The Love Letter That Is Wreck-It Ralph

So I finally saw Wreck-It Ralph. Yes, over a month after its release in the United States, I finally saw the most video gamey movie of the year next to Indie Game: The Movie. But while one was about the world surrounding video games and the struggle to create them (and really, just the struggle of creating things in general), the other was about the world within games and directed itself towards one singular question: what if?

What if…what? Of course it asks the What If of what happens when you aren’t playing games à la Toy Story and questioning what happens when you don’t have an eye on your toys, but Wreck-It Ralph addresses something deeper than that, something that goes beyond the movie screen, just as Ralph went beyond his own game.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s a computer-animated film from Disney about a ridiculously large fellow named Wreck-It Ralph. He’s about nine feet tall and has hands the size of wrecking balls, which isn’t as strange as it sounds because Ralph is actually a video game character. He and a whole slew of other digital folk reside in an arcade and once it closes up each night, everyone stops pretending to be whatever they’re supposed to be and just become normal people.

Except for the bad guys. You see, all the bad guys have trouble being accepted in a world of sidekicks and heroes and the townsfolk that need saving because they’re the ones that the townsfolk need saving from. And I guess it’s hard for the inhabitants of Niceland to forgive Ralph every day for wrecking their homes as Fix-It Felix repairs everything, but it’s harder for Ralph, an all-around nice guy who just happens to play the role of a bad guy, to go on not being appreciated. After all, the good guys win medals.

And from there we go on a wacky whirlwind of an adventure, a nice family-friendly romp that I actually quite enjoyed (though it definitely does hit its slumps in the pacing department). But it’s also full of, well, my childhood. And my teenage years. And my everyday life. Wreck-It Ralph spans an incredible breadth of callbacks and references that anyone that has ever played a video game can appreciate on some level. Hell, even living in the world and soaking in pop culture will do it.

Just within the Bad-Anon group, a self-help group for characters coping with being the villains of games, we have Bowser, Zangief, Doctor Robotnik, M. Bison, Clyde, Kano, and an axe zombie from House of the Dead who apparently is named Cyril. And that’s just within the opening scene of the movie. You have a headlining Nintendo character sitting with a Sega staple next to one of the most recognizable orange ghosts ever known to man. It’s impossible not to get a little giddy over just the concept of Wreck-It Ralph.

But that’s all surface level stuff. That’s just for the people who probably at some point in their lives actually paid attention to video games, at some point resigned themselves to falling into some digital realm and reveling in their intangible victories and very real defeats. That doesn’t mean, though, that that’s where the creators of the movie stopped. Just from the kart racing, you can tell (like, for instance, that it’s a kart racer and not just some racing game); there are triple projectile power-ups, boost strips, and goofy drifting. The jump noise that Fix-It Felix makes is almost a dead ringer for Mario. The long-lost Q*bert makes an appearance, replete with Coily and company. The bartender from Tapper is taken to his logical conclusion and it is wonderful.

And you quarter-up. This, beyond anything else in the movie, really hits hard. When that little girl in the arcade puts her quarter down on the occupied racing machine, it felt like someone had reached into my core, grabbed onto whatever was in there, and just squeezed. A lifetime’s worth of gaming in dingy, poorly lit arcades to sitting on the floor of my friend’s room to standing among the unwashed masses at E3 all overwhelmed me in an instant. Years of dealing with cynics and trolls has deadened me on the inside, but that simple little action melted me.

It spoke to the genesis of my being and thus shook the entirety of my timeline. I was shattered and rebuilt as I once was, timid and scared of not only the sights and sounds overwhelming my senses but also the people engulfing me. I was back in that sea of people, drowning as I held onto my quarter. It was a raft that allowed me to survive there, but I knew I had to wield it as a weapon if I wanted to thrive there or that raft would turn into an anchor. All it took was a quarter to propel me, to instigate me to believe and act. That little insignificant moment that flew over so many other heads as either an unknowable mystery or just another of many other homages made me remember.

Walking out of the theatre, mind atwitter with knee-weakening nostalgia, I overheard a conversation. A grandparent—presumably—had taken his granddaughter to this particular midday showing, and walking out, she asked him, “what’s an arcade?”

Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a What If of what happens when you don’t keep an eye on your video games or a What If of what happens when you decide you can’t go on doing the same thing ever day or even a What If of what happens when Disney convinces a bunch of companies that it’ll do their brands proud in an animated movie. It’s a What If of what happens when you want to remind people of where we’ve been and where we’re headed. It’s a What If of enabling a grandfather and a granddaughter generations apart to connect over the simple idea of playing games around other people.

And what if we went back to that? What if we still lived in a world where we quarter-upped? What if all it took was a quarter to push a kid towards confronting the frothing sea and finding a passion amidst the waves?

What if we all loved something so deeply that it was impossible not to share?

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