Video games and popular culture: the 80s, cinema and the NES | Critical Frequency | TGM extension

In recent times, we have seen the transmedia of video games grow: not nearly a week goes by without some new film, TV series or animated series inspired by the most famous IPs being announced, more or less officially. But it is certainly not a trend born recently, on the contrary; nor has it always been a one-way trend.

Since the dawn of its history the videogame and the phenomena of popular culture have been closely linked, even if only for commercial needs that made investing in already established intellectual property a safe choice that guaranteed an a priori sales base. Already in the Atari 2600 library there were official games from brands such as Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Aliens and other cinematic blockbusters of the period, but it would still take a few years and a necessary generational change to ensure that original titles capable of paying homage to entire sub-genres rooted in contemporary pop culture would come out. This phenomenon finally saw life on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which in America and much of the rest of the world took on Atari’s legacy after the 1983 video game crisis to impose itself on a new generation of gaming as the definitive machine that would write the video game history of its decade. We could mention many titles that tried to capitalize on popular trends and fashions of those years without being directly linked to specific and pre-existing brands, but I chose to focus on three stocks of enormous commercial success and which we still know today, over 40 years later, pay homage to and in the best cases still play, in their first iterations or in the more modern and recent ones.


The first iteration of the saga of Castlevania was developed in 1986 and was inspired by the tradition of classic American horror cinema and urban legends about the figure of the vampire, in particular the famous Dracula by Bram Stoker. The first big screen appearance of the Prince of the Night dates back to 1931 and to the iconic interpretation of Bela Lugosi; the Universal film series lasted until the dawn of the 1950s, to then be taken over by Hammer who with its series of films on the character which lasted from 1958 to 1974 affirmed to undying glory actors of the caliber of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing . Also, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, helped influence the aesthetics of the Belmont sagaespecially in its more recent iterations.

pop culture video games

These two long film sagas and those that followed played a crucial role in bringing into popular culture not only the image of the vampire but the entire gothic horror landscape that includes other classics such as Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy. It was no coincidence, in fact, that some reinterpreted versions of these and monsters and creatures from other European mythologies are present in the Castlevania saga such as ghosts, minotaurs, medusa heads etc.. The Castlevania series has continued to this day with a myriad of sequels and spin-offs that have preserved the dark and mysterious atmosphere of the original game, and is a perfect example of how popular culture and cinema can impact the creation of a video game, making it a work of art.
pop culture video games


In 1988 it was released for the NES Ninja Gaiden, developed by Tecmo, an action platformer directly inspired by martial arts movies and Japanese comics. The game follows the protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, as he ventures through dozens of action-platform levels to avenge his father’s death and recover an ancient sacred artifact. This type of narrative was underlined by screens that spelled out the story unfolding between levels, giving the player the feeling of be interacting with one of the classic ninja and martial arts movies made famous in previous years.

pop culture video games

The Ninja Gaiden video game series has continued to evolve over the years, with new releases for different gaming platforms and a number of spin-offs, but without ever ceasing to take inspiration from popular culture, especially from film culture and action television series. With the release of the Xbox version in 2004, the game underwent a radical transformation in terms of graphics and gameplay. The new version, developed by Team Ninja, was a third-person action adventure with a more complex combat system and a greater emphasis on narrative that did not deny direct inspiration from modern action films, such as the Kill Bill series and that of the Matrix, continuing the direct link between popular culture and the saga itself which, as in the case of Castlevania, continued to evolve hand in hand

pop culture video games


In parallel, around the same time, Konami was developing Contra, born in 1987, directly inspired by 80’s action movies like Rambo, Alien and Predator. The game follows protagonists Bill Rizer and Lance Bean as they fight against an alien invasion through horizontally scrolling run and gun-style levels. How well explained a few weeks ago by Manuel Berto, science fiction played a fundamental role in the choice of the themes of many classics of the previous generation and it seems only appropriate that the “Rambo” protagonists of this title (or so many of us called them, due to the non-random similarity) they had alien enemies.

In more advanced levels of the game it is also possible to score the marked resemblance that some of these creatures have with those of the Alien franchiseespecially Eggs and Facehuggers. In the first and most iconic levels of the game, however, the enemies appeared as human beings in the original version of the game, which is why in Europe and Australia, it was decided to publish a modified version of the game that replaced the protagonists and enemies with robots, in order to not offend public sensibilities by showing scenes that could be perceived as too violent for the time: this version was called Probotector. These features would have accompanied all European versions of the games in the saga on NES, SNES and Mega Drive.


Over the years and as the gaming industry has grown and more and more powerful technologies have been incorporated, cinema has also influenced the way video games are narrated and presented. Many games, for example, they began using editing and directing techniques similar to those used in films to create a more immersive and immersive experience for the player. Many modern games also use the same visual effects used in movies, such as motion capture, to create realistic characters and environments. However, the influence of these two worlds of entertainment also works in reverse: if it is true that many games are inspired by comics, books, television series and even memes to create characters, plots and imaginary worlds, it is also true that many games have also helped create popular culture in their own rightgenerating series, film adaptations and merchandise and influencing youth culture increasingly over the years and establishing itself on the videogame media market.


Furthermore, it is important to underline how the historical and social context in which video games were created has also had an impact on their evolution: during the years of the Cold War, for example, many games were centered around the themes of international tensions and the fight against communism. In recent years, however, we note how the video game world has begun to become increasingly diverse and inclusive, with a greater presence of characters of different ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disabilities, reflecting the necessary changes in social sensitivity towards these issues. Finally, it is worth emphasizing that since the 90s, first TV and then cinema have tried to pay homage to videogames by offering adaptations of videogame franchises for the big and small screen. The results have been fluctuating to say the least to the point of making the idea that any adaptation for cinema and TV of intellectual property of the video game world is a low quality product regardless.

Surely the large numbers seem to prove this hypothesis, but it is undeniable that in recent years there has been increasingly high-budget productions and the immediate future seems directed (and in reality is already on the right track) to want to deny this sort of cursed aura that gravitates towards small and big screen adaptations of video games. On the other hand, returning to the initial discussion, between the first and second decade of 2000, video games based on new films almost completely disappeared, both due to the usual reputation of “cash-in” or poor quality products put on the market only to capitalize on the fame of the film to which they refer, and because the world of videogames has been rapidly raising the quality standards to the point that putting on the market a triple A that can compete with the most famous IPs is a considerable expense that many houses producers are probably not able to support, unless they have the certainty of an almost certain economic return now undermined by prejudices in this regard.

In conclusion, it is important to appreciate how video games and popular culture are now an inseparable pair with the two elements constantly destined to influence each other for a long time to come. Since the former have become an indissoluble part of the latter, especially in the last thirty years, generating ever more ambitious trends and products, breaking the barrier between a classic entertainment media with passive use and a more recent, purely interactive one, influencing each other on every type of appearance, from technical to narrative.

This article was written for The Games Machine by Critical Frequencythe Italian video game blog.

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Video games and popular culture: the 80s, cinema and the NES | Critical Frequency | TGM extension