There was a time when every major movie release was accompanied by a tie-in video game. For fans, it was a chance to extend the original cinema-going experience into the interactive arena of gaming. For studios and developers alike, it was a chance to make a few extra bucks.
It didn’t always go to plan, though. Atari was the pioneer of the tie-in video game genre but experienced more problems than most. The publisher’s first effort, the 1975 single-player arcade game Shark Jaws, was originally envisioned as a tie-in to Steven Spielberg’s killer white shark classic Jaws. But when Universal rejected plans for a movie game spin-off, Atari was forced to get creative, renaming the game Shark Jaws but ensuring the word “Shark” was written in tiny letters alongside the more visible “Jaws.”
Things got a whole lot worse for Atari in 1982 with the release of its movie game tie-in to another signature Spielberg hit, E.T. Having fought tirelessly to secure the official rights to E.T: The Game, Atari found itself racing against the clock to get the game made in time for it to coincide with the release of the movie. Made over the course of just five-and-a-half weeks, E.T: The Video Game is widely regarded as one of the worst video games of all-time and a title so bad Atari ended up dumping the bulk of its existing unsold copies in a New Mexico landfill. The E.T. saga served as an example of the pitfalls of the video game tie-in, with tight deadlines resulting in some inferior gaming fare.
Some video game tie-ins were branded as lazy cash-ins on a particular franchise or title – but that wasn’t always the case. While the results often varied throughout the slew of console titles released over the genre’s 1980s and 1990s heyday, in more recent times, a greater level of care and consideration for the source material resulted in some genuinely excellent efforts. Even so, plenty of games bucked the trend of the ’80s and ’90s to deliver first-rate gaming experiences.
And in some instances, the resulting games ended up being better than the source material that preceded it. Here are 15 of the very best…
Alien 3 (Genesis/SNES)
David Fincher’s boldly bleak Alien 3 scored big at the box office but left a bad taste in the mouths of many, including Michael Biehn, with the decision to kill off fan favorites Hicks and Newt in the first few scenes. Even Fincher himself has disowned it, blaming studio interference for hindering his directorial debut. The release of an “assembly cut” which added 37 minutes and 12 seconds to the running time has helped Alien 3 enjoy critical reappraisal in the years since, but it remains the bleakest and most divisive in the franchise, including the new sequels, which most can agree aren’t very good.
There were no such woes for the film’s tie-in game though. The Alien 3 games made for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System fared decidedly better despite being markedly different from one another. Both side-scrolling platformers saw players take control of a skin-headed Ellen Ripley, running, jumping, and mostly shooting her way through the film’s darkly atmospheric Fiorina 161 prison colony setting.
The Mega Drive edition offered arcade action thrills reminiscent of the Metal Slug franchise, with a vast array of weapons available to use against the game’s many Xenomorph enemies as well as a neat motion tracker feature. The SNES edition, by contrast, was a slower more thoughtful affair that saw players tasked with a variety of missions alongside the familiar alien-blasting action. Oh, and as an added extra when you died, the voice of Bill Paxton saying “Game over man” could be heard. Either way, they were terrific and terrifying in equal measure.
Ecks vs. Sever (Game Boy Advance)
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever starring Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu holds the distinction of being the worst-reviewed film in the history of Rotten Tomatoes. Yet it’s also the inspiration for Ecks vs. Sever, one of the best first-person shooters in the history of the Game Boy Advance. To understand how that can happen, you have to go back to the beginning, when Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever was a script doing the rounds at Franchise Pictures. At that point, game publisher Bam! Entertainment had a deal with Franchise that gave it the option to develop games from any of the scripts on the production company’s books.
Developed by Crawfish Interactive, work on Ecks vs. Sever the game was well underway before cameras had started rolling on the megaflop film. The chaotic and ever-changing nature of the film production almost threatened to derail the game at points too, like when the lead character of Sever was switched from male to female in order to accommodate Liu, forcing major graphical artwork changes on the game. Boasting a distinctive one-player mode that saw players take control of one of two characters playing through the same game from different perspective, Ecks vs. Sever also featured an impressive multiplayer mode for up to four users, making it something akin to the Game Boy Advance’s answer to GoldenEye 007. Unfortunately, the resulting film had more in common with Die Another Day and has largely disappeared without a trace.
