The film and television industry is traditionally content to boss over video games: movie adaptations of popular gaming franchises are more often than not sub-par, while other projects reference games lazily without any real understanding of the medium. Outside of documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie and more careful efforts such as Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, gaming is rarely given the respect it warrants when it comes to film.
Finally released in the UK on 8th February, three months after its initial North American release, Wreck-It Ralph is a welcome tonic to the usual lackadaisical attitude towards our beloved pastime. Disney Animation Studios, building on previous CG successes such as Tangled and Bolt, has made a movie that pays tribute to video games without making a mockery of them.
Set in a utopian fantasy land where arcades are still popular, packed and seemingly profitable, Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to retro video games with more than a splash of Toy Story. The avatars in each game cabinet are happy to act as electronic toys and entertain anybody who inserts a coin, but as soon as the lights go out each night they break sequence to follow their own digital desires, free to roam between all the games of the arcade. The first time this switch occurs is superb.
The title character is the antagonist in Fix-It Felix, Jr., a Rampage-style game in which the player clambers up a tower repairing any damage caused by Ralph. Ralph isn't happy, though: while Felix is given medals daily and celebrated, Ralph is ostracised by his co-workers and forced to sleep in a rubbish heap while they inhabit a penthouse. The kicker is, he doesn't even particularly like being the bad guy.
Ralph's doing his best to get along with the other characters of Fix-It Felix, Jr. despite everything. He's attending group therapy to cope with the existence he's been dealt, along with a host of self-pitying well-known baddies including Bowser, Dr Robotnik, Street Fighter's Zangief and, somewhat bizarrely given the content of the series, Kano from Mortal Kombat. However, one night he's pushed too far and sets off on a journey into another game to claim a medal of his own to gain the respect of his cabinetmates. Of course, trouble ensues.
Wreck-It Ralph strikes a good balance to cater to a wide audience. There are piles of references to pixels past for nostalgia-giddy retro gamers; with Capcom, Nintendo, Sega, Namco and Atari featuring prominently, plus a little Taito, Konami and Midway, this should be a fun film to re-watch to catch every little wink. While younger viewers might be oblivious to much of this, there's still lots to love thanks to a decent story and careful curation of cameos. Characters such as Q*bert – who slots into a small role brilliantly — won't be recognisable to most youngsters, but they're each used well enough to appeal whether they're known or not.
The first forty minutes or so are especially dense with homage, from familiar items and sound effects to advertising boards emblazoned with Sonic the Hedgehog, plus dozens of appearances from gaming icons oblique and obvious. The gaming nods do taper off around the halfway point, when they become mixed in with candy jibes thanks to a trip into saccharine sweet kart racer Sugar Rush, but the film has enough quality about it to compensate and is consistent for the most part.
The bar may not have been set especially high for the video game movie, but Wreck-It Ralph leaps right over it: if you're a fan of both gaming and Disney, this is a must-see. Respectful of gaming as it prods fun at it, and even occasionally a little touching, Wreck-It Ralph is well worth some of your shiny gold coins.
And for a real retro treat, make sure you stay to watch the ending credits.
Don't forget to check out our other Movie Reviews so far, to see how other gaming subjects have translated to the big — or small — screen.