How The Last of Us re-created a 2003 arcade with the help of true enthusiasts

It took a lot of work for Ellie and Riley to play <em>Mortal Kombat II</em> in <em>The Last of Us</em>—and somehow just as much work, if not more, to be able to film it.

Enlarge / It took a lot of work for Ellie and Riley to play Mortal Kombat II in The Last of Us—and somehow just as much work, if not more, to be able to film it. (credit: HBO)

The Last of Us‘ HBO series went to great lengths to re-create a 2003 mall arcade for a recent episode. Two of the arcade enthusiasts hired on for that scene have detailed the triumphs and technical limitations they encountered, at length, in an arcade history forum thread.

In the , a cordyceps outbreak overtakes the world in 2003, leaving things much as they were in the 2023 world through which Joel and Ellie struggle. In episode 7, a flashback shows Ellie and a friend powering up and exploring an early-aughts mall, complete with a beautifully neon-lit arcade, left just as it was during the first George W. Bush administration.

The arcade scene in episode 7 of The Last of Us.

Production designer John Paino told Variety that “Raja’s Arcade” took its name and frontal appearance from the game’s DLC, but otherwise the production team built it from scratch. All the games had to actually work because creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann demanded it, according to Paino. But the original games would have had cathode-ray tube (CRT) screens, which—as anybody using a camera back then would remember—can be difficult to capture. “We rebuilt them on LED screens,” Paino told Variety.

That’s only partly true, and definitely not the whole story. Over at the forums on Museum of the Game (aka the International Arcade Museum, aka Killer List of Videogames, aka KLOV), active members noticed. More than one member reports selling some of their classic games to The Last of Us for these arcade scenes. Two more worked as consultants on the scene.

“They bought 3 games from me and all 3 had beautiful working tubes. I hope they didn’t trash them…,” member shortcircuit wrote. They were, however, “extra stock,” and “not needed,” they later wrote.

Forum members JoshODBrown (Josh Brown) and ChanceKJ (Chance Johnson), who together make up The Canadian Arcade, consulted with HBO on the episode. Throughout an extensive thread, the duo unpacks a lot of the tricks, workarounds, and concessions necessary for the scene.

Inside this cabinet is a Sony OLED panel, flipped and treated to resemble CRT output. (credit: HBO)

The Mortal Kombat II gameplay footage in the episode is their own, captured on a 46-inch OLED panel they rotated 90 degrees and then treated with scanlines, curvature, and rounded corners to look more like a real CRT. They set up a remote interface that would trigger each of their gameplay clips whenever the actors dropped a quarter into the machine, so the show could capture the actors reacting to the clips in real time.

“On the day we filmed it I’m actually lying on my stomach behind the ticket counter a few feet away with a 50 foot HDMI cable connecting the OLED to a MacBook Air running VLC playing those clips in real time as the girls interact with the game,” wrote Johnson in a later message.

“While we got Mortal Kombat to MOSTLY look like a CRT on camera, it was an expensive process (time and money) and we did do it for a few other games in the arcade, but time was not on our side to make it happen for every game,” Brown wrote. Some games had their monitors blanked, so as to not flicker on camera. Some games legitimately glitched or stopped working during the shoot, recreating something likely to happen in an arcade that had sat dormant for 20 years.

‘ arcade was either a working relic or a painstaking reproduction by preservation-minded enthusiasts. (credit: HBO)

Perhaps most importantly, Brown later confirms that “no arcade games were harmed in the making of this show.” A half-dozen games were LCD-based re-creations from Toronto (transported to the show’s Calgary filming location), and the rest are from Josh or Chance’s collections, or those of pinball or Atari collectors nearby.

Among those games considered but nixed because of licensing issues, according to Brown: Ms. Pac-Man, Golden Axe, NBA Jam, BurgerTime, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Pinball titles WWF, Evel Knievel, and Comet couldn’t be included. And “forget about doing anything with Nintendo,” they wrote.

In HBO’s official podcast for the related episode, Mazin and Druckmann talk about the arcade scene and specifically why Mortal Kombat II is the centerpiece. Druckmann recalls having to make a fake arcade game, “The Turning,” for game, because of the tricky rights involved in acquiring the game he really wanted, MKII. Now that he works for HBO, part of the WarnerMedia group that owns the MKII rights, he can relay Ellie’s fascination with the boundary-breaking violent game, which mirrors his own teenage fascination.

Druckmann notes, too, that some viewers of the show in 2023 may have never experienced an arcade anything like the one depicted in the episode. It was important, he notes, to capture “the emotional feeling when that quarter drops into the machine: cah-THUNK.”

cabinet is a modern reproduction, not the original, and you can tell, apparently, from the extra-wide LCD instead of a plasma DMD (according to Aurich). (credit: HBO)

What else is notable, weird, or incidentally incorrect about this arcade, according to people who really care? Allow us to lightly summarize an epic seven-page forum thread (which also contains behind-the-scenes photos you can glimpse if you’re a paying/recommended member):

  • Robotron has a joystick so wrong roughly a dozen forum members mention it
  • The arcade’s neon lights are actually LED ropes, but this is understandable
  • There’s a functional cabinet, which is no small feat
  • There is a Zaxxon but not a Galaxian, which riles many
  • There are doubles of some titles, if you look closely, due to HBO moving to quickly rent reproduction games before Josh and Chance were involved.
  • The Daytona USA screens non-functional USB playback devices on LCD monitors, with simulated jitter and blur added.
  • Chance thinks you should think of the arcade as having been opened by a collector with an ’80s nostalgia kick, not representative of a chain location you’d see in 2003.

All of this was staged for what, in the episode, is just one of five “wonders” Ellie’s friend is eager to show her, a few minutes of runtime. It’s an impressive testament to both the show and the enthusiasts preserving an experience that is quickly becoming history.

“Man. All that time, shipping, set up, effort and expense for one scene,” writes member Coin Mech. Johnson responds: “Oh man, you have NO idea. LOL.”

“We’re stupidly proud of this. All of it. We knew that anything less wouldn’t cut it and we’re nothing shy of grateful that HBO and the rest of the production encouraged us to go to these lengths,” Brown wrote.