There are three games that have dominated American arcades in each of the past three decades, respectively. In the 1980s, there was Pac Man, which helped to bring gaming to mainstream audiences and basically ushered in the Golden Age of Video Games. The 1990s gave us Street Fighter II, which by many counts is the most influential video game of all time and which popularized head-to-head competition. Dance Dance Revolution, although first release in 1997, really didn’t hit its stride in the states until DDRMAX2 came out in 2003. Arcades that hadn’t seen crowds in years suddenly had to deal with sweaty, smelly teenagers trying to show off their skills to an audience of other players who would line up to take their turn and stay from open to close just to play this one game.
All three of these games have two things in common: they are fantastically well-designed, and they are still played competitively and casually to this day. The creators of Wreck-It Ralph were wise to directly reference all three of them in the first five minutes of the movie with images of the actual arcade machines and by having speaking characters from each. This small nod to arcade-goers shows an understanding of its audience that few movies supposedly about video games ever get right. The video game references are more present in the first half of the movie than the second, but they really set the stage for a movie that takes place entirely inside a modern American arcade.
We’re soon introduced to Ralph, the bad guy in a fictional arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. (although as part of the marketing for the movie, there is an official Flash and IOS version that you can play), which I would call a mashup of Donkey Kong and Rampage. He’s not happy with his station in life, which includes being thrown off a building into the mud every time someone plays the game and having to live in a garbage dump while watching Felix and the people who live in the apartment building that he constantly wrecks living comfortably in a pent house to await a quarter being put into the machine all day long while the arcade is open. After it closes every day, the game characters are free to move about from game to game through the surge protector, which is called Game Central Station. Ralph goes to Tapper to drink at night and visits a ghost from Pac Man who hosts an Alcoholics Anonymous-type meeting for bad guys who are trying to cope with their unfortunate jobs.
There are four major governing rules in the arcade: first, if you die outside of your game, then you don’t regenerate; second, you must be back in your own game when the arcade opens in the morning, which reminded me of how the Toy Story characters always had to scramble back to where they belong whenever Andy came home; third, glitches cannot leave their own game, which I think is because they are not connected properly; and fourth, if your game gets unplugged, you die with it if you’re stuck inside or are homeless if you’re stuck in Game Central Station, so you really don’t want your game to go out of order for any extended period of time. All of these four rules play a major part in the story.
The story takes place on the 30th anniversary of Fix-It Felix Jr.’s release, making it one of the oldest games in the arcade. Felix is invited to a party to celebrate, but Ralph isn’t because most game characters are afraid of the bad guys and treat them like second-class citizens. Ralph crashes the party, and the only character to treat him with any sort of kindness is Felix himself, being programmed as a quintessential good guy. This sets up the awkwardness that is a guy who is only good at wrecking things being at a party mostly full of characters who have their home wrecked by him on a daily basis. The leader of the Nicelanders, as they are called, and Ralph get into an argument that ends with a mess. Ralph tries to apologize but isn’t very good at it, and he explains that he’s tired of living in the dump and just wants to someday be able to receive a hero’s medal, which is what Felix receives whenever someone completes a level in the game. The Nicelander leader tells Ralph that, if he can earn a hero’s medal, he can move from the dump to the penthouse. Of course, he’s certain that Ralph, being a bad guy, would never be able to do so.
Later, Ralph learns from a drunken space marine that Hero’s Duty, an on-rails first person shooter akin to Time Crisis or Terminator Salvation, but with the aesthetics of Halo and a bossy no-nonsense commander named Calhoun who shouts orders at the player and the other characters, gives out medals to whoever can climb the building and crush some bugs. Well, Ralph spends every single day climbing buildings and crushing stuff, so he sets out on his big quest. Of course, when he gets into the game, it’s nothing like he imagined, being far more dangerous. Remember that if a character dies outside his own game, then he is gone for good. After the kid who is playing gets a game over, the giant alien bugs and the space marines return to their starting points to wait for the next quarter alert, but Ralph sneaks off and finds his way to the top of the tower, which holds the prize he seeks. He actually succeeds in finding the medal but wakes up the bugs due to his clumsiness.
He escapes Hero’s Duty in an out-of-control space ship and ends up in Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart Arcade clone that takes place entirely in a Candyland-like environment, complete with soda hot springs and karts made by a baking minigame. Unfortunately, one of the bugs found its way into the ship and escapes into the world of Sugar Rush as well. In the meantime, Fix-It Felix Jr. is labeled as out-of-order when a girl tries to play but Ralph is nowhere to be found, thus making the game glitch out. Felix is afraid that Ralph has “gone Turbo” and is game-jumping. Turbo is the name of the main character of an old racing game who snuck into a newer one years ago when his became less popular, thus causing both games to get unplugged. So, Felix sets out on his quest, which is to find Ralph and get him to come back to the game. He ends up in Hero’s Duty, but is too late since Ralph is already gone, so he and Calhoun team up to find him and destroy the bug that got out of the game, since the bugs, for some unexplained reason, are unintelligent creatures who don’t know that they are game characters and could totally destroy the world of Sugar Rush.
