The worlds of gaming and animation have been living in harmony for over 30 years. There have been plenty of shows based on gaming’s greatest icons and plenty of games based on classic cartoon characters. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
This post originally appeared 9/7/15.
Animated programs that were modeled after specific games don’t have the best track record, but when the average cartoon puts a gaming spin on their adventures things seem to work out better. Here are a dozen episode tributes to the world of gaming from some of the most popular western cartoons of yesterday and today. I won’t try to reveal too much about how episodes pan out, but there may be a few bits of spoiler-ish information.
Futurama: Season 3, Episode 18 “Anthology of Interest II”
Synopsis: Upon the Professor’s request, Fry asks the WhatIf Machine what the world would be like if it was more like a video game. At once we see an Earth that has to fight off some real space invaders from the planet Nintendoo 64, who have come to conquer the planet. With the help of general Pac-Man and some military grade weaponry, Fry uses his knowledge of classic gaming to save the day.
Why It’s Great: When Fry is eaten by the overzealous (and hungry) Zoidberg, the other characters are dismayed. But Fry has an extra life! I think we’d all love to save the world with our video game skills, though much like Fry we’d probably reach a point where we just couldn’t cope. It’s like a funny version of that terrible Adam Sandler movie, Pixels.
Steven Universe: Season 1, Episode 11 “Arcade Mania”
Synopsis: After a battle with an alien monster, Steven introduces the Crystal Gem crew to his favorite boardwalk arcade. Being aliens themselves, the Gems fail to see the fun or entertainment in the different games they experience. Team leader Garnet eventually finds a game called Meat Beat Mania (much like Samba De Amiigo) and becomes entranced. The monsters from the opening resurface, but Steven can’t seem to pull Garnet away from her meaty rhythm high score.
Why It’s Great: Aside from the fact that this episode features a game with ham shaped controllers, it also does a great job of showing how ridiculous some arcade titles can be (especially if you’re not from Earth). When Steven tells Garnet to punch her opponent in a fighting game, she literally punches through the screen declaring, “I did it.” Makes sense to me.
Arthur: Season 1, Episode 14 “Arthur the Wrecker”
Synopsis: Arthur becomes obsessed with a new PC title called Deep Dark Sea and he will stop at nothing to play it. The game even claims that players who find a certain rare item will receive special real-world prizes. How enticing! Eventually Arthur goes too far and accidentally wrecks the family computer (hence the title) in a fight with his friend over who will play next. Like any kid in such a situation, he tries his best to cover it up from his mother, who needs the computer for work.
Why It’s Great: Haven’t we all been so absorbed in a game that we just couldn’t put it down? Arthur makes the evolution from casual gamer to member of the PC master race in record time. And in the best twist ever, Arthur’s mother becomes addicted to Deep Dark Sea after she bans her son from the family computer. Rekt.
Bob’s Burgers: Season 2, Episode 4 “Burger Boss”
Synopsis: Bob rents a classic arcade machine called Burger Boss to bring customers into his greasy spoon. When his restaurant rival stops by and sets the high score under the name BOBSUX, Bob spends the rest of the episode trying to knock him off the board. Eventually his wife sends the arcade cabinet back to the family fun center and Bob hires a local nerd to help him improve his score.
Why It’s Great: Bob’s beef with his smug eatery competitor Jimmy is reminiscent of the arcade rivalries between old school pros like Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. Except Bob is pretty terrible. In fact, he manages to get carpel tunnel from playing Burger Boss day and night. Popping pain pills to keep on going causes Bob to hallucinate and attack some children. Talk about dedication.
Gravity Falls: Season 1, Episode 10 “Fight Fighters”
Synopsis: Young paranormal explorer Dipper Pines fines a special combo scrawled on the side of an old Fight Fighters arcade cabinet. When he punches it into the game he unleashes the burly and pixelated Rumble McSkirmish on to the unsuspecting town of Gravity Falls. Though Rumble’s intentions are good, his extreme fighting game instincts are not. Meanwhile, Handy man Soos attempts to get inside the game NORT (that’s TRON backwards) by actually inserting himself into the arcade cabinet.
Why It’s Great: You won’t find a better Street Fighter parody on TV. Rumble spouting off about flying to Soviet Russia to avenge his father, wailing on parked cars for a bonus round, and only being able to eat food off the ground is video game logic at its best. Just remember kids, “Winner’s don’t lose!”
Dexter’s Lab: Season 1, Episode 22 “Game Over”
Synopsis: Dexter’s dad shows up with a new game called Master Computer that he “bought for a nickel from a gypsy.” Despite not wanting to play against his aggravating sister Deedee, Dexter eventually caves and sets the new title up in his laboratory. As you might guess he gets pulled into the game (much like TRON) and must rely on Deedee to save him.
Why It’s Great: Dexter’s rant about why he doesn’t want to play the outdated Master Computer title is solid gold, ending with the fact that the characters “don’t even bleed!” Who knew Dexter was so hardcore? Even though he’s only trapped within the game for a few minutes, we see plenty of nods to Tetris, Pac-Man, TRON, and even Primal Fury.
