There are a number of video game truisms that you'll see crop up time and again on the internet, many of which are rooted in truth. Gameplay, for example, really is more important than graphics, and a delayed game does indeed have the potential to be good, while a rushed one is forever bad. The old chestnut we're looking at today, though, is more of a fallacy: movie licensed games always suck.
The upcoming Switch ports of Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered and Alien: Isolation have got us thinking about games based on movies and the reason these tie-ins have a bad reputation. At one time or another when we were younger we've all had our heads turned by some box art featuring our favourite characters from the silver screen. Terminator 2: Judgment Day on Mega Drive (not, repeat, not the Arcade Game) is one that stands out in this writer's mind, but nearly everyone’s got at least one game they regret buying, and it was often on the promise of the licence.
We really should have known better (often, in fact, we actually did know better), but we still put down our money in blind faith that the digital depiction of our cinematic heroes would be enough to paper over any mechanical deficiencies. Oh dear. Gameplay>graphics, indeed.
Maybe it's the shame of spending our hard-earned dollar – even more valuable to youngsters who might only get new games a couple of times a year – on an utter turkey, but whatever the reason, something keeps the old adage alive despite evidence to the contrary. With that in mind, we’ve put together the following selection of games based on cinematic properties that really worked on Nintendo consoles. Looking back, there have been gems since the very beginning.
So, let’s grab some popcorn, carefully eat it while avoiding getting the controller all shiny and grimy, and enjoy some of the best cinematic experiences in video game form...
We're starting with a classic 2D platformer from a time when that was the go-to genre for any licensed game (much like 3D open world action games are these days). The reassuring subtitle 'The Video Game' promises an experience recounting the beats of Tim Burton's 1989 film, a 'movie event' that arguably birthed the modern, cross-media comic book blockbuster.
Sunsoft might not have turned in the most faithful of tie-ins, but it's a tight little game with excellent music which sees an acrobatic Caped Crusader wall-jumping and punching his way through an 8-bit Gotham City in search of the Joker, and it's still a fun retro treat today. Batman Returns on the SNES was another strong showing, and the Dark Knight has obviously had a string of hits more recently with Rocksteady Studios' Arkham trilogy.
So, have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Not to be confused with Activision's excretable NES game Ghostbusters II, licensing issues prevented this one getting a stateside release, but Japanese and European gamers got one of the very few good Ghostbusters games of the era (the original PC game has its fans, and we're fans of Sega's caricatured platformer Ghostbusters on the Mega Drive).
A top-down action game which looks and controls a little like Pokémon Red & Blue, you pick two characters and go around levels based on locations from the films catching free-floating full torso apparitions. The secondary character automatically follows and deploys the trap to catch the blighters with an interesting tag mechanic. It's a fun little game for an underappreciated film that actually allows you to play as your favourite 'buster (although strangely the colour palette budget didn't stretch to rendering Winston in a natural hue).
The quality of New Ghostbusters II is down to its developer, a little studio you might have heard of called HAL Laboratory. Yes, that famous studio is responsible for one of the best Ghostbusters games ever; ex-Nintendo President Satoru Iwata is credited as Technical Supervisor on the game. There's even a Game Boy port, also by HAL, which is a great facsimile of the NES version - check out Jeremy Parish's excellent Game Boy Works video for a little history on both games.
Factor 5's original Rogue Squadron on N64 started the ball rolling, giving console gamers an arcade-y spin on Star Wars flight games like X-Wing that PC games had been enjoying for years. However, Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader took it to a whole other level. A GameCube launch title, it blended original missions with key moments from the original trilogy and showcased the capabilities of the new console. Vast space battles against dozens of TIE fighters really put you 'in' the movies - surely the goal of any licensed game - and the lighting and audio are still impressive even today. Rogue Leader is still the benchmark for Star Wars flight games on console, and we'd love to see the series return on modern hardware.
As Nintendo fans, this is probably the first game that pops into your head when you think 'great movie licensed games'. Not only was the game hugely influential on the FPS genre on consoles, but it also gave N64 owners an 'adult' experience to sink their teeth into. At a time when PlayStation was too cool for school, GoldenEye 007 provided some real ammo in the console wars, and its 4-player deathmatches led to some of the best multiplayer moments on the system.