Ralph spots his medal that was flung out when when he crashed the space ship but runs into a little girl named Vanellope von Schweets who happens to be a glitch in the game of Sugar Rush. She needs a gold coin the same size as Ralph’s medal to be able to race in the game. If she makes it into the top 9 spots in the race that takes place after the arcade closes each night, then she’ll finally be unlocked as a playable character, so she steals the medal and uses it as her fee to enter the race. King Candy, who is in charge of the world of Sugar Rush, and the other racers treat Vanellope like the Nicelanders treat Ralph. The girls are downright mean to her and end up destroying her homemade kart, but King Candy has a more practical reason for not wanting her to race. He’s afraid that, if the players see the game glitching out after picking her as their playable character, Sugar Rush might get unplugged.
Vanellope promises Ralph that she’ll pay him back with another medal when she wins the race, so he reluctantly agrees to help her build a new kart. It turns out, though, that neither she nor he knows how to drive, so we get a montage of scenes in an unfinished level of the game where she lives showing her learning to do so, which she claims she should be good at since she’s coded as a racer in the game. In a matter of just a couple minutes, she of course learns not only how to drive but to do it so well that they actually think she may have a chance at winning. Vanellope and Ralph begin a friendship which culminates in her giving him a hero’s “medal” made out of a cookie, just in case she doesn’t win the race. However, King Candy secretly also gives back Ralph’s original medal if he will promise to make sure Vanellope can’t race, for her own good and for the good of Sugar Rush. Ralph, despite how much he wants Vanellope to be happy, cares more about her safety and wrecks the kart they made together so that she can’t race.
Felix gets captured by the king’s assistant after having getting abandoned by Calhoun because he brought up some bad memories from her programmed backstory even though it seemed like there might have been a chance at romance between the two of them. He’s put into the “Fungeon”, a fun dungeon, of course, and is stuck there. So, when Ralph goes back to his own game, he finds that Felix is missing and the Nicelanders are abandoning the game because they are sure that it will be unplugged the next day without its hero. At this point, the tables have turned, and now Ralph has to set off to find Felix.
Feeling terrible about what he did to Vanellope, Ralph gathers up the bits of her broken kart once he returns to Sugar Rush, and finds Felix in prison. He uses his wrecking power to break down the door so that Felix can escape, and Felix uses his fixing power to restore Vanellope’s kart back to its former glory. The two of them find her, and she is able to race at last. However, Felix and Ralph have totally forgotten about the bug from Hero’s Duty that’s still missing and might be multiplying at this point. Calhoun, however, is still on the hunt for it and blames Ralph for everything that has gone wrong, which is actually fair since everything is actually his fault. During the race, the bugs, who were laying dormant underground, attack Sugar Rush. Since there’s no beacon to call them back after attacking, they start destroying everything.
By this point, we have learned that King Candy is really Turbo himself and has been probably taking over every new racing game that has come to the arcade for decades. He messed with the game’s code to replace Vanellope as a playable character and erased the other characters’ memory of her, which Ralph figures out when he sees that Vanellope’s picture is actually featured on the arcade cabinet itself. If she is able to cross the finish line, then the game will hopefully reset back to what it was like before Turbo messed with things. Calhoun, Felix, and Ralph try to help the Sugar Rush characters evacuate the game during the bug attack, but Vanellope, being a glitch, is unable to leave. Additionally, for some reason, Turbo has fused with a bug at this point, turning him into some kind of final boss type character. Ralph remembers that there is a Diet Coke and Mentos hot spring where Vanellope lives and thinks that maybe it can serve as a beacon to get rid of the bugs. So, he makes his way there while Vanellope tries to get back to her kart so that she can pass the finish line.
Both, of course, end up succeeding, which leads to the Disney ending that everyone suspected would come from the very beginning, which includes everything from a princess and a kiss between romantic partners to the main characters getting the respect they wanted all along and the main villain getting killed outside of his own game. For some reason, Vanellope is still a glitch, though, but she can use her glitch powers to help the player cheat at the game, so the players love picking her.
While I would have wanted a movie that dealt more with the games I know and love than one that takes place primarily in fictional games made just for the movie, overall it works. Even though it has a stereotypical Disney ending, it’s still very clear the whole time that the movie is about video games and video game characters. Sometimes, in movies like Lion King or Shark Tale, a story is told using anthropomorphic animals, fish, or whatever that could have easily been told using a different group of characters or even just regular humans. Wreck-It Ralph never falls into that trap.
The visual presentation, plethora of video game references, amusing plot, interesting characters, and love and respect for its audience make Wreck-It Ralph a movie definitely worth seeing whether your first video game was Pac Man, Street Fighter II, or Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade, Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog on a home console, or even if it’s Fix-It Felix Jr. on your mom’s iPhone.