The Sum of All Fears (PC)
Long before he played Batman, Ben Affleck was busy struggling to fill the shoes of another big Hollywood character: Jack Ryan in the big-screen adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears. Replacing Harrison Ford in the role, Affleck’s entry into the Ryan canon is a distinctly dry affair, despite the presence of Morgan Freeman and a plot about Austrian neo-Nazis trying to instigate a nuclear war between Russia and the US. It’s also a lot more entertaining than it sounds, and while The Sum of All Fears played well at the box office, it failed to signal the start of a string of films starring Affleck as Ryan. It did at least give birth to the Sum of All Fears video game.
Fondly remembered by some gamers, this intelligent tie-in PC game played like a simplified addition to the Rainbow Six franchise and, unlike the movie, was less talking and more action. Taking control of a three-man anti-terrorist team, players were tasked with completing a series of missions that involved everything from tense hostage situations to nuclear weapons. A simpler, more linear effort than any of the Rainbow Six titles, the game boasted enough action and espionage to live longer in the memory than the Affleck movie.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)
Not so much a movie as a series of shorts interspersed with music videos, Moonwalker is memorable for animator Will Vinton’s eye-popping Claymation sequence, Michael Jackson transforming into a giant robot, and the sight of Joe Pesci wearing the world’s worst ponytail as main villain Mr Big. Though Moonwalker proved a major hit with fans on VHS, it left many critics questioning everything they knew about the movie-making process – and not in a good way. But despite the negative press garnered by the film, the retitled game Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker fared considerably better.
Offering a cool twist on the standard Sega Genesis beat-em-ups of the era, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker tasked gamers with navigating MJ through a variety of vividly realized levels based on settings featured in the film. Along the way, he was able to dispatch enemies using a set of magical powers (he refused to hit anyone) that incorporated many of Jackson’s most iconic moves including, obviously, the Moonwalk. The highlight came via a special attack option that saw enemies join Jackson in a deadly dance number that dispatched them to the tune of a signature MJ hit. Boasting cutting edge graphics and a cool Jackson-themed digitized soundtrack, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker has retained cult status among Sega fans.
Spider-Man 2 (PS2, Xbox, GameCube)
As a movie, Spider-Man 2 represents the high point of the Sam Raimi trilogy, arriving before the trilogy descended into the Tobey Maguire Jazz emo madness of Spider-Man 3. Blending his own filmmaking sensibilities with that of the Marvel icon, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a stunningly-realized comic book movie boasting a plot with genuine heart. It’s a film worthy of inclusion in any discussion about truly great comic book movies.
All of which makes the achievement of Spider-Man 2 the game even more impressive. Published by Activision across the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube, it offered fans a chance to explore a Spidey-led open-world setting as part of an action-adventure game that deviates from the plot of the film to incorporate a string of iconic villains including Rhino, Shocker, Puma, Mysterio, and Vulture. Offering sandbox gameplay in a beautifully rendered New York City, Spider-Man 2 is often like a more clean-cut version of Grand Theft Auto, with gamers instead tasked with stopping the crimes rather than committing them, of course. While Raimi’s movies were the first to truly capture the exhilarating sight and motion of seeing Spidey moving across the city skyline, swinging from web to web, this was the first time gamers got to feel it for themselves via a groundbreaking three-dimensional algorithm-based system that made for a realistic and rewarding web-slinging experience. If there is such a thing.
There’s much to love about George Lucas and Ron Howard’s high fantasy adventure Willow. Warwick Davis delivers a career-best performance as aspiring sorcerer Willow, while the magical world of Nelwyn and beyond is brilliantly realized. Val Kilmer even puts in a memorably charismatic shift as the Han Solo-esque mercenary swordsman Madmartigan.
