This is a guest post by: Bill Cooney or @ on twitter.
From when I was a younger nerd, searching through the shelves of blockbuster for my weekly game while my parents shopped. To browsing Steam today for the latest deals. There has been one thing in particular that has not changed: they’re still making video games based on major motion pictures.
I never really thought much of it as a kid, it all seemed so natural. For every big name motion picture produced, so is an avalanche of promotional material like posters, lunchboxes, clothing, and school supplies, to name a few. Video games just sort of fit in with the flood of other promotional merchandise. But, step back and look at video games based on movies in their own right, and it’s not hard to wonder why these things even got made in the first place.
Video games and movies really have no business influencing each other. I mean, film is inherently a non-interactive form of entertainment. The audience is there to watch and take in what the creators of the film have put on screen, not to interact with it in real time. Games are the complete opposite. They’re made to be played by their audience, not to simply give them something to watch. This disconnect between the two, I would argue, is the reason the vast majority of games based on films are just plain bad. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the vast majority of games based on movies are either close to unplayable or forgettable at best.
The classic example of a terrible game based on a movie is E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Almost everyone has heard about how terrible a game it was and how it almost killed the video game industry entirely. But E.T., contrary to popular belief, was not the first game based on a Hollywood product. That honor falls to 1976’s Deathrace, an arcade game where the object is for the player to drive over and kill as many people (aka ‘gremlins’) as possible in the allotted time. Today it looks hilarious, and just as pixelated as a game that came out in 1976 should look. At the time however it caused such a massive uproar that it was actually banned, with as few as 2 or 3 machines thought to be in existence by 1985.
The 80s were somewhat of a preview of things to come for movie based video games. Of course there was the infamous E.T. in 1982, but even before that in the same year there were video game crossovers for Tron, Alien, King Kong and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all on the Atari 2600. This, I think is where the trend got started. Hollywood executives saw video games as another merchandising outlet for their films, and invested in them accordingly. The 80s is also the decade that video games truly entered the national consciousness with movie releases like Tron.
E.T. sticks in our collective pop culture memory because it’s the first game, not just film based, remembered simply for being terrible, a trait now assigned almost thoughtlessly to games based on films. They’re not all bad though! There have actually been a few of these games that have been enjoyed and are are remembered fondly. The one that sticks out the most to those of us that cut our teeth in the 90s is GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. This wasn’t just a great movie-based game, it was one of the best multiplayer shooters at the time. Anyone that is old enough should be able to recall fond memories of afternoons spent battling it out with 3 of your friends over the golden gun in some of the best split screen action to date.
There are still good games based on movies being made but, following the same trend set back in the 1980s, the majority of them are by and large forgettable. Ghostbusters published by Activision in 2016 to coincide with the release of the film of the same name is one of them. The game doesn’t feature characters from the movie, is a blatant DLC cash grab, and is almost unplayable by some standards. On the other hand 2015’s Mad Max, released along with Mad Max: Fury Road has received mostly positive reviews for its open word, creative gameplay.
All this goes to show a game shouldn’t be considered terrible just because it’s based on a hollywood film. There have been good, even great games released as more or less promotional material over the years. Looking at the vast majority of these titles over the last two decades though, chances are it won’t be.