I am a lifelong fan of both movies and video games. I grew up playing games on our Atari 2600 like Xevious, Donkey Kong, and Mario Bros. This jump-started my love of video games, which still carries on today as I regularly play my PS4 and PS3, along with a few old PC games I play from time to time. Simultaneously with my video game playing, I became engrossed in cinema. Throughout my childhood I watched countless different movies including Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. This enjoyment of movies also carried over to today as I have a passion for both watching and creating them. I love both forms of entertainment almost equally which makes it all the more troubling that they rarely seem to be able to get along.
The relationship between video games and movies goes all the way back to the Atari 2600 and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. E.T. was a wildly popular film, and one that I enjoyed as a child. At the time, home video game consoles were gaining momentum, becoming more and more popular, so it is no surprise that they wanted to capitalize on the successful movie in any way they could. What followed is one of the most infamously horrible games in existence. This was also a game within my collection, and I can verify that it was definitely the worst game we had.
About a decade later Hollywood thought it could capitalize on this video game craze, deciding to adapt one of the most popular games into a movie. And thus the Super Mario Bros. movie was born. Being a fan of the iconic video game series, it was obvious I just had to see this one. So we went to see it at the movie theater and afterwards I was left confused. What the heck did I just watch? Did they even play the video game? But honestly, what should I have expected? This is a game spent breaking bricks with your head and jumping on little turtles and mushroom-looking creatures. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to rich storytelling.
Following Super Mario Bros., the next two video game adaptations were Double Dragon and Street Fighter, both of which are considered garbage by fans of the video games…though Street Fighter has a special place in my heart as a “so bad it’s good” goofy guilty pleasure. Don’t judge me. After that it was Mortal Kombat, which somewhat redeemed the video game adaptation, making a fun movie while using the source material competently. Since then it has been one subpar adaptation after another with movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Doom, and Hitman. Even the adequate and fairly enjoyable Resident Evil adaptation was followed by far too many sequels that just keep getting weirder, worse, and farther away from the source material.
It has become so bad that the best video game movies such as Tron or Wreck-it Ralph aren’t even adaptations of pre-existing games. And now whenever we hear another video game adaptation is coming around, there is a collective groan from my fellow gamers. Oh, an Angry Birds movie? Ugh, why? There isn’t even a story to the game! It’s obvious why they would want to make such a film- money. Adapting a popular series stands a good chance of making money, even if the film is subpar, the name alone will be enough to get people to see it. Hell, the first Lara Croft movie did well enough that it actually received an even worse sequel.
Some might say that the reason for such quality issues is that games are not conducive to a two-hour story. Older games barely had an intelligible story, and in general video games are not created to be finished within a standard movie runtime, some games even provide a hundred hours of gameplay, so they have to be condensed drastically and thus something is lost in translation. In part, that is probably true, but plenty of novels are adapted successfully, so I have some additional theories.
I think part of the issue is the fundamental misunderstanding of gamers. Video games did not feel main stream when I was growing up. They were gaining in popularity, but still seemed to be looked down upon by many as this childish or useless activity. Some still feel this way, and so they don’t really know how to properly cater to gamers. If they don’t take the medium and its fans seriously, how can they expect to do the material any justice?
I also believe that the executives in charge of financing and producing these adaptations don’t always completely understand or appreciate the source material, resulting in things like Raul Julia being cast as the intimidating and tough fighter M. Bison. Julia was undoubtedly a great actor, but a formidable fighter he was not. To make a great adaptation I feel you need to have the decision makers be people who love the game in question, people that have played it countless times and understand the characters, the story, and the essence of what makes the game great.
A great question that all of this poses is- should video games continue to be adapted into film? Back in the day it made sense even though it failed miserably more often than not. Older games had terrible graphics, little to no real story, and very basic characterization. Movies allowed for better visuals, an actual story (even if it sucked), and real characters (even if they weren’t very well developed).
Then video games began to increase in quality, becoming more realistic with well-developed stories and characters. Some of them actually feel like interactive movies. Look at Heavy Rain- it has great graphics, a tense and engaging story, and a choose-your-own-adventure style of gameplay that made it feel like you were playing through a movie…well, more like a mini-series given the length of the game. The recently released Uncharted 4 sports top-notch visuals, a solid story, and fantastic voice acting, so what advantage would a movie version of it, or any of the games in the series, provide to fans of Uncharted?
It is also worth noting that many of us gamers associate certain voices with certain characters. There were talks of a Splinter Cell movie during the peak of its popularity, but the main character is voiced by Michael Ironside, who has an unmistakably distinct voice. For fans of the game no one else would have been able to be that character. There are currently rumors once again of an adaptation with Tom Hardy as the lead, and perhaps now that the series is little more removed from memory it won’t sting so much to hear a different voice, but I am sure some diehard fans of the original games will not accept it.
The first Resident Evil movie had the right idea. As cool as it would have been to see a recreation of the first game, would we really have appreciated that? It might sound good on paper, but we have already played through that story, we interacted within that world and made our own decisions that impacted the ending of the game. I applaud their actions in using original characters within the same universe as the games. However, they then just kept pumping out movies and interweaving characters from the games, though they made a few too many changes and became too much about style over substance for my own liking.
On the flip side are video games based on movies. So often these are disappointing, cheaply made, and terrible games that are regarded as some of the worst games ever made. The aforementioned E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one such disaster that tops many people’s worst games list. But even with the more modern systems they haven’t gotten much better.
Terminator Salvation, the video game tie-in to the movie of the same name, is notoriously glitchy, boring, and bland. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra had its own video game adaptation, one I had hope for, as I was a big fan of the G.I. Joe cartoon growing up. Alas, the game (and movie) did nothing but disappoint my inner child, coming off as a cheaply made knock-off. Hell, even the Street Fighter movie had a video game adaptation and it sucked. Street Fighter games are immensely popular and work well, and even with that already in place the company that made the video game adaptation of the movie of a video game adaptation couldn’t get it right, giving us lesser fighting mechanics with characters that looked like their movie versions.
It feels like they just aren’t trying. And these few examples are by no means the exceptions, this is the norm for video games based on movies, like they’re just trying to make a quick buck off the name alone and thus don’t feel the need to put in the effort. Some of these don’t even acquire the actors from the films to reprise their roles, and others only get a couple of the actors and substitute the rest with painfully obvious replacements.
However, there are some very notable exceptions. GoldenEye 007 was the pinnacle of console first-person shooters, helping form the genre into what it is today. It is undeniable how great, fun, and influential it was. Even though they aren’t talked about much, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King had some great video game adaptations. They allowed you to play through some of the big moments from the films, as well as some new scenarios, utilizing your favorite characters from the films. The mechanics were sharp, the graphics acceptable, and the story on-point with the films. Additionally, most of the LEGO video games have proven to be quite fun with great fan service and humor as they have you play through various movies using LEGOs, including the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings film series.
Fortunately, the cheap adaptations of movies into video games seem to have become less common, and LEGO went a long way to standardizing a higher quality adaptation, even if a couple of their more recent releases had some stumbles. Hopefully the film industry will follow by putting the time, effort, and respect into the source material to provide better adaptations of video games.
We have yet to have a truly great film adaptation of a game. There have been some decent ones, a couple pretty good movies, and far too many bad movies. It’s time we had some solid adaptations that do justice to the games we love. Coming up this year we have another three with The Angry Birds Movie, Warcraft, and Assassin’s Creed, making this a big year that could boost or hinder the video game adaptation. Let’s all hope that one of these (probably not the lame-looking The Angry Birds Movie) helps redeem the stigma of video game adaptations.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.