Essentially the 1980s answer to Lord of the Rings, Willow may not have spawned sequels (or good reviews for that matter), but it has retained a fanbase and lasting legacy that goes beyond the films, courtesy of the criminally underrated Nintendo Entertainment System game Willow. Produced by Capcom and designed by Akira Kitamura, best known for his work on the Mega Man games, Willow is action-role playing game in the vein of The Legend of Zelda.
It was produced as part of a concerted effort by Capcom to try and draw more gamers to its titles by using established characters and film franchises rather than original creations. It meant that, in contrast to many movie tie-in titles from the era, an incredible amount of care and dedication went into creating Willow. It certainly paid off with Willow, which immersed players in a world of dungeons, magic spells, and first-class RPG action. Far from being a pale Zelda imitation, Willow gave Capcom the perfect platform to show off its talents in the genre.
Dune II (PC)
David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s complex sci-fi novel Dune may have been a critical and commercial failure, but it was a spectacular one, not least in the stunning visuals and fantastical world presented on the screen. Lynch shouldn’t shoulder too much of the blame either, given the amount of interference he endured throughout production. That said, he should probably take responsibility for casting Sting. In any case, the resulting film may not be perfect, but it remains a striking piece of sci-fi cinema which, once unpicked over multiple viewings, has much to offer fans.
While Lynch’s Dune failed to ignite on the big screen, it did have a lasting impact on the small screen courtesy of the game Dune II. Marketed as a tie-in to the film, Dune II: Battle for Arrakis is widely credited as one of the forefathers of the real-time strategy (RTS) genre later popularized by Command & Conquer and Warcraft. Taking control of one of the three interplanetary houses of the Atreides, the Harkonnen or the Ordos, the game saw players compete to conquer Arrakis. Boasting innovative gaming elements like base and unit construction, a context-sensitive mouse cursor. and unique units specific to your chosen house, Dune II left a more lasting legacy than its film inspiration. Plus, it didn’t have Sting in it.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer (Nintendo 64/Dreamcast)
The Phantom Menace may have disappointed Star Wars fans who had been waiting almost two decades for another cinematic installment of Jedi-based action, but there were some positives to be drawn from George Lucas’s ill-fated prequel. The three-way lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul is arguably one of the strong bits of swordplay in the entire franchise while the pod racer sequence centered on Anakin Skywalker was exhilarating from start to finish.
Though LucasArts failed to translate that lightsaber battle into a great game, LucasArts really succeeded in bringing the high-speed thrills of the racing sequence from the original film into the world of gaming. Star Wars Episode I: Racer gave the studio a title to rival the popular futuristic racing games of the time like WipeOut. Beautifully rendered and with a variety of levels and customizable options, Star Wars Episode I: Racer was a smash hit with gamers, selling some 3.12 million copies to set a new Guinness world record as the best-selling sci-fi racing game ahead of both WipeOut and F-Zero. No, we didn’t know that was a record either.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Xbox/PC)
After scoring a sleeper hit with the modestly budgeted sci-fi horror Pitch Black, writer/director David Twohy and star Vin Diesel reteamed for The Chronicles of Riddick. A sequel focusing on Vin Diesel’s mumbling antihero from the first film, the follow-up may have had a bigger budget and stellar cast, but it fell strangely flat when compared to its predecessor. While Pitch Black kept things simple as a man vs. alien survival horror, the sequel became bogged down in its own mythology, at the cost of the action that made the first film so thrilling.
A box office bomb upon release, The Chronicles of Riddick did at least give birth to the prequel tie-in video game The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. A first-person stealth actioner of the highest order, the game put players in control of Riddick as he attempted to escape an Alcatraz-style maximum-security prison. Taking inspiration from games like Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid, Butcher Bay boasted impressive graphics alongside a cinematic gaming experience that blended stealth, action, and adventure. It also featured the voice acting talents of Vin Diesel himself. Boasting a great setting, some memorable characters, and an easy to understand plot, it is no exaggeration to say watching someone play the game version of The Chronicles of Riddick actually makes for a more enjoyable experience than watching the film again.
