Videogames & Futurama, Part 1: Raiders of the Lost Arcade
I wrote an article for Wired about the return of the geekiest TV show ever. I didn't have room to include some game-related stuff, so I'm posting it this week on Game|Life. Who could axe for a better Xmas gift?
This first post is about the single most gamer-friendly episode of Futurama.
THE SCENE: It's the 31st century, and Earth is being bombarded by invaders...possibly from space. They attack in formation, moving from left to right, then dropping down, changing directions and speeding up. "Tremble in fear at our three different kinds of ships!" says the evil alien Lrrr of planet Nintendu 64.
Their movements look somewhat familiar to Philip J. Fry, an interloper from the 20th century. The fate of the Earth now rests on his ability to summon up the skills he honed during his misspent childhood. Can he blast these dastardly space invaders out of the sky?
That's how the climactic sequence from the Futurama segment “Raiders of the Lost Arcade” begins. It has become a gamer touchstone, just as the Futurama episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before" has become a Trekkie touchstone. The people who made this animated scifi comedy are masters of nerd fan service.
“Raiders of the Lost Arcade” is a nonstop barrage of game references. There are gags about warp pipes, free lives, and allusions to Battle Zone, Missile Command and Pac-Man. But the climactic battle is the showstopper. At first, Fry's attempts to thwart the space invaders seem successful. “I've still got a trick or two up my sleeve," he brags as Rush's track Tom Sawyer plays in the background. "Watch as I fire upwards through our own shield!”
His showboating terrifies his friends. The robot Bender screams, "He's a madman! A madman!"
Fry is ultimately unable to kill the last alien. Game Over. The commander of the space invaders emerges from his ship and taunts his human adversary. “Instead of shooting where I was, you should have shot at where I was going to be!” he says.
The evil alien is joined by his evil arcade comrades: Donkey Kong, a fried egg from Burger Time, a robot from Berserk, a brain from Robotron. Q*bert is also there, and he spouts some characteristically garbled dialogue which, when played backwards, is revealed to be “Where can a guy get some pants around here?”
Did you get that? Geeks who actually went to the trouble of playing the audio snippet backwards found an extra joke. The willingness of Futurama writers to go to so much trouble to squeeze in one more gag is typical of the show. That's why Futurama in general and the "Raiders of the Lost Arcade" segment in particular are so beloved, and it's a big part of the reason that the show is back in production. Only a tiny fragment of the audience--the Dennis Miller ratio--may get the joke. But whoever does becomes a fan for life.
"I wrote 'Raiders of the Lost Arcade'," says David X. Cohen, co-creator and showrunner of Futurama. "The origin of that idea was a whole movie about aliens invading earth in the exact pattern of Space Invaders. I had high hopes, but the feature idea got chopped down to five minutes."
Cohen is a gamer geek who studied theoretical computer science at Cal Berkeley before going into comedy writing. He and many of the other writers on the show are familiar with games and the underlying programming languages used to make them, and they slipped in little references that only a fellow gamer would get.
You can listen to Cohen and the other writers discuss their fave games on the commentary track to this episode, which is on the Futurama Season 3 box set. You can also keep refreshing Game|Life this week for more game-related Futurama goodness.
Videogames And Futurama, Part 2: How Zoidberg Got His Name From A Game
Videogames And Futurama, Part 3: Pinball Wizardry
Videogames And Futurama, Part 4: The Lost Episode is on a PS2 Disc
Videogames And Futurama, Part 5: Bender Gets Medieval On The Third DVD
Futurama Is Back! Grab a Can of Slurm and Settle In