimedia renaissance makes perfect sense—older people continue to be wistful about the games of their youth, while kids are discovering that their parents’ favorites are actually quite a lot like the titles they’re currently consuming. Which begs the question: Can a Michael Bay-helmed Metroid (or Contra, or Missile Command, or Double Dragon) be far off?