I think most people who were kids in the 80s and early 90s, even the non-gamers like myself, can pinpoint some early video game memories. For me, it was playing Mortal Kombat after school at my neighbor’s house in the early 90s. I got dominated every single time, but couldn’t stop myself from going back for more of those pixelated graphics, tinny chiptunes, and chasing possible victory. 

As a kid without a console (or a prayer at the arcade), it wasn’t until much later that I realized many of my favorite movies had video game doubles. Revisiting these games today, in a context where gaming industry revenue has surpassed that of film, these games are doofy, but the nostalgia is killer. 

The games are also a slow burn: slow to load, repetitive, and with primitive controls that don’t account for human intention. I think it’s safe to say that patience is no longer our collective forte. We as a society have become just abysmal at waiting. Waiting for shipping, waiting for someone to reply to a text, waiting in line at the post office to buy stamps so you can send a letter for someone else to wait for (or wait, is that just me?).

Have you tried waiting in line for something without your phone in the last ten years? Agonizing. The convenience and distraction of our lifetime is astounding. Even as many of us divest from corporations like Amazon, the I want it now complex reigns supreme. 

But I think waiting, in manageable doses, is good for our brains. So today, I invite you to join me on a nostalgic and patience-testing exploration of some classic sci-fi movies and the 8-bit video games created in their image (well, sort of). I’ve linked to playable emulators so you can really get into it.

Note: You’ll need to hit enter to get most of the emulators to start running. 


Alien (1982), based on the film Alien (1979)
Gameplay Video | Emulator
That’s right: this video game was released three years after the movie came out. And guess what? It’s Pac-Man. Literally just Pac-Man with different shapes and only very slightly different sound effects.

Star Wars (1983-4), based on the film Star Wars (1977)
Gameplay Video | Emulator
It’s all about exploding the Death Star, as only it could be. The first challenge is to fend off a few pesky TIE fighters (if you can hit them with the wonky controls). Naturally, the next phase is a recreation of the iconic POV shot from Luke’s X-wing flying down the corridor to blast the ship’s only vulnerable point. Players who use the force will be rewarded with a short but sweet 8-bit clip of the Star Wars theme, which may or may not be the only indication that you’ve won.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 1987 Namco game released only in Japan (Gameplay Video | Emulator), which opens exactly like A New Hope. The game’s opening sequence is complete with scrolling text, a pan down to reveal the underbelly of an Imperial Star Destroyer, and Leia’s special message for R2 before whisking the player off to Tatooine for some intergalactic side-scrolling action, all under what could only be called an orchestral ‘beep boop’ arrangement of the score. What a difference ten years makes! The Star Wars games obviously didn’t stop there, but I’ll let you discover what a computerized AT-AT looks like on your own.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), based on the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Gameplay Video | Emulator
Getting up to speed with a same year release! Fairly true to the plot, you play as E.T. searching for parts of a contraption that you can use to phone home while trying to hide from the government bad guys. Strong anti-establishment vibes. When you die, Elliot appears to revive you with his lifeforce, accompanied by an 8-bit rendition of the theme song. Maybe it’s just because I love E.T. beyond reason, but the 8-bit theme gives me a huge serotonin rush.

Ghostbusters (1984), based on the film Ghostbusters (1984)
Gameplay Video | Emulator
It would be devastating if this game didn’t have a satisfying beep-boop version of its titular theme—and thankfully, it does not disappoint. You play as ghostbusters (duh) trying to lower the paranormal psychokinetic levels in NYC by trapping ghosts before Zuul is roused (and aroused) and causes trouble. The player tracks ghosts on a monitor at Ghostbusters HQ, chases them down in the Ectromobile, and then corrals Slimer-esque sprites with classic Proton Packs and traps. Each time you trap a ghost, the PK level diminishes, and your budget for more ghostbusting tools increases.

I have to admit that I was struck by the emphasis on raising the ‘bustin budget. I couldn’t help myself from connecting the gameplay to timely conversations about vastly over-bloated policing budgets. In NYC, this week marked primaries for several city-wide offices including Mayor, Comptroller, and Public Advocate—all of whom deal with our budget. Budget justice could not have been more front of mind for New Yorkers last summer, with the vote on the FY2021 budget coming about a month after the murder of George Floyd. As across the country, public outrage about funding a militarized and racist police force, while basic community needs like housing and school resources go underfunded, was off the charts. I know the NYPD isn’t hunting down paranormal creatures but recent events made me look at this game differently. As media consumers, we’ve always gotta be examining the messages we receive—even in silly ghostbusting games.

Back to the Future (1989), based on the film Back to the Future (1985)
Gameplay Video | Emulator
This game features an almost unrecognizable digital instrumental version of the film’s unofficial theme song, Huey Lewis and the News’ Power of Love. You play as Marty trying to collect enough time—in the form of collectible clocks—to move to the next level while evading bullies and an avatar that appears to be a horny Lorraine.

The final level recreates the climactic scene, in which the player must hit 88 mph in the Delorean to get back to 1985. Players will also encounter other challenges such as keeping your guitar in tune at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance (set to a much more recognizable chiptune cover of Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry), and an anti-Oedipul mini-game dodging kisses from your mom. According to Wikipedia, the film’s screenwriter called it “one of the worst games ever.” It’s endearing, but he’s not wrong! Electric Dreams Software (oh la la) actually released an earlier Back to the Future computer game in 1985 (with arguably better music than the NES game), but the entire goal of play is to get George to spend as much time as possible with Lorraine. Without context, it appears to be a game about a stalker and is creepy as hell. And because I am a softie for these delightful chiptune covers, don’t miss this full theme from the 1990 Image Works game.

I hate to say it, but there is also a game based on the freaky AF 1986 flick Howard the Duck, which I’m sure is horrifying. There’s a lot more where this came from, so we’ll leave that can of worms for next time.