We Didn’t Appreciate the Golden Age of Movie Video Games

They weren't always great, but gaming's golden age of movie adaptations had a lot more to offer than E.T.

GoldenEye 007
Photo: Nintendo/Xbox

These days, it seems like every major video game studio wants to adapt its properties to big and small screens. It’s an area that’s only going to continue to grow after the success of projects like The Last of Us or The Super Mario Movie. But, there was an era in the world of entertainment where movie studios more often looked to video games for adaptations. It was a time that now feels like a distant memory.

Though mega franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, DC, Middle-earth, and The Wizarding World remain vital parts of gaming, direct adaptations of a film just don’t happen like they used to. Granted, that genre often experienced extreme highs and lows, but perhaps we didn’t appreciate those games enough. For all of their flaws, those adaptations offered quite a few things we could always use more of. Perhaps it’s even time to return to that bygone trend or perhaps just celebrate a strange golden age for movie games that doesn’t always get the love it deserves.

The Rise Of Movie Video Games

One of the earliest examples of a video game being released to tie into a big-screen spectacle is the often-forgotten Star Trek: Phaser Strike. Developed by Milton Bradley, it was designed to accompany the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Although it would later be rebranded as simply Phaser Strike, it was an early signal that movie studios were looking at the video game industry as a method of expanding their marketing and providing an interactive outlet for fans to explore their storytelling. The game itself was simple enough, with players simply shooting down incoming ships. But the very concept was a precursor of what was to come. 

Fast-forward to 1982 and suddenly, the adaptation medium had grown astronomically. Alien from FOX Video Games, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark from Atari, Inc., Tron from Bally Midway/ENCOM International, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back from The Parker Brothers are just a few notable examples of major movie-to-game adaptations from that time period. Suddenly, the combination of cinema and video game development seemed to spark excitement around executives, and many gamers were more than happy to dive into properties they were already familiar with.

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The genre only grew year after year from then on. By the 1990s, a tie-in video game was a common part of many movie campaigns, and the majority of major films of the 2000s seemed to replicate that strategy. But by the late 2000s and into the 2010s, the relationship between those two worlds was redefined and re-examined.

In terms of the number of new releases, the movie game genre began to fall off quickly around that time. Whereas once such adaptations were a given, they suddenly started to feel like novelties. Studios began to turn to the cheaper and less risky mobile game scene to profit off of their properties, which effectively killed off the idea of console companions to the biggest films. Of course, we can’t entirely blame the decline of the genre’s quality on the mobile game medium. The lows began long before that.

The Hollywood Walk of Shame

The desire to capitalize on a rising trend, especially in the 80s and 90s, meant that many early video games were often rushed to the market. The situation was much worse when it came to adaptations. Unlike the development of an original IP, there were other factors to consider when adapting a major movie (especially a new or upcoming release) into a game.

Changing scripts and shifting release dates ensured that a video game company would have to keep track of the ever-moving movie industry. What’s more, just because a studio might want to take something from the big screen and transfer it to video games, that didn’t mean it always made sense. Opportunities were abundant, but limited budgets, schedules, and technology resulted in poor execution. 

Some of the worst movie adaptations in gaming history continue to haunt gamers of a certain era. For instance, a highly-anticipated adaptation of Ghostbusters was released in 1984 by Activision for consoles like the NES and Atari 2600. Although its sales were a success, the gameplay itself was boring at best and dreadful most of the time. A core system that required players to catch ghosts to earn money made an inherently exciting concept mundanely “realistic.” Clunky controls and a poor sound design didn’t exactly add anything to a title that could have been so much more.

There is of course also the infamous tale of the previously mentioned E.T. The 1982 video game from Atari, Inc. is still considered to be one of the worst games of all time, and rightfully so. Not only did it boast nonsensical gameplay, but the graphics were so bad that at times it was difficult to tell what was actually going on. That issue shockingly came to define so many early movie-to-game adaptations. Despite being based on the biggest blockbuster films, those titles often felt cheap and too rarely utilized the previously established attributes that should have been their greatest advantages.

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Although the ’80s and ’90s were plagued by misses that often spoke to the limitations of that time period, the developers of the early 2000s seemingly never learned from those lessons. Games that should have been treated as companions were too often still seen as cash grabs and mindless marketing aids. Titles like 2004’s Catwoman often define the worst aspects of that era. Poor voice acting, camera controls, and gameplay mechanics somehow made the also poor film look better by comparison. It’s enough to wonder if that was the goal.

Those issues not only contributed to the fall of the adaptation genre but often define the legacy of that entire concept to this day. The pain of realizing that your love for a particular property was clearly being exploited sticks with you for a long time.

