Writing an episode of a TV show that revolves around video games can be a tricky endeavor. It’s all too easy for showrunners to gravitate towards common tropes such as being sucked into a digital world or becoming overly obsessed with a flashy new game. Stories like these have been overused in the decades since gaming was introduced, and while they make for an enjoyable adventure, they rarely capture the relatable nature of what it truly means to connect over a game.
When I wrote about Craig of the Creek in March of last year, the show had just made its debut as part of Cartoon Network’s already well-established lineup. I very much enjoyed it then, and nearly a year later I’m still thrilled to catch new episodes as they air. Craig of the Creek is a show that feels fresh because it’s so grounded in playful reality. Craig and his friends go on adventures, discover new allies, and conquer their fears, but at the end of the day they’re still just a bunch of imaginative kids romping through the woods.
Craig of the Creek also excels in portraying a caring and realistic family dynamic, an element missing from most animated shows. Craig’s parents are responsible and loving, checking in on their three children, helping them with their issues, and trying to connect with each of them on a personal level. It’s this family dynamic that truly shines through in the show’s 27th episode, “Power Punchers.” Though “Power Punchers” premiered back in October, it still stands as the show’s highest rated episode, and one of the most relatable gaming stories ever to hit the small screen. And believe me, I’ve seen them all.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a small group of key players from the Craig of the Creek team via Skype to discuss “Power Punchers” and how the episode came to be. Joining the call were co-creators Ben Levin and Matt Burnett, storyboard artists Tiffany Ford and Jason Dwyer, and head writer Jeff Trammell. When asked about the team’s gaming habits, Trammell was quick to recount a long-running Dragon Ball FighterZ rivalry he had built up with Dwyer over the past year, and mentioned regular lunch time battles against other staffers in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
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Fighting games have long brought players together, be they friends, family, or coworker. “Power Punchers” is all about the bond that Craig and his father, Duane, share over the episode’s titular pixelated fighting game. Duane sees their once-nightly battles as a way to spend time with his son, while Craig is determined to someday defeat his dad’s seemingly-unbeatable knowledge of the Power Punchers meta. But “Power Punchers” wasn’t conceived as an episode to showcase gaming. A retro fighting title was simply the best framing device for the father-son narrative the show’s team wanted to share with their viewers.
“We were looking to expand each of the characters in Craig’s family,” explained Levin, “We wanted to do an episode about his dad, so we started by brainstorming ideas that would work well with that.”
“I really wanted to do an episode about video gaming with Craig’s dad because I played games a lot with my dad,” added Trammel. “One of my fondest memories is us beating Streets of Rage 2 together. Since Duane is heavily based on my dad and [Ford’s] dad, it really felt like it fit.”
As one of the few animated offerings on TV to feature a black family at its center, Craig of the Creek is always pushing to breakaway from any stereotypes that their audience might see portrayed elsewhere. Ford felt “Power Punchers” was an especially good opportunity to showcase the lesser-seen role of gaming in the black community.
“When we were coming up with how to approach this episode, we were making a point to really bring a different aspect to the black relationship,” Ford said. “A fighting game isn’t a stereotypical black thing to see on TV. There are many stereotypes for black people on TV and they don’t include Capcom games and having super knowledge for those kind of fighting games. It was really special for us to bring that to families or kids who grew up with those hobbies, but didn’t see themselves represented as liking those kinds of games.”
Craig of the Creek is what Burnett described as a “storyboard driven show,” meaning the writers come up with a basic outline which they then hand off to the storyboard artists to flesh out with images and dialogue. Once the idea of Craig competing against his dad in a fighting game was set in stone, everyone on the show’s staff began working to tweak the story with their own gaming insights and personal touches. “It’s a very collaborative process,” noted Ford.
Early on in the episode’s production it was decided that Craig would go behind his dad’s back to train with one of the creek’s geeky teenage residents. This specific character, David, is the epitome of a diehard member of the fighting game community, trying his best to explain terms such as “frame data” and “stun time” to a bewildered Craig.
“We like to get very specific with our references and make sure they feel nuanced and real to someone who really is obsessed with that kind of thing,” Burnett said. “Fighting games have that depth and super nerdy nuance of counting frames and such. The 1% of the viewing audience who is as into this as we are, they’re going to catch that.”
Dwyer was the team’s go-to expert when it came to in depth fighting game lingo and knowhow. “The David scene had a lot of the hearsay and jargon that had to be cut out,” Dwyer admitted. “It was very important to me that David sat down on his butt and played with his arcade stick between his legs. I wrote him to have a whole lot of knowledge, but you can only fit so much into 11 minutes.”
Power Punchers, the game within the episode, was also a labor of love for the team. They settled on a late ‘90s feel, with characters, movesets, and music inspired by classic series such as Street Fighter and Streets of Rage. “I tried to marry a feel somewhere between Power Stone and other fighting games,” Dwyer said, “Obviously Power Stone is 3D, so it doesn’t have sprites, but we liked the art style a lot, with the bold, black lines.”
When it came time to design the episodes’ main fighters, the show’s staff saddled Duane with Power Puncher’s only black character, the funky fresh Kid Jammer. Craig would wield a fancy and fearsome female combatant named Admiral Anchor. “We specifically wanted Craig to play as a female character and have that not really be a big thing to him,” Levin recalled. “He really respects her because she’s so cool and tall and powerful. It was a little thing we wanted to do as far as the social politics of the show we concerned.”
“Our design team did such a stellar job with the game and making it feel authentic,” Levin added. “I was really blown away by their work.”
As “Power Punchers” nears its climax, Duane, voiced by the wonderfully over-the-top Terry Crews, becomes wise to Craig’s treacherous training sessions and challenges him once more to a fight. On the verge of losing his last bit of health Craig manages to finally best his old man with a last second special attack. And while it’s a sweet victory for Craig, his father is disheartened, believing the special time he shares with his “punching pal” will fade away, as it did with Craig’s older brother.
It’s a surprisingly touching moment. One that really captures the mixture of pride and shock that comes with finally losing to your child at your favorite shared activity. Craig’s reassuring words, and his suggestion that they keep playing, but with new characters, really shows that he cares more about the relationship he has built with his father than his quest for video game supremacy.
“At the end of the day you’re a dad who loves his kid and you’re a kid who wants to beat his dad,” Ford explained. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you play as. The sweetness and the really human moments they have together are important. We’re always trying to think of how we can make those real, so people can relate to them.”
“Power Punchers” packs a lot of gaming goodness and positive family moments into a mere 11 minutes. Anyone who has competed with a close friend or family member, in gaming or any other activity, likely knows how it feels to be on either side of Craig’s situation with his dad. In the end it’s about the time spent and the shared enjoyment, something that modern parents are more likely to experiance via video games.
“The episode was a fun opportunity to get away from the normal video game cartoon tropes,” Burnett said. “Parents today grew up with games as a part of their childhood. It makes sense that a parent would try to share the things they were into when they were a kid, which in many cases is video games. I think this was just a chance to update that dynamic and show that gaming is a normal part of family life.”
New episodes of Craig of the Creek are currently airing on Cartoon Network every Monday night at 5pm, as well as on the Cartoon Network app.