They used to be so good
Nowadays, we’ve been trained to be distrustful of licensed movie tie-ins. We’ve seen too many sloppy, half-finished games, assembled at the last minute to turn a profit on gullible moviegoers. Sure, the Lego games are alright, and there have been a few film spin-offs that weren’t abhorrent, but a majority of games based on movies are repugnantly forgettable.
But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, not too long ago, when movie tie-ins were as good, if not better than the average original IP. Going back to the early days of gaming there are plentiful examples of developers taking licenses and going wild with them, creating awesome games set in the universes of our favorite films. Today, we’re looking at the games that slipped through the cracks, falling out of the gamers’ memories despite being impressive and enjoyable.
7. The Lion King
In the mid ’90s, Virgin Interactive was a development powerhouse, pumping out dozens of original and licensed games for the SNES and Sega Genesis. If you remember playing an awesome Disney game between 1993-1997, odds are it was made by Virgin. The jewel in its crown was a platformer based on The Lion King, released a few months after the film came out in 1994.
The platforming was fantastic, with a nice level variety that became even more robust when Simba aged from cub to adult, unlocking new abilities along the way. But while the gameplay was strong, it was really the crisp, beautiful animation and amazing sprites (drawn by Disney’s animators, instead of the developers) that stood out. The Lion King was one of the best-looking platformers when it released in 1994, and still holds up remarkably well.
6. Gladiator: Rise of Maximus
Rome was the it thing after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator came out in 2000, leading to a media gold rush in TV, film, and, of course, gaming. Suddenly, every publisher was scrambling to try to cash in on the buzz surrounding the film, leading to a slew of Gladiator games hitting shelves in 2002–most of which were crap. One, however, rose above the rest with strong visuals and satisfyingly brutal kills: Gladiator: Rise of Maximus.
Though the game shared little with the film besides the names of some of the principal characters (the developer didn’t get the rights to Russell Crowe’s likeness), it played exceptionally well, with strong gameplay that rang reminiscent of Mortal Kombat. Each character had their own style, and the level design was fairly inventive, considering the Roman coliseum isn’t all that appealing when you’re in the pit. We also loved Gladiator’s take on Fatalities, which would pan back to show the emperor giving either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, splashing in a serving of historical accuracy for good measure.
5. Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket was revolutionary and complex, showing two sides of the Vietnam war in a deep, emotional way that hadn’t been done in other films. This… isn’t the case with the game, which glosses over the first half of the film–the part everyone remembers, with R. Lee Ermey yelling at soldiers–in favor of a side-scrolling shooter loosely based on the second half. You know, the part where soldiers kinda wandered around Vietnam feeling bad and killing people.
Luckily, while it doesn’t make for compelling storytelling (which, truth be told, it likely wouldn’t have done in 1989), it makes for great gameplay. Enemies leap out of the well-rendered backgrounds as you work your way through the jungles, and the inclusion of occasional first-person segments helps keeps things varied. It wasn’t the most complex shooter on the NES, but it might have been the most fun.
4. Night of the Living Dead
In the early days of gaming, developers would sometimes grab a film license and slap it onto their game just to ship a few more units, even if the game itself bore very little resemblance to the source material. On that note: Night of the Living Dead. Developed by Ubisoft in 1987, the game was little more than a Contra-style shooter–a slow, methodical Contra-style shooter. You’d wander around black screens fighting green zombies (which, in case you haven’t seen the film, isn’t all that accurate), holding off until a helicopter would come and save you. That’s it.
So, why is it on this list at all? Because despite being slow and rather dull, it had some great ideas that would later show up in survival horror games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark. Limited ammo, for instance, was sort of unheard of in the ’80s, and the focus on survival–as opposed to racking up points–made this game a hit on PCs. It’s no wonder so many developers source NotLD as inspiration.
3. Sin City: A Night to Die For
The high contrast world of Sin City made for a visual treat when the film came out in 2005, reinvigorating fans’ love for noire. The movie followed the events of the comics very closely–which made it weird when the game tie-in, Sin City: A Night to Die For, opted to follow its own path, with an original story and characters that didn’t even appear in the film. This risk paid off, though, and A Night to Die For ended up being one hell of a first-person shooter.
The game puts players into the black-and-white shoes of Wallace (the star of the To Hell and Back plot arc), sending the Navy SEAL through the criminal underworld. The story was strong, but the visuals are what stood out the most at the time. Aping the film/comic’s high-contrast look (with splashes of red for good measure) made it totally unique, and it’s still one of the most visually appealing games we’ve ever played.
2. Mars Attacks!
The PSX/N64-era was no stranger to oddball, licensed shooters (see: South Park, and it’s cow-shooting gun), but Mars Attacks’ weird FPS takes the cake. Set during the events of the movie, the game has you playing as the President of the United States fighting invaders in an underground bunker. Yes, the president played by Jack Nicholson. No, it doesn’t actually match up with the events of the film all that well. And no, you won’t care.
Acclaim nabbed the rights to use Nicholson’s voice, though it didn’t have the budget to bring the star in for voicework. Instead, it picked and pulled clips from the movie, which barely made sense out of context. Luckily, the FPS gameplay was ahead of its time, with incredible alien weapons that made the whole thing just… work. Then again, the same could be said about the wonderful film, so mission accomplished!
1. Citizen Kane
LucasArts was formed to create Star Wars games, but by 1991 creative folks like Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer had set the standard for original adventure games with series like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. Those titles were such critical hits that their boss decided to get in on the action, but George Lucas dreamed big for his first game as director. Pulling from his film school days instead of a galaxy far, far away, Lucas paid a fortune for the rights to make a game based on Citizen Kane.
The postage stamp-sized film clips might look out of date today, but the games use of multiple protagonists was very ahead of its time. The story is held together by an overarching thread featuring an inquisitive reporter searching for the answer behind Charles Foster Kanes last words, and each new chapter is a flashback from a different character. You play as Kanes adoptive father, his best friends turned enemies, and his second wife as you piece together a mans life as best as you can. And when you finally click the cursor on the Rosebud sled, youll know you truly played the Citizen Kane of video games.
Don’t get fooled again
So… yeah. Of these games, only The Lion King is real–the rest we made up, specifically to fool you. Did we? Did you try to convince yourself that you had fond memories of beating Full Metal Jacket in one sitting, or calling the LucasArts tip line after getting stuck in Citizen Kane? Let us know in the comments!