Licensed games are the worst, right? Cynical. Lazy. Thrown together. Necessary evils for squeezed gaming studios desperate for a quick cash injection so they can get back to working on their personal projects. Generic, “will-this-do?” mish-mashes of current gameplay trends that coast by on brand recognition alone, voiced by at best hopelessly bored sounding licensed actors, or, more likely, a hopelessly inadequate team of impersonators. A helpless by-product of a culture starved of original thoughts that has been monotonously recycling the same three or four ideas for decades. Just the worst.
Of course, as much as I’m a fan of casually adopting the “Everything sucks” mentality whenever possible, licensed games aren’t always as soul-suckingly useless as many would have you believe. Licensed games rightfully have a bad reputation for all of the reasons above and more, but great games can often emerge from the most unlikely and egregious of cash-ins.
For example, one of my favorite games on the Amiga 500, my first ever games machine, was a game by Ocean Software called Pushover. In it, you played an ant who worked his way through a series of underground rooms where the only route of exit was achieved by rearranging a variety of blocks into a perfect domino pattern. It was cute, fun and clever, and I played it easily as much as the much more celebrated Lemmings. Pushover was great.
Oh, and also? Pushover was essentially one big playable advert for Quavers. It turned out the only reason you were laying these dominos in the first place was, in a searing example of video game logic, to rescue scattered piles of Quavers that had been lost down the hole by an enormous dog, who was also your best friend. I repeat: Pushover was great.
So you see? Licensed games aren’t all bad after all, Pushover’s undeniable link to my own childhood obesity notwithstanding. In fact, there are even rare occasions licensed games can even be better than the things they are supposedly cashing in on.
Examples, you say? Well:
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer (N64, PC)
The Phantom Menace is, of course, a bad film, but one that has mellowed in my eyes in subsequent years purely by dint of it somehow being better than Attack Of The Clones. This N64 tie-in, however, has always had a special place in my heart: a lightning-fast futuristic racer that played just as well as more established franchises like F-Zero and Wipeout. The developers had the good sense to base the game solely on the best set piece in Menace (although the official PS One action/RPG tie-in was also surprisingly decent) and dispose of much of the extraneous fluff that hampers all of the prequels, while also giving you the option to abandon floppy-haired pipsqueak Anakin entirely.
This, coupled with a good array of courses and vehicles, tight controls, and a welcome extra appearance from Greg Proops as Fode, makes Racer one of the most likeable of all recent Star Wars games.
Micro Machines and Micro Machines V3 (Mega Drive, SNES, PS One, PC)
I have fond memories of the toys, but ultimately they’re just bloody tiny cars. “Just make the damn things smaller”, said an enterprising toy designer, before strutting off to count money and enjoy a long career as head of Apple’s innovation wing. The tie-in games, by contrast, are wellsprings of invention, with several unforgettable courses: anyone who played an iteration of the Micro Machines games will immediately be taken back to the brilliantly designed layouts of the pool table, the breakfast table, the bathtub and the school desk. The PS One sequel added fantastic power-ups to the already great racing action, that made Mario Kart’s look prosaic by comparison – there is little that is more fun in gaming that picking up the enormous comedy mallet power-up and immediately flattening four of your friends.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Arcade)
A perfect example of Spielberg (and Michael Crichton, for that matter) phoning it in, The Lost World is one of the most disappointing sequels ever, a dull mish-mash with only Pete Postlethwaite, the odd outrageous plot hole and that scene with the raptors in the long grass to alleviate the grinding tedium. The light-gun arcade game spin-off, however, had the excellent pedigree of having been developed by Sega AM3 (later renamed Hitmaker), who were responsible for some of the best arcade games ever made in Crazy Taxi, Sega Rally Championship, and Star Wars Trilogy Arcade.
The graphics were stunning for the time, the sit-down cabinet came installed with a great, immersive sound system, and not only was the gameplay a match for light-gun contemporaries such as Virtua Cop and Time Crisis, it was actually the best of the lot, for one simple reason: it let you shoot a T-Rex in the mouth.
Cool Spot (Mega Drive, SNES)
Turns out Quavers weren’t the only purveyors of junk food in the 90s who were keen to get in on the whole videogame product placement racket. A game based on Cool Spot, the mascot for everyone’s fifth or sixth favourite soft drink 7-Up (and not to be confused with Fido Dido, the spikey haired beanpole that was the drink’s official mascot in the UK but had been replaced by Spot in the US) shouldn’t have been good, but actually turned out as one of the best platformers on the Mega Drive, thanks to some tricky levels, great animation on Spot himself, and some of the best music on the system. The game was followed up with sequel Spot Goes To Hollywood, and logo nemesis Fido Dido got his own 16-bit platformer too, but both games pale in comparison to the charm of the original.
Ecks Vs Sever (GBA)
A first-person shooter for the Game Boy Advance, Ecks Vs Sever was based on an early draft of the script for Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever, a film that was stuck in development hell for so long that the game was released a full year before the film. The result of this was that the script had undergone so many changes by the time it was released that the story bore almost no resemblance to the one depicted in the game.
