A video has been released recreating what John Wick may have been like were it a 1980s 8-bit game played on the NES. The film is back in the public consciousness from the recent release of its second sequel, subtitled Parabellum, a Latin phrase translating to “prepare for war” and referring to every assassin within an outlaw subculture seeking the vast bounty on its eponymous protagonist’s head.
Released in 2014, John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who had escaped his life of violence. While grieving the tragic loss of the wife for whom he had left the murky underworld and turned his life around, an act of spiteful malice pulls him back into it. The film quickly distinguished itself from much of contemporary action fare via a number of factors, including the taciturn minimalism of its dialogue, the hinted-at scope of the criminal society existing in plain sight alongside the everyday, action scenes with very little quick cutting, the neo-noir sense of style, and the emotional core of its protagonist’s motivation.
A creation of indie game development studio JoyMasher, the video features imitated gameplay of a side-scrolling run-and-gun shoot-‘em-up, where John strides fearlessly though an advancing army of enemies, effortlessly blasting each of them into oblivion regardless of whether they have machetes, shotguns or sniper rifles, before taking on a final boss of an attack helicopter and then rescuing his dog. Created as a tribute to the film, its basic events are linked by pixel art of Keanu Reeves as the character portrait, and using for its music a chiptune remix of “Shots Fired,” the song playing in the film’s nightclub scene when John is slaughtering Viggo’s henchmen.
As well as redefining what a quality action film could be in the modern day, a further effect of the John Wick movies was the re-establishment of Reeves as a viable Hollywood star. For quite some time, and especially since the conclusion of the Matrix trilogy in 2003, Reeves was seen as something of a one-note actor whose voice had little change in intonation regardless of the situation. It became commonplace for people to take cheap shots at his supposedly throwaway worth, despite numerous commendable turns in the likes of A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, Man of Tai Chi and 47 Ronin, and also in the real world from the countless personal tales of his geniality and compassion told by people from all walks of life.
Despite being a straightforward animation, the video’s stylistic details perfectly imitate the look of ‘80s games, with shading to cast shadow effects, parallax backgrounds creating an illusion of depth, and sprite outlines defined by high contrast color palettes. It’s a neat choice to have the enemies killed by one or two shots, whereas John has eighteen health bars and only loses a couple of them when hit by a missile from helicopter, referencing his apparent indestructibility fueled by implacable determination to see his mission through to its end. The infinite ammo could have been disappointing given the times in the film that John was seen to reload during firefights that added a touch of realism to them, but on the other hand it’s likely a reference to the cheats of many such games that allowed you to never run dry.
The gameplay does appear a little straightforward for a NES game, many of which were notorious for their high level of difficulty, and it would’ve been nice if it had also incorporated some of the martial arts that made the film’s action scenes so compelling, but both were likely discounted by the inherent limitations of the animation and the speed at which the video was created. Nitpicking aside, the video is a fantastic creation, both in regards to recreating the look and feel of retro gaming and as a tribute to John Wick itself. It’s at its best right at the end, acknowledging that through all the threats and fights and shootings and dozens of corpses left in John’s wake, in the end it really was about the dog and everything the adorably innocent creature represented.