Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy spinoff series I Am Groot expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the most inconsequential ways. Across two seasons of zippy animated shorts, Baby Groot has a fist fight with a space bonsai tree, enjoys a spa day, and meets (and stomps on) a Lilliputian alien civilization, all while the other Guardians are somewhere out of frame.
But season 2 of I Am Groot does expand the video game canon of the MCU, in which a dozen or so real-world games are confirmed to exist, Fortnite and Polybius among them. Groot’s video game of choice appears in the episode “Groot Noses Around.” It’s inspired by 16-bit fighting games like Super Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. (Groot was previously established as a gamer in Avengers: Infinity War, in which he obsessively plays a handheld version of Defender.)
Groot’s video game doesn’t have an official name. But it is codenamed Beach Fighters, according to its creator, pixel artist and animator Jon Davies, whose real-world video game work includes Cursed to Golf, The Binding of Isaac, and Super House of Dead Ninjas. Davies told Polygon that I Am Groot director Kirsten Lepore and her team recruited him to animate a fighting game for the episode where Baby Groot vegges out on a filthy beanbag, deep in a gamer haze.
“[They] proposed a fighting game for Groot to play that he would be happily button mashing on before the battery on his controller ran out,” Davies explained. “They specifically wanted something more retro, with limited/reused animation frames for quick attacks and background animations, similar in scope to the console ports of Street Fighter 2, rather than more detailed with smoother animations like the 2D Marvel Vs. Capcom games. The game was meant to clearly portray that Groot is just mashing buttons and throwing random attacks out at an inactive P2 opponent.”
Groot is playing as a Skrull in battle against a Sakaaran Guard, and there are a few Marvel character cameos, including Howard the Duck, in the background. Getting Howard into Beach Fighters was his one personal request for the project, Davies said.
As for how an original retro fighting game wound up in the episode, I Am Groot writer and director Kirsten Lepore told Polygon that it tied directly into the episode’s premise: Groot’s new nose.
“Our initial logline that we sent the execs — we send 30 of them per season, and they’re all just kind of random things that we don’t really develop beyond a sentence or two — was one that I was particularly excited about,” Lepore said. “It was just a phrase I had written in my sketchbook, which is ‘Groot gets a nose.’ It was just a bizarre idea that I thought they would never go for and then was shocked when they actually circled that one and sent it back.”
When Groot acquires his nose, he discovers a new galaxy of smells, including his own Cheetos-dust-infused, unwashed personal stench.
“[We] were like, OK what’s the time where you are engrossed in something that you completely lose track of time and do not care if you showered, or what you smell or look like? Yeah, when you’re on a game bender,” Lepore explained. “That might have been a pitch from Aleks [Sennwald], our storyboard artist and as soon as that board came in, I was cracking out to see him on the bean bag chair.
“There was even a lot of discussion about the bean bag chair specifically, because I think it was kind of a difficult object with our CG vendor, Luma. They were like, Does it need to be a bean bag chair? Yes, and it has to be filthy. He has to have been there forever and he’s like wiping his Cheetos grease on it and everything.”
Lepore pointed out another of her favorite Filthy Gamer Groot details: He’s eating spaghetti out of a boot. “It’s like he also was so engrossed in his game that he’s like, Yeah I don’t need anything fancy. Just put it in the boot,” Lepore said.
While it was clear the show’s creators wanted Groot to be a grimy gamer, there was debate internally about what kind of game Groot should be playing, Lepore added. During the episode’s storyboard phase, Groot was shown playing a Space Invaders-style shooter. But Lepore pushed for a fighting game. “I always thought it was really important that he is not at all skilled at playing the game that he’s playing. He’s a total button masher,” Lepore explained. “I did a bunch of video references and stuff for the animators so that they really understood, it’s like a very floppy mashing.”
Lepore said that Street Fighter is “near and dear” to her heart, because those are the games she grew up with — and grew up playing with comparable skill levels to Groot.
“I was really into [Street Fighter] when I was young,” Lepore said. (She was a Chun-Li main.) “I played it on either Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis at my neighbor’s house because I wasn’t allowed to have a console. But that’s what I spent all my time doing, just going to his house to play. I wanted something in that realm [where] he’s probably just either playing the computer or playing some internet player far off in the galaxy or whatever.”
The joke, though, is that Groot is playing against no one, either the computer or an unattended second controller. He’s trying so hard, but is so bad at it. His Skrull fighter is just punching and kicking at air, often in the wrong direction. “You just don’t know what you’re doing as a kid,” Lepore said. “I mean, that’s how I played Street Fighter: curious, but I was not a combo person at all. If I got a combo it was totally accidental. So I think that’s also giving Groot a little bit of that flavor of my experience as a kid gamer.”
Lepore noted that I Am Groot composer Daniele Luppi wrote an original chiptune score for Beach Fighters, a deviation from his typical style. “His specialty is kind of doing more of like a ’60/’70s sound with analog microphones and analog synths and everything,” she said. “I was blown out of the water when he knew how to make retro game music too. He just totally surprised us and made this awesome track that gets to come back a few times and which I was really excited about.”
One final detail Lepore was excited to talk about: I Am Groot’s “stink haze.”
“These are the kinds of asks that I make all the time and probably made our vendors crazy,” Lepore said when I asked her about the technical implementation of gamer funk and cheese snack particle effects. “But I think that’s maybe why they also love me, because they’re just like, Wow, no one else is asking us to add Cheeto dust to our models right now. I remember the first time the Cheeto dust came back, I had notes. So we did go through a round of revisions to make sure that Cheeto dust was really, really reading and that you were seeing that filth. In terms of the filth of the room, we internally coined the term ‘stink haze’ which was just something we talked a lot about. The stink haze comes back even more fast and furious, no pun intended, at the end.”
Season 2 of I Am Groot, which you can watch in its entirety in under 30 minutes, is now streaming on Disney Plus.