Yet, it wouldn’t be a golden era without some significant releases. The lows of the period shouldn’t overshadow our appreciation of what the genre produced.

See The Movie, Play the Game

Though often remembered for its worst movie games, those early adaptations actually featured quite a few gems. For instance, Disney and side-scroller fans still have tremendous love for both 1993’s Aladdin from Capcom and 1994’s The Lion King by Westwood Studios. The titles were so fun, vibrant, fast-paced, and, notably for their era, a perfect reflection of the animated movies that they represented.

Similar praise could be heaped upon Activision’s 2004 title, Spider-Man 2. Despite considerable competition, that title is still heralded as one of the best games based on the web-slinger thanks to its smooth animations, astounding graphics, and comic book-influenced combat system. Players essentially got to live out the films on their own terms, giving them a unique gameplay memory that would forever be closely associated with big screen spectacles. 

However, the biggest successes of the era often found a balance between the two mediums they represented. The most successful and critically acclaimed movie games ensured that the heart and soul of the cinematic experiences were never lost, but were instead translated to a new medium in ways that often elevated the original material.

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Few games are a clearer testament to the potential of that approach than 1997’s GoldenEye 007. Rare’s phenomenal first-person shooter not only stood out from some considerable console competition (and helped elevate the genre of console FPs titles), but just so happened to be a reflection of the James Bond franchise. 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure by Lucasfilm Games followed a similar model. It served as a strong induction into the action-adventure genre and inspired eventually inspired other point-and-click escapades starring the famous hero. Full of immersive, narrative intrigue, the title followed the events of the movie but had the freedom to really make that story its own.

In that way, these games added to their respective films, providing a deeper analysis of the content, while allowing the fans to live in a small aspect of that universe. The gameplay styles complemented the feature films and provided an alternative point of view for these narratives that were grounded in the middle of the action. 

Titles that were given the space and opportunity to develop their own spin on familiar characters and worlds would form a crucial part of this genre in their own right. Surprisingly, that freedom occasionally led to movie games that arguably surpassed the movies they were based on.

Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is a classic example of that potential. Developed by Starbreeze Studios and Tigon Studios, the title followed Riddick in a high-stakes prison breakout. Presented as a prequel to Pitch Black, the game was actually released alongside Pitch Black‘s 2004 sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. While that movie was widely panned, the game became a runaway critical hit. Its various gameplay elements, especially its well-received stealth mechanic, put players in the world of Riddick better than the film ever could.

Raven Software’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine is another notable variation of that trend. The FOX film was ridiculed for its poor use of the material and terrible adaptation of so many famous characters. However, the absurd grittiness of the video game, paired with its interesting boss battles and a little more respect for the comics, made the hack-and-slash release much worthier of the Wolverine name. 

Most importantly, that age of adaptations offered brilliant opportunities for developers to test out new ideas and take bigger risks within the friendly confines of a familiar franchise. It provided sustainable work for many new talents and proved itself to be a valuable testing ground for big AAA IP. Even games of middling or mixed quality, like The Godfather, Enter The Matrix, Scarface, and Nightmare On Elm Street still played a part in the evolution of the industry.

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And when a title genuinely knocked it out of the park, those challenges to convention paid off. If a video game company got to tell familiar stories in ways that made sense and gave them creative freedom, a little bit of magic was often made. Granted, nostalgia is a powerful feeling and perhaps many titles of the era don’t hold up as fans might expect. But the ideas such titles often represented feel a little more indestructible.

Is It Time To Return To The Genre? 

Given that we know the many reasons behind the decline of the movie game genre, it’s vital to ask why we should return to such adaptations. Well, while the sheer number of such releases throughout the years guaranteed a few flops, today the industry has gone quite the other way.

It often seems more profitable for studios to encourage games set in the universe of a mega-franchise, rather than games that follow a previously established story. But there is a unique angle that can offer the best of both worlds. Letting video game studios adapt a movie to their medium, but with the opportunity to make changes, could be a viable solution. Recent releases like 2015’s Mad Max, 2011’s Captain America: Super Soldier, and the LEGO adaptations of the likes of the Jurassic Park and Star Wars franchises, all offer compelling evidence of how that approach can be achieved and what it can offer.  

Regardless of what the future holds, we really need to go back to that golden age of adaptations and appreciate them a bit more, because they just aren’t around anymore. But by focusing on the correct lessons, the video game industry could finally make the most of a trend that killed off for reasons other than its full potential. It’s unlikely that it’s a genre that will rise again, but at the very least, there’s still plenty of time to revisit the classics and appreciate what they gave to gaming.