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Explaining Stranger Things’ most obscure reference

Screenshot: Stranger Things/Netflix

The Dragon’s Lair prowess of the Stranger Things gang isn’t the only unbelievable sight inside the series’ era-appropriate arcade. The Palace is filled with recognizable cabinets—Dig Dug, Asteroids, Galaga—but buried in its backroom is a curious machine that even the most ardent retro game fans wouldn’t recognize: Quest For The Space Knife. The font, the title, the radical side art with an astronaut blasting some kind of space monster; it’s just about authentic enough to pass at first glance. The only issue is, there never was a game called Quest For The Space Knife. The cabinet, or the one side of it we see at least, was built just for the show, but there’s more to this faux arcade classic than a pretty face and a wacky name. It’s actually part of a string of anachronistic Easter eggs relating to one of the show’s crew members and his musical alter ego.

Craig Johnson has been a set dresser on both seasons of the hit show, as well as on films like Hidden Figures and Dirty Grandpa. When he isn’t helping perfect and track the continuity of Stranger Things set decorator Jess Royal’s meticulous productions, there’s a chance Johnson is working on his cheesy, oh-so ’80s synth-pop, which he produces under the name of—you guessed it—Space Knife. Way back in 2013, Johnson released a three-track EP on his Space Knife Bandcamp page and put together an ’80s-themed music video for the song “I’m Taking Off (Shield Your Eyes).”

That video is how Space Knife landed its first Stranger Things appearance. According to an interview with Johnson on AL.com, the series’ art department was looking for things to play on background TVs during the production of season one, and Royal asked Johnson if he’d offer up his “I’m Taking Off” video. He agreed, and as a result, a brief shot of Space Knife’s debut music video can be seen playing on a TV during the confrontation between Jonathan and his father in “The Weirdo On Maple Street.” You can even hear the song playing, very quietly, throughout the scene.

Screenshot: Stranger Things/Netflix

After that prominent cameo, Space Knife ephemera pops up in a few more episodes. There’s the aforementioned arcade cabinet in “Dig Dug,” of which Johnson said on Space Knife’s Facebook page “We were going to make a full game but ran out of time.” And back in the seventh episode of the first season, “The Bathtub,” a Space Knife poster that was drawn by one of Johnson’s friends, according to that AL story, is hung in the box-office window of the movie theater that Steve’s cronies defaced.

If you look real close under the ladder, you can just make out the Space Knife poster. (Screenshot: Stranger Things/Netflix)

There’s another quick Space Knife shout-out in the background of a season two scene. In “The Spy,” you can see what looks like the cover of a Space Knife record behind Nancy during a breakfast scene.

Psssst—over on the left. (Screenshot: Stranger Things/Netflix)

For his part, Johnson is running with the exposure. He released a new song and video right after the premiere of season two, and with more Stranger Things to come and more ’80s-looking set decorations always in need, we doubt this is the last of Space Knife we’ve seen in Hawkins.


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About the author

Matt Gerardi

A.V. Club games editor and pin-wearing member of the society since 2012.