The Ryan Lambie column: can Colonial Marines beat tie-in hell?

Ryan looks forward to Aliens: Colonial Marines, while wondering just why the majority of tie-ins go so wrong...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

Movies and videogames have had a curious, symbiotic relationship since the earliest days of gaming. Some readers will probably be familiar with the E.T: The Extra Terrestrial tie-in fiasco back in 1982; a game rushed into production for the Atari 2600, E.T. was so dreadful that it brought the entire industry to its knees, and the hundreds of thousands of unsold copies were, legend has it, buried in a landfill somewhere in the New Mexico desert.

It’s a testament to the resilience of the videogame industry that it managed to recover so quickly, and even more surprising, considering the horrified reception E.T. received, that companies still continued to put out games based on films and TV shows. The reason, of course, is that they’re relatively quick to produce and almost guaranteed to sell plenty of copies, however bad the reviews.

The frankly bizarre A-Team game is one of my favourite examples from the Atari 2600 era; it’s a crude shoot-em-up where you control Mr T’s disembodied head, which fires laser beams from its mouth. Not only is it one of the most surreal moments in gaming, it’s a handy illustration of how the average lazy tie-in works: buy the licence to a popular television show or film, alter the graphics and sound of a game that’s been lying around for a while (The A-Team was a thinly disguised version of an earlier release called Saboteur), and voila! A quick, cheap to produce, and – most importantly – marketable product which is guaranteed to generate a few sales.

The quality of these tie-ins certainly didn’t improve with time; the game based on the Ghostbusters movie was a dreary affair, but still sold well – even I bought a copy in a moment of youthful naivety.

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Manchester-based software house Ocean carved out a lucrative niche for themselves with a succession of Hollywood movie tie-ins for 8- and 16- bit computers – games based on Rambo, Short Circuit, Total Recall, The Untouchables, Batman and Robocop were all big commercial successes. Curiously, no one seemed to mind that each game was largely the same as the last.

Around 1990, Konami released a belated Aliens movie/arcade tie-in, which followed the same side-scrolling, shooting-things format as many of Ocean’s games. Strangely, Ripley’s normally brunette hair was changed to a platinum blond afro-esque barnet, while similar artistic liberties were taken with the eponymous xenomorphs themselves; some aliens were rendered in a rather vaudeville shade of pink, while others had mysteriously sprouted wings. Still, the familiar ‘Aliens‘ typography was present at the top of the arcade cabinet, guaranteeing a steady flow of coins, despite the obvious discrepancies.

This same mix of greed and cynicism has survived largely unchanged up to the present day, and it seems that some franchises continue to spawn new games that sell well, no matter how mediocre its predecessor was. Take The Simpsons for example, a show that’s been running for almost twenty years and is still waiting for a decent tie-in. Simpsons games have been numerous in the extreme (more than twenty by my estimation) and have straddled almost every genre imaginable – there have been beat-em-ups, driving games, platformers and sports simulations, and they’re all largely forgettable.

Similarly, eighties robot icons The Transformers have never had a decent game based on them, despite numerous attempts from the days of the Spectrum to the present, and a premise that seems perfect for the medium.

What’s most disturbing about these games is that people continue to buy them – Iron Man’s sales appear to have been healthy so far, despite some scathing reviews from all quarters.

Still, there are exceptions to every rule, and it’s fair to say that there are a few undeniable gems in among the licenced dross we’ve suffered over the years. Rare’s sublime Goldeneye for the N64 is one obvious example, and Tigon Studios’ Chronicles of Riddick tie-in surprised everybody by being downright brilliant – who’d have thought that Vin Diesel could programme so well?

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The forthcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines also looks like it could buck the trend – if early signs are to be trusted, this could be a veritable geekfest, allowing us to run around LV 426 shooting aliens with the film’s tri-functional guns for the first time ever. It’s quite likely, though, that we’ll be waiting for Aliens for some time yet – the game was originally scheduled to appear on the PS2 back in 2001, and it’s likely that at least another five Simpsons games will have been released before Colonial Marines finally appears…

Ryan writes every week at Den Of Geek. His last column is here