These days, video game competitions are a serious professional e-sport that generates hundreds of millions of dollars all across the world - but it wasn't always like that. Years ago, when the video game industry was in its infancy, the concept of organized competitions and professional gaming was little more than a pipe dream. A movie released in the late '80s changed the way people think of games, and while it wasn't an exceptionally great flick, it definitely had an impact on the zeitgeist when it comes to video games as a serious form of entertainment.
The Wizard is a relatively simple film featuring Fred Savage and his little brother traveling across the country to engage in a massive gaming tournament (before there were such things). Throughout their adventure, they are tracked by a bounty hunter/kid finder, and ultimately, the younger brother battles it out on the cutthroat stage of what amounts to an incredibly long commercial for Nintendo's products. The movie may have failed to impress at the box office, but many look back on it fondly as a reminder of the '80s and 1990s, video game culture, and Western gamers' first glimpse of Super Mario Bros. 3.
You might think that Nintendo was the company responsible for getting The Wizard made, but the company had little to do with the film's inception. It was thought up by executives at Universal Pictures as a sort of updated version of the movie Tommy, but centered around video games instead of pinball. Studio executives contacted Nintendo and asked if the company was interested in getting involved.
The video game developer ended up coming on board, but the company didn't need to. At the time, the Nintendo Entertainment System was the best-selling video game console in the world, and it was Nintendo that brought the industry back from the brink following the video game crash of 1983. Still, it was a good opportunity to showcase some of the company's products, and that's the main reason Nintendo signed onto the project.
One of the main reasons Nintendo opted to support The Wizard had to do with a memory chip shortage in 1988. Without enough of the chips being made, Nintendo couldn't follow its own release schedule in the Western market. This meant that Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link couldn't be released as planned, and Nintendo saw the film as an opportunity to promote its products via a feature film as a means of filling the gap left in production.
Had there been no shortage, it's likely Nintendo wouldn't have agreed to work with Universal Studios. The film was something of a gamble, and despite video games being a big market at the time, their inclusion in feature films was relatively new. Additionally, it wasn't something that fit into Nintendo's traditional marketing strategy, but without enough chips to produce the required cartridges, the film presented a unique opportunity, and Nintendo didn't have much to lose.
If you watched The Wizard and thought the plot seemed familiar, there's a pretty good reason for that. The movie was inspired by Tommy, which is about a young man who becomes a prodigy at playing pinball games. The film is oriented more towards adults, and it served as an inspiration for The Wizard. That being said, the basic plot structure of the film was completely lifted from Rain Man.
Rain Man was released the year before The Wizard, and the plots are nearly identical. Both films feature a brother duo where one brother leads the other to a competition where they can take advantage of the other brother's gifts. For Rain Man, it was Dustin Hoffman's skills at counting, which worked well to earn some serious cash in Vegas. For The Wizard, it was younger brother Jimmy's (Luke Edwards) ability to play any video game expertly that brought the kids to the Video Armageddon gaming competition. Both brothers were savants who either had Asperger syndrome or a form of autism.
When The Wizard was in development, the producers sought two of the cast members due to their string of successes leading into 1990. Christian Slater had just finished blowing away audiences in Heathers, and Fred Savage was blowing up thanks to The Wonder Years. He may have only been 12 years old at the time, but Savage was a big pull for a film like The Wizard, while Slater was equally as impressive.
Throw Beau Bridges into the mix, and the film had a great deal of star power. Despite grabbing these rising stars, the film wasn't greatly elevated by any of the actors in it. Despite their talent, the film wasn't incredibly well-written, directed, edited, or even acted. Still, it probably wouldn't have been half as memorable as it is today were it not for the presence of Savage and Slater.