Disney's new movie about a videogame villain who decides to do good is packed with a who's who of arcade characters. It wasn't easy getting permission to use the likes of Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Dig Dug. Here's how the filmmakers built their supporting cast.

By Anthony Breznican
November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The Japanese video-game executive had a Pac-Man-size smile on his face. Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer were at the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo in L.A., pitching a Namco licensing rep plans for their Disney animated movie in which a videogame bad guy (voiced by John C. Reilly) decides to defy his programming and become a hero instead.

The goal was to populate the film (in theaters Nov. 2) with a collection of famous figures from the arcades of yesteryear, and this was their first attempt to recruit. ”I said to him, ‘I cannot imagine a movie about video- games that doesn’t have Pac-Man and Dig Dug in it,”’ Moore recalls. He went on to describe a cameo for Pac-Man where the dot-munching hero is at a party, chowing down at a buffet table. As the exec’s translator explained the joke, ”he began laughing hysterically,” Moore says. ”’That’s Pac-Man! Always eating,’ he said. ‘Yes, that’s great. I think this will be fine.”’

Then the rep asked how they wanted to use 1982’s Dig Dug, a hero who burrows into the ground to blow up monsters. To establish that Ralph has a big heart, despite his reputation for being a villain, Moore and Spencer had devised a scene in which he gives a cherry from the Pac-Man game to a poor digital soul (i.e., Dig Dug) who is rendered homeless after his game is unplugged. ”His smile kind of melted,” Moore says. No go. Turns out, some things are beneath even Dig Dug.

From Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Toy Story to The Expendables, pulling together an all-star team in one project can be an effective way to reinvigorate old favorites. But keeping the participants happy is easier said than done. Spencer says the Dig Dug refusal was an eye-opener. ”From that moment on, we said, ‘It can’t just be things we want to do just because it’ll be funny or a good story element. We’ve got to figure out how to make [the characters’ being in the film] an advantage.”’

With that in mind, Moore and Spencer convinced Sega to license their company icon Sonic the Hedgehog, who turns up in a PSA about the danger of dying outside your own game, when a quarter won’t buy you a resurrection. The filmmakers also celebrated when they landed a bunch of characters for a scene in which lonesome villains gather at a Bad-Anon support group. Nintendo granted permission to use Bowser, Mario’s spiky, fire-breathing tortoise nemesis, for that sequence. Also in attendance at the meeting are Sonic’s nefarious Dr. Eggman, plus Zangief the Russian wrestler and M. Bison the evil dictator, both from Capcom’s Street Fighter games.

But then the rivalry kicked in. Each company wanted its characters to appear bigger than the next guy’s, and Moore had to negotiate peace to avoid having the scene turn into a meeting of Macy’s parade balloons. In other cases, though, a meeting of the minds simply proved impossible. You won’t see Nintendo’s Mario, for instance, in Wreck-It Ralph because the filmmakers couldn’t devise a role for him that satisfied all parties. As for Dig Dug, Namco did finally sign off on a scene in which he would appear — gainfully employed — working on a trench. But the film still needed a homeless character for Ralph’s moment of generosity.

Turns out Sony’s nozzle-nosed Q*bert was just the man — er, creature — for the job. ”We had gone through a long list, and this was the last house on the block,” says Moore. ”But fortunately, the people at Sony were like, ‘That’s cute. And that’s nice that Ralph gave him a cherry.’ They saw the humor in it.” And thanks to that one key scene, the 30-year-old Q*bert is poised to attract a whole new generation of fans. ”One [colleague’s] 5-year-old daughter asked, ‘Dad, who’s that guy with the big nose? I like that guy,”’ Moore says.

Though his comeback involved being down on his luck, Wreck-It Ralph may help Q*bert get back to the top of the pyramid after all.

Classic Cameos
Sonic
The rolling mascot of the Sega Genesis console first appeared in arcades?as an air freshener in the 1991 racer Rad Mobile.

Pac-man
The ever-famished game icon, who took his first bite in 1980, appears as his original limbless self for a cameo in Wreck-It Ralph.

Q*bert
The cube-hopping creature, who debuted in 1982, is known for his word- bubble bursts of outrage when he fails: “@!#?@!” He speaks his familiar gibberish in Wreck-It Ralph.

Bowser
The antagonist of 1985’s Super Mario Bros. does a spit-take when Ralph informs his fellow villains that he wants to get out of the bad-guy business. Of course, he spits fireballs.

Zangief
In Ralph, this Russian wrestler from 1991’s Street Fighter II notes that being a bad guy does not necessarily make one a bad guy.

For additional information, visit: ‘Wreck-it Ralph’: 8 Classic ‘Cameos’

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