Invader Zim: Season 1, Episode 11 “Game Slave 2”
Synopsis: In one of the only episodes that somehow doesn’t feature the titular Zim, goth gamer Gaz goes on a quest to acquire the newest portable Game Slave so she can experiance the hardcore gameplay of Vampire Piggy Hunter. She attends the midnight release which goes horribly wrong when the boy behind her claims the last preordered system for himself. He also claims that he’s “a better gamer” and Gaz decides to make his life a living hell until she gets the system that was rightfully hers.
Why It’s Great: I think we’ve all been to that midnight launch that didn’t quite pan out. Gaz’s murderous excitement and dedication to playing the newest system is admirable. The Game Slave commercial that inspires her to pick up the new console also has the best marketing campaign I’ve ever heard. “Are you still playing your old Game Slave One? Why!? What’s wrong with you? Have we offended you somehow?!”
King of the Hill: Season 11, Episode 8 “Grand Theft Arlen”
Synopsis: Upstanding citizen Hank Hill finds out his son Bobby is opting out of physical education to take a class playing video games and he decides to put a stop to it. In a misguided attempt to shut down the gaming program Hank inspires a local game developer to make a game based on Hank’s no-nonsense attitude and propane obsession. Hank soon becomes hooked on the GTA clone and starts to neglect his family and job.
Why It’s Great: You never know who is going to fall head first into the pit of passion that is gaming. The best part of this is that Hank basically falls in love with a game where he plays a beefed up version of himself with a more prominent job title and better driving skills. It’s just such a Hank move to escape to a world with more responsibilities... and a flamethrower.
Adventure Time: Season 2, Episode 16 “Guardians of Sunshine”
Synopsis: Adventurers Finn and Jake are at home playing the 8-bit game Guardians of Sunshine on their computer friend BMO. After Finn gets eaten by the final boss, Sleepy Sam, he rage quits and tells BMO that if he was in the game he could have beaten Sam easily with his bare hands. BMO tells Finn and Jake that they could enter the game, but that it would be much more difficult than they could imagine. Despite his warning, Finn and Jake trick BMO and enter the world of the game where they struggle to learn the rules.
Why It’s Great: As a prominently 2D animated program, this is the first episodes that brings Finn and Jake into the realm of 3D. Unlike other programs where characters are sucked into games against their will, the Adventure Time crew enters on their own accord to take on the challenge. Jake also manages to break the game when he grabs an icon from the game interface, which you wouldn’t even think would be possible.
South Park: Season 10, Episode 8 “Make Love, Not Warcraft”
Synopsis: The boys of South Park find themselves at the mercy of a player who deliberately harasses others in the online hit World of Warcraft. They need to band together, and the only way to do this is to dedicate all their time and energy to leveling up their characters...while eating junk food. They are helped by Stan’s overly dramatic father, who manages to get his hands on a legendary in-game weapon stored on a flash drive.
Why It’s Great: The gang’s dedication to such a ridiculous cause is classic South Park. This particular episode does a great job of portraying the importance of an online community, while simultaneously representing the many confused looks from outsiders. Also, Cartman pooping all over his mom will never cease to make me laugh.
The Simpsons: Season 7, Episode 11 “Marge Be Not Proud”
Synopsis: Bart is mesmerized when he sees a commercial for the new BoneStorm fighting game and immediately adds it to the top of his Christmas list. When his suggestion to his mother about buying the game doesn’t go over well, Bart decides to simply steal the game from a local electronics store. When Bart is caught stealing, he not only misses out on BoneStorm, but he has to deal with the consequences of his unhappy parents.
Why It’s Great: While Bart may not get his hands on BoneStorm, his nerdy best friend Milhouse does. “This is great! And I’ll I’ve done is enter my name! Thrillhouse!” Milhouse says to himself, and we see that all he could fit was THRILLHO. A classic Simpsons gag if ever there was one. Bart’s reluctant excitement at receiving Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge also hits home for any kid who didn’t get the game they had hoped for.
Regular Show: Season 3, Episode 19 “Video Game Wizards”
Synopsis: Anthropomorphic pals Mordecai and Rigby spy a new commercial (this seems to be trend) for the Game Inferno Tournament, which is coming to a local mall. The prize? The unreleased Maximum Glove. When Rigby suggests they enter together, Mordecai reluctantly tells him that he has already entered with groundskeeper pal Skips. Rigby, feelings hurt for not being first pick, decides to tags along anyway, agrivating everyone in the process. In Regular Show fashion the tournament turns out to be linked to some insane otherworldly adventure.
Why It’s Great: This whole episode is basically a long joke about the horrible gaming movie The Wizard, starring Fred Savage as a boy traveling across the country to a gaming tournament. Even the Maximum Glove turns out to be a piece of garbage, much like the epic flop that was Nintendo’s Power Glove. The mixtape Rigby made is full of lyrics like, “Why do friends, not pick their friends to enter a video game competition with them?” is side-splittingly hateful and awkward.
Good episode or not, I still get excited when a show decides to dedicate one of its episodes or storylines to something gaming related. These are the standouts in my mind, but maybe you can think of a few more I missed. Feel free to reminisce in the comments.