Mar 4, 2023

Uncle Rico's Days Of Arcade Royalty

Jensen Farley Pictures (1983)
One of the most ridiculously cheesy movies that I've ever seen premiered in theaters 40 years ago today.

Joysticks is the kind of slapstick comedy that makes me glad that I grew up in the 80's.  Society has gotten far too uptight to allow something like this to be made today, but the only people who would complain about Joysticks back in 1983 was the church crowd, and they were far too busy crying on daytime talk shows over the dangers of "devil music" to raise too much of a fuss.

The movie opens with a montage of scenes at a California video arcade with the cheesiest theme song to a motion picture that you are ever going to hear in your life.  These first two minutes tell you everything you need to know to make your decision on whether or not you want to keep watching.  If you're the type of person who tends to take everything seriously, this movie probably isn't for you.  However, if you're a more relaxed type of person who can have a good time with things that are silly for the sake of being silly, this flick is an absolute gold mine.

If you didn't know that it came out in March 1983, you might think that this is a parody of an 80's flick.  All of the cliche characters are present and accounted for:

The hero of the film is Jefferson Bailey, who is the grandson of the arcade's owner.  He's played by Scott McGinnis, who is known to Trekkies as a young Starfleet lieutenant nicknamed "Mr. Adventure" who learns to be careful about what he wishes for after mouthing off to Commander Uhura in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.

In this film, Mr. Bailey manages the arcade and is the object of all of the female customers' affection.

There's a dozen women (give or take) who hang out at the arcade and look for any excuse to take their tops off.

There's a rich valley girl (played by Lancaster's own Corinne Bohrer from Zapped and Police Academy 4) who loves the arcade...

...and the villain of the film is her father who's working to get the arcade shut down after he finds his daughter hanging out there.  He was played by Walking Tall star Joe Don Baker.

There's the hero's best friend, Dorfus, who spends a good portion of the movie eating, farting, or playing arcade games...

...and the hero's nerdy friend, who is sometimes the butt of their joke, but still one of the gang.

The villain has his own sidekicks in the form of his two dopey nephews.  The one on the left is John Voldstad, who is probably best known as one of the Darryl's from Newhart.  The one on the right with the Swamp Thing comic is John Diehl, who was Lieutenant Kawalsky in Stargate and Cooper in Jurassic Park 3.

But the characters who steal the show are a gang of video game-loving punk rockers called The Vidiots.  They're like the junior varsity version of The Scullions from Police Academy 2.

Calling these folks a gang is over-selling the danger that they bring to the plot.  They're basically cartoons characters that have come to life.  Their leader in the leather jacket is King Vidiot.  He's responsible for at least half of the quotable lines from this movie.  Just take this exchange between he and Mr. Rutter, the rich middle-aged villain who is trying to get the arcade shut down.

King Vidiot is played by the absolutely brilliant comic actor Jon Gries.  If his name isn't ringing any bells for you, perhaps you'll recognize him from one of his roles from 2004...

That's right... 21 years before he ruined Napoleon Dynamite's life and ate all of his steak, Uncle Rico was the punk rock gamer who likes to hang out in public bathrooms, King Vidiot.

King Vidiot is upset that he and his gang were not invited to a private party that was being held at the arcade after closing time, and so he challenged Jefferson to a game of Satan's Hollow to win the right of The Vidiots to stay for the party.  Jefferson doesn't play video games (for reasons that have yet to be explained at this point in the plot), so he is represented in this challenge by Dorfus.

The contest takes place in a section of the arcade called The Arena which allows two players to compete against each other using massive joysticks.  The game screen is high in the air, which allows everyone to watch the players' progress and to cheer on their side.

Our heroes face a constant threat of having their arcade shut down by Mr. Rutter, who throws every dirty trick in the book at them throughout the film.  When nothing else works, Rutter employs King Vidiot to represent him in a video game challenge against Jefferson Bailey.  If Bailey wins, Rutter will back off from his attempts to have the arcade shut down, but if King Vidiot wins, the arcade must close their doors for good.

The game that was chosen for the final battle was Super Pac-Man.  This was a brand new game at the time, so a lot of the gamers who went to see Joysticks in the theater were seeing it for the first time.  It went on to become the top earning game in arcades by May 1983.

Six years later, Nintendo used a similar strategy to introduce their newest game to fans.  The 1989 movie The Wizard ends with a competition between three kids who played Super Mario Bros. 3 on giant monitors in front of a cheering crowd.  Most of the gamers who saw The Wizard in theaters got to see the newest Mario adventure for the first time in much the same way as moviegoers experienced Super Pac-Man for the first time in 1983.
left: The Fresno Bee - Fresno, CA  (March 4, 1983)
right: Daily Press - Newport News, VA  (March 4, 1983)

Joysticks premiered in theaters on March 4th, 1983.  It made just under $4 million at the box office, but that's not bad when you consider that it was made for an estimated $300k.  While I was looking for advertisements that ran in the newspaper to promote the film, I was struck by the fact that some of them had taken a few creative liberties with the movie poster.  Compare the ad on the left from California, which shows the ladies as they appear in the poster, with the ad on the right from Virginia, in which they're wearing skirts which look suspiciously like they were drawn on at the last minute.  I guess not every prude in 1983 was spending all their free time protesting heavy metal concerts.

The movie was released on VHS where it became a mainstay at video rental stores, which is how I saw it for the first time.  In the years that followed, it was released on DVD and Bluray, the latter of which came out in 2013 to celebrate the movie's 30th anniversary.  If you'd like to watch it tonight on its 40th anniversary, you can stream Joysticks for free on Tubi and Pluto.