This, of course, turned out to be something of a blessing, as while the game was seen as a ground-breaking and successful attempt at bringing a serviceable FPS with a really fun multiplayer component onto the GBA, Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever is almost universally regarded as one of the worst films ever made. A sequel to the GBA game that followed the plot, such as it was, of the film was released to coincide with its eventual release – however, by that point the damage to the name had already been done.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Uncaged Edition (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
“Wouldn’t an R-rated Wolverine movie be cool?” whine comic nerds up and around the world on an almost-hourly basis. “You know, with blood and stuff. Blood’s so cool.” Someone at Raven Software must have finally got the message, as the limb-ripping, sternum–puncturing action of X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Uncaged Edition proved a gruesome treat for gamers back in 2009.
A perfectly playable third-person adventure is undeniably elevated into something more entertaining by the stabby, adamantium-tipped gory carnage, which stands in stark contrast to the anemic tedium of the film upon which it was based. It turns out that playing as an unstoppable killing machine was more fun than watching one.
The Punisher (PS2, Xbox)
If the Wolverine game works on the basis that the trick to enlivening a somewhat flaky comic-book movie license is to add lashings of extreme violence, the 2005 PS2 and Xbox adaptation of The Punisher takes this idea and runs with it, or rather runs it face first into a airplane propeller whilst simultaneously blow-torching its legs off. A fairly rote third-person game was made eminently memorable by the torture system, which saw Frank Castle come up with endlessly ingenious ways to torment his poor victims, including smashing their heads in pianos, running their faces over with forklifts, the aforementioned propeller thing, and goring them with a rhino (don’t ask).
The result was one of the only games the BBFC has had to request cuts to in order to obtain an 18 certificate, but the violence itself is so ludicrous it’s difficult to see who could be offended by it. The film was tripe, but the sequel, Punisher: War Zone, took a leaf out of the video game manual and upped the insanity quotient to Mel Gibson levels, which led to widespread bemusement upon release but has now since resulted in it gaining a significant cult following.
WCW VS NWO Revenge (N64)
Anyone who sat through an episode of WCW wrestling from the late 90s/early 2000s will know they were responsible for some of the most hysterical, incomprehensible, audience-belittling television ever broadcast, pandering to the egos of an old guard who were long past their prime while in the process burying a roster of talented wrestlers with one eye on the completion. Sure enough, before long everybody left and WCW was no more, which, in a weird way, also signaled the end of the WWF/WWE, who found themselves directionless without a serious competitor to stoke Vince McMahon’s competitive fire and have been quietly puttering along ever since.
But, for all its faults, WCW also provided the basis for this game and its predecessor WCW VS NWO World Tour, which kickstarted the golden age of Aki-developed wrestling games on the N64. Providing a staggering array of moves, options and wrestlers to toy around with, this game may now be a little hard on the eyes, but the rich and varied gameplay has never been bettered, and it still holds up today as a brilliant and engaging fighting game.
For years now GoldenEye has been the poster child for licensed games done right, and rightly so. Which is not to denigrate GoldenEye the movie in anyway – on the contrary, it’s one of the very best Bond films, a hugely entertaining slice of camp nonsense that caught Pierce Brosnan at his best before the films began slowly became camper and more nonsensical yet demonstrably less entertaining.
GoldenEye the game, however, is one of the most important ever made, one that will make people of a certain age immediately misty-eyed over lost youth spent at playing four-player Golden Gun on Facility with DK and paintball mode on with pals. Goldeneye is a nostalgic reminder of the golden (hey!) age of split-screen gaming, which has now been largely abandoned in favour of online multiplayer. Also, by being the first successful first-person shooter on a console, it undoubtedly paved the way for the noughties super-game franchises Call Of Duty and Halo.
Sorry, GoldenEye the film – I love you, but this is a battle you’re always going to lose. *GoldenEye the film gasps, collapses to knees, screen turns red*
The Walking Dead (Xbox 360, PC, iPad, PS3)
We have a new challenger to GoldenEye’s throne as the king of licensed games, however. Adventure specialists Telltale Games had released some middling-to-bad episodic licensed games before The Walking Dead, with their adaptations of Back To The Future and Jurassic Park, so expectations for this spin-off from Robert Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic zombie comic (the TV series is a separate entity and has little relation to the game) weren’t particularly high.
As it turns out, the moral dilemmas of the comic proved an absolutely perfect fit for Telltale’s ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style of gameplay. Kirkman’s (often-excellent) comic asks “What would you do?” on every page – the game adaptation allows you to answer, while suffering the inevitably terrible consequences over a journey of five perfectly paced episodes. The writing and characterization is of a level that has rarely, if ever, been seen in computer games, and the frequency in which the game manages to elicit an emotional response from those playing it is frankly unprecedented.
It’s a truly landmark game, and one we may all come to look back on as the start of a new wave of interactive entertainment – but even if that fails to materialize, we’ll always be able to revisit this brilliant game.
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