Adapt And Die is an ongoing look at how seminal (or at the very least semi-interesting) works of film and television have crashed and burned in the gaming world.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
To borrow Jessica Rabbit’s famous line from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Wreck-It Ralph isn’t bad, he’s just programmed that way. The self-doubting lead character of the movie Wreck-It Ralph has second billing in a fictional ’80s style arcade game called Fix-It Felix. After three lonely decades on the job terrorizing the denizens of an apartment high-rise, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) questions his virtual lot in life as the guy despised by everyone else.
In the film’s best scene, he attends a 12-step support group for video game antagonists (called “Bad-Anon”) and voices his desire to become a good guy—much to the chagrin of fellow baddies like Super Mario’s Bowser and M. Bison from Street Fighter II. (”Ralph, you can’t change who you are,” intones the Pac-Man ghost Clyde.) Soon after his virtual villain bonding experience, Ralph decides to ignore the confines of his game’s script and become a hero.
This subversive idea of Ralph defying the determinism of his own programming could have been taken in even more interesting directions in a video game, where the characters have been literally coded to behave a certain way. But the 3DS adaptation of Disney’s animated feature acts instead as a Calvinist argument against the central thesis of the movie. Now that Ralph has been recast as a good guy, he’s predestined for a role where he climbs ladders or utters tiresome one-liners after disposing of bad guys. In a game this boring, even the characters themselves seem to get distracted. Navigating yet another long corridor to nowhere, Fix-It-Felix murmurs to himself, “I wonder what my lady is up to right now.” Probably not playing this game, man.
The Wreck-It Ralph film was far from a masterpiece, of course. It earned box-office and critical success on the back of a solid first half hour and the fact that it didn’t make the mistake of, say, putting Dennis Hopper in a silly Koopa costume or casting the dude from Party Of Five as a badass brawler. But after the initial scenes of Ralph’s existential crisis—peppered with a few clever gaming in-jokes for good measure—the movie stalls. Once the focus shifts to the candy-coated kart-racing game Sugar Rush, Wreck-It Ralph stops feeling like Pixar’s more endearing works, like Toy Story. Instead, it apes the worst habits of Shrek with obvious sight gags (“Nesquiksand”) and hyper-kinectic action sequences. By the end, the provocative premise of a character trapped by a lack of agency in his own video game gives way to a tired “You should totally just be yourself!” lesson straight out of Kids Movie Morality 101.
(Note: This paragraph discusses plot details of the film’s ending.) In comparison, the 3DS version of Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t even start well. It begins as a coda to the story of the movie, after Ralph has become best buds with his old nemesis Felix and made peace with the denizens of Fix-It Felix. It would be difficult to craft a licensed kids’ game around the concept of forgiving a person who has wronged you after three decades of evil, so a deus ex machina plot device changes the world: Klutzy Ralph manages to accidentally unleash an outbreak of alien insect creatures from a first-person shooter. Thus, Wreck-It Ralph and Fix-It-Felix team up to save the arcade from ruin.
You control both Ralph and Felix—each voiced by actors who excel at emulating John C. Reilly’s gruff baritone and Jack McBrayer’s aw-shucks southern charm. Ralph and Felix only appear one at a time, but you can switch between them, which is occasionally necessary to solve puzzles—puzzles that would fairly obvious even if the game weren’t giving you explicit on-screen instructions for the solution. Ralph, for example, can’t double-jump onto high platforms, and Felix somehow has no ability to climb ladders (which calls his skills as legit handyman into question). And again, the game is happy to remind you constantly about their limits with pop-up text. Both characters also have their own separate health bars, but that’s irrelevant because it takes nearly 20 normal hits from an alien to lose a life. (Somewhere, Mario weeps.)
You start off in Game Central Station with the option of entering one of three different fictional games from the movie. An ugly-looking construction site is the backdrop of the Fix-It Felix levels, where you must leap over dangerously tipped-over wheelbarrows and pillars of concrete. Hero’s Duty—the shooter—opts for the generic future/alien spaceship look where every piece of the environment is shaded with a cold bluish gray. Also, forcefields. Sugar Rush resembles something puked out by Willy Wonka—all pink cotton candy and vanilla wafer platforms.
I’d describe it more detail, but I’m distracted by the countless other bizarre decision decisions of Wreck-It Ralph. Why does standing next to a stationary wheelbarrow or a red-white-and-blue popcicle damage me? Why do I have to play through every one of the 16 regular levels before facing any of the three bosses? Why is a Macerena joke being made in 2012?
Considering the source material, it’s also strange that you don’t play an 8-bit side-scroller in the Fix-It Felix world, since that’s what Fix-It Felix is, for pete’s sake: a combination of the building-bashing elements from Rampage and the “oversized bad guy versus blue-collar regular guy” concept from Donkey Kong. Neither do you play a Halo-esque military shooter in Hero’s Duty or a kart racer in Sugar Rush. You’re presented instead a Sophie’s Choice situation because each world is essentially the same slog through five levels of imagination-free platform hopping and consequence-free combat. Alas, if only our ragtag hero could escape into a game more interesting than Wreck-It Ralph and take us with him!