Friday the 13th: The Game (PS4, XBO, Switch)
The Friday the 13th films were never known for their originality or quality with creator Sean Cunningham borrowing heavily from the vastly superior Halloween and doing it on the cheap. With each passing sequel, the films became less about the scares and more about the bloody exploits of the film’s hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding maniac Jason Voorhees. Every film was essentially the same, with Jason offing a series of fresh-faced camp counsellors in increasingly predictable ways. With the franchise running out of steam, Jason took a trip to Manhattan for one movie and died to be reborn as some kind of voodoo zombie in another. It was weird.
2017’s Friday the 13th: The Game definitely breathed new life into a franchise that, much like Voorhees, had been a dead man walking for far too long. A semi-open world survival horror game, it features up to eight players battling to the death in Camp Crystal Lake and beyond. In each game, one player is randomly selected to control Jason, with their sole objective being to kill as many counsellors as possible before the game timer runs out. For those controlling the counsellors, meanwhile, the objective is simple: run, as fast as you can.
It’s a knowing homage to the original films, featuring familiar characters and settings, along with enough gore and scares to keep fans entertained with Harry Manfredini’s iconic “chi chi chi ha ha ha” soundtrack present and correct. Utilizing the Unreal Engine 4, the game offers a fresh twist on the first-person multiplayer deathmatch antics found on other military-minded multiplayer titles. Friday the 13th: The Game proves there’s still life in Jason.
RoboCop 3 (Amiga)
RoboCop 3 represents the nadir of the franchise, thanks to a decidedly PG-feel that goes against its bloody and brilliantly satirical origins. Instead, fans get a family-friendly affair featuring not one, not two, but three robot ninjas. Because every kids film in the early 1990s had to have ninjas in it.
It was something of a nightmare for the film’s writer, Frank Miller, who saw his RoboCop script retooled beyond recognition in a move that forced him into semi-retirement from the film business until 2005’s Sin City. There was similar anguish for Robert John Burke, who replaced Peter Weller as RoboCop but was forced to wear Weller’s RoboCop suit from the previous film, despite being significantly taller than his predecessor. The result was a performance every bit as painful as it looks.
But the shift to a family-friendly RoboCop did reap some rewards… well, for Amiga gamers at least. Switching between shoot-em-up action and rough-and-ready driving levels, the Amiga version of RoboCop 3 was most distinctive for its immersive “Movie Adventure” mode, which put gamers in Burke’s uncomfortably small shoes as RoboCop. A strikingly original take on the concept that was both tense and atmospheric in equal measure, it might even be argued that RoboCop 3 had more in common with Paul Verhoeven’s original movie than it did RoboTurkey 3. Either way, like RoboCop himself, it was ahead of its time.
Hulk (GameCube, PS2, Xbox, PC)
The tie-in game that accompanied the release of the 2003 version of Hulk doubled down on what Ang Lee’s ponderous film failed to deliver: lots of the Incredible Hulk smashing things up. Whereas Lee’s movie found Eric Bana in a contemplative mood as Bruce Banner, VU Games and Radical Entertainment seemed to have a better grasp on what made the character such a popular figure among Marvel Comics readers in the first place. Basically, they made him mad and they kept him mad for as long as conceivably possible.
Big, dumb, and kind of fun, Hulk was a back-to-basics beat-em-up, giving gamers free rein to smash things up and leave wanton destruction in their wake. It may not have been perfect, but the decision to let gamers inhabit the character of the Hulk in full-flow rampage mode proved a shrewd move and the perfect antidote to Lee’s dialogue-heavy film. Bana lends his voice to the character, which adds an extra touch of class, and while there are some significantly slower levels that see you take control of Dr. Bruce Banner, it’s not long before the Hulk returns for some more smash-and-grab action.
