Bone up on your ’80s trivia to get the most out of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ movie.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel Ready Player One is a love letter to nerd culture, a meta sci-fi thrill ride packed with references to classic ’80s video games, movies, music and television shows. I blazed through the novel when it came out and revisited it (via the audiobook read by Wil Wheaton from Star Trek: The Next Generation) when I found out Steven Spielberg would direct the Ready Player One movie adaptation. And who could be a better choice?
Ready Player One is set in the dystopian near future. The world is in an energy crisis due to fossil fuel consumption and global warming, and everyone spends all their time hooked into the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game in which players can build the life they choose in an immersive virtual reality.
Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts lives in the “stacks,” an impoverished vertical trailer park with mobile homes stacked atop each other like high-rise apartments. Orphaned and forced to live in a double-wide with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend, Wade hates the real world and spends as much time as he can in his hideout, an old gutted van with an OASIS rig.
Everything changes for Wade when he finds out that James Halliday, the eccentric billionaire creator of the OASIS, has died. Halliday left a public video will in which he explains that he has hidden an Easter egg somewhere in the OASIS and that whoever finds it will inherit his massive fortune and control all of the OASIS.
The only way to find the egg is to master the minutiae of pop culture references from the 1980s, the decade in which Halliday was a teenager, so Wade and his friends in the year 2044 have to learn all there is to know about ’80s video games, movies, music and television.
If you have only a passing knowledge of ’80s trivia, you’ll still enjoy the film (and the novel), but a deeper familiarity with the source materials will enhance your enjoyment of the Ready Player One movie.
Rumor has it that Spielberg may change some of the pop culture references for a variety of reasons — ranging from avoiding referencing his own ’80s films to difficulty obtaining the rights to so many different intellectual properties. However, many of the following cultural references are key to the plot of the book and are likely to appear in the film as well.
Since the OASIS is essentially a video game, and the entire concept for Halliday’s Easter egg came from the 1979 Atari 2600 game Adventure, it makes sense that classic video games would factor heavily into the plot of Ready Player One. From arcades to home consoles, classic video games are much simpler than their modern counterparts, and many are now playable online.
It’s easy to find a complete list of video games referred to in Ready Player One, but as with many of the pop culture references in the book, most are mentioned only in passing, while only a few are central to the plot. (Don’t worry — I won’t spoil exactly how they factor in.)
I would recommend checking out the following games if you want to level up: Joust, in which you play a knight riding on a flying ostrich; Tempest, a bizarre space shooter; Zork, a text-based adventure game; Dungeons of Daggorath, a first-person dungeon crawler (requires download); Black Tiger, a platform game; and Pac-Man, perhaps the most famous video game of all time.
Fans of Ready Player One love compiling and listing all the pop culture references in the book, so it’s no surprise that lists like this one are all over the interwebs. As with video games, music and television shows, Ernest Cline refers to many films that were popular in the ’80s, but only a few have a direct bearing on the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg.
If you aren’t already familiar with these movies, check them out immediately! They’re a lot of fun, and an awareness of them will definitely increase your enjoyment of Ready Player One.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is perhaps the best-known film by British comedy troupe Monty Python. It presents the story of King Arthur in the silliest possible fashion. “Ni!”
WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick, is the story of a hacker who inadvertently accesses a government supercomputer designed to predict the possible outcomes of nuclear war. Thinking it’s a computer game, he nearly starts World War III with the Soviet Union.
The films of John Hughes are also frequently mentioned. Hughes wrote such classics as Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science and The Breakfast Club, and his quirky movies epitomize everything great about the ’80s.
I’m a longtime fan of legendary Canadian band Rush, so imagine my delight when the official first Comic-Con trailer for Ready Player One featured their 1981 hit “Tom Sawyer.” And that only compounded the joy I already felt knowing one of my favorite Rush songs, “2112,” factored into the plot of the novel.
The 20-minute track “2112” originally took up the entire A-side of Rush’s 1976 album of the same name. Inspired by Ayn Rand’s book Anthem, the song tells the epic sci-fi story of a dystopian society run by priests with supercomputers. The song’s protagonist, finding a guitar in an old cave, challenges the priests with the power of rock using “wires that vibrate.”
As for the rest of the music in Ready Player One, check out this mixtape playlist created by the author himself! He compiled a list of 35 songs featured in the novel and even created a playlist on Spotify for your listening pleasure. Crank it up!
Ready Player One references a wide variety of television shows, including some classic anime programs from Japan, and several of the TV shows mentioned factor into the plot.
Max Headroom is a short-lived sci-fi show set in a dystopian future run by television networks. It follows investigative journalist Edison Carter as he battles the powers that be.
Schoolhouse Rock! is an educational musical cartoon that aired frequently on Saturday mornings during the early ’80s. It makes learning fun — and catchy!
Ultraman is a Japanese sci-fi series from the ’60s that was syndicated in the United States during the ’80s. It tells the story of a worldwide police force protecting the Earth from monsters.
Game Over — Continue?
Ready Player One author Ernest Cline is the ultimate fanboy. In fact, he’s such a fanboy that he wrote the 2009 movie Fanboys with Adam F. Goldberg, another writer mining the ’80s for nostalgic gold (check out his hit semiautobiographical ABC sitcom The Goldbergs).
Set in 1998 on the cusp of the release of the widely panned Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Fanboys is the story of a group of obsessed Star Wars superfans who travel across the country with the intent of breaking into Skywalker Ranch to steal Episode 1 so they can be the first Star Wars fanatics to see the film. The movie was a box office flop and critical failure.
Luckily that didn’t stop Ernest Cline from writing Ready Player One and ultimately finding the perfect vehicle for his meta style of writing. Ready Player One is a fun book that promises to make a great film, especially in the more-than-capable hands of Steven Spielberg. And like the group of infatuated friends in Fanboys, I eagerly await its release.