Dick Tracy (Genesis)
A Dick Tracy movie had been in development for most of the 1980s before Warren Beatty got involved. Probably keen to bounce back from the atomic bomb of his previous film, Ishtar, Beatty poured his heart and soul into directing and starring in the comic strip adaptation. Drawing inspiration from artist Chester Gould’s original 1930s strip, Beatty evoked those origins by limiting himself to seven primary colors, each presented in the same shade. Beatty wasn’t the only one giving it his all – Madonna took a huge pay cut to play femme fatale lounge singer Breathless Mahoney while Al Pacino underwent three and a half hours of make-up and prosthetics work every day to become Big Boy Caprice.
Despite middling reviews, Dick Tracy went on to win Oscars for best art direction, make-up, and song, so all three were kind of vindicated on some level. However, if someone had told Beatty, Madonna, and Pacino the film’s biggest legacy would be a game on a series of now-defunct 16-bit consoles, they probably wouldn’t have bothered. Okay, so that may not strictly be true, but the game version of Dick Tracy is a definite upgrade on the film, thanks to Sega’s efforts on the Genesis version of the game.
A side-scrolling platformer in the mold of the hit Shinobi franchise, what separated Dick Tracy from other games on the console was the unique Tommy gun feature. It meant players not only had to take out enemies in front of them using Tracy’s signature Tommy gun but also in the backdrop, where they lurked in doorways and windows. Quite literally adding new depth to the game, this feature, coupled with the distinctive color palette and equally colourful characters, made for a memorable gaming experience.
Die Hard Trilogy (PlayStation)
Now for any big Die Hard fans, it’s worth clarifying that this is in reference to the trilogy as a whole rather than just the first film per se. Most fans would admit that both Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard with a Vengeance are fun but ever-so-slightly flawed. Sure, they are a major step up from the Die Hard sequels that followed but then again most Bruce Willis films are – Color of Night included. In any case, this puts the trilogy at odds with Probe Entertainment’s near-perfect spin-off game Die Hard Trilogy.
One of the greatest and all-too-often unheralded titles to ever arrive on the PlayStation, Die Hard Trilogy had it all: a third-person shooter, a Time Crisis-style light gun game, and a driving-based entry with an explosive twist. All three were perfectly pitched, featuring iconic locations from the three films plus audio clips of familiar quotes. The graphics pushed the console to the very limit and the gameplay remained top-notch.
It all added up to an incredible value, packing three great games onto one disc, which was no mean feat on the PlayStation, a console with an impressively vast array of rubbish games ready to deceive you into parting with your hard-earned cash. A PlayStation bestseller, Die Hard Trilogy proved so popular it even spawned its own spin-off sequel trilogy featuring three all-new John McClane adventures, none of which have been adapted for the big screen. There’s still time, of course. It is Bruce Willis after all.
GoldenEye 007 (Nintendo 64)
Pierce Brosnan kicked off his long-delayed stint as James Bond with this excellent Cold War-tinged 007 effort. It was a return to form for Bond, full of unexpected twists, eye-catching thrills, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that proved the perfect antidote to Timothy Dalton’s deadly serious stint as the world’s least secretive secret agent. It’s also a unique entry on this list in that the existence of the tie-in video game has arguably enhanced the reputation of the film in the years since. Ask Bond lovers of a certain age to name their favorite 007 adventure and plenty will say GoldenEye. Though there’s plenty to praise about Brosnan’s film, the mere mention of the word “GoldenEye” would likely conjure up memories of the Nintendo 64 game.
If Sonic the Hedgehog was the game that helped the Genesis make it big, then the same must surely go for the N64 and GoldenEye 007. Out of nowhere, the game ended up becoming a huge part of the console’s success – and yet it was almost very different. GoldenEye the game was originally conceived as a Time Crisis-style rails shooter before a change of heart saw it become a first-person shooter, complete with a multiplayer mode that utilized the N64’s distinct addition of four controller ports.
Combining stealth and action elements, GoldenEye 007 sold eight million copies worldwide and is rightly ranked among the greatest games of all time, with mods, add-ons, and sequels being produced officially and unofficially to this day. It’s the greatest proof you need that a game can be better than the movie it’s based on, even when that movie is a good one.