Originally an on-rails shooter, the quality of the game arguably comes from the time developer Rare was given to get it right (it missed launching with its namesake movie by nearly two years). Combining the power of the console and its odd controller with the fantasy fulfilment of 'being' James Bond, it might not stand up brilliantly today, but in its time it was an absolute marvel and Bond hasn't starred in a better game since (Everything Or Nothing is pretty good, though it can't hold a candle to this).
The 1991 Steven Spielberg-helmed take on the Peter Pan story struck a chord with many a kid who grew up with the Disney film and got to see all those characters reimagined in an over-the-top, live-action continuation of J. M. Barrie's stories. Developed by Ukiyotei and published by Sony Imagesoft, this SNES game is a satisfying side-scrolling platformer. It didn't change the world with revolutionary mechanics or ideas, and it is decidedly slow-paced and 'floaty' compared to many of its contemporaries, but it captured the spirit of the Robin Williams film with great visuals and brilliant music and offers a lovely adventure if you're a fan of Pan. A near-identical version also appeared on the Mega Drive, and on other platforms the game was a point-and-click adventure made by completely different studios.
An enormous number of Star Wars games have been produced since the original 1977 film, and while there's a fair amount of mediocrity (and some utter Bantha poodoo, too), the sheer quantity of titles means some absolute gems were inevitable. The Phantom Menace had some dire tie-ins on other consoles, but Nintendo 64 owners were treated to two winners before the dark times… before Attack of the Clones.
Battle For Naboo was essentially Rogue Squadron 1.5 with prequel trilogy ships, but Star Wars Episode 1: Racer was a brilliant game that tapped into the same vein of high octane antigrav racing as WipeOut and F-Zero X. While not quite as smooth or accomplished, it utterly captured the energy of the best sequence in the film and added a deep upgrade and trading system. You could even use a controller in each hand to feel more like Ben Quadinaros than ever. Now this is podracing.
The types of movies that warrant a video game tie-in generally contain 'good guys' and 'bad guys' and standard practice in the old days was to take your licence and jam it into a 2D platformer very loosely based on that dynamic. With Bill & Ted's Excellent Game Boy Adventure, though, Beam Software decided to take Chuckie Egg, a 1983 computer game for the ZX Spectrum, and throw in the titular heroes. You navigate 50 single screen levels collecting doohickeys while avoiding enemies and obstacles. Admittedly, it has virtually nothing to do with the licence, but neither did half the licensed titles of the era. Ultimately, you play as Bill & Ted in an entertaining video game and anybody taking the cart home on the strength of their love for the movie will find a great little game within.
There's no word if the upcoming Bill & Ted Face the Music will get its own video game, but here's hoping. We're thinking Puyo Puyo this time round. That could be breathtaking.
A final entry for the franchise set in a galaxy far, far away, this is an example of jamming a licence into a 2D platformer that actually worked out quite well. The Super Star Wars trilogy extends the on-foot action sequences of the source material into a colourful 16-bit side-on adventure and peppers the platforming with some vehicular sections, too. The second game, Super Empire Strikes Back, is arguably the pick, giving you the opportunity to play as Luke, Han and Chewie, ride a tauntaun, pilot a snow speeder and an X-Wing (with some classic Mode 7 gameplay), fly into an asteroid field with the Millennium Falcon and duel Darth Vader.
It's a bit 'meat-and-potatoes', but it's still a fun ride and was one of the first games in the Star Wars universe to let you do what you really wanted to do - wield a lightsaber. And all to a 16-bit rendition of John Williams' score - what more could a Star Wars kid ask for?
Spider-Man has had a patchy career in video games, but this was the first game (and arguably the only one until Marvel's Spider-Man on PS4) that truly captured the perilous freedom and exhilaration of swinging around New York City. Developed by Treyarch, Spider-Man 2 is based on the best of the Sam Raimi trilogy and gives players an open world to roam in the red and blue spandex of their friendly neighbourhood arachnid. It's quaint by modern standards, and the fetch quests and missions are very by-the-numbers, but the devs absolutely nailed simply locomotion and made you feel like Peter Parker careening around buildings, catching the edge, running a few steps before pushing off into a dive and launching yourself into the next swing. Glorious.
And finally, cinematic treasures that deserve a great video game
All of the above are fine, but there are plenty of movies that have never received a decent tie-in. But we shouldn’t let things like the merciless march of time stop us from getting the video game interpretation of our dreams! With ‘80s/’90s nostalgia at absolute peak levels, we’d daresay there’s a market for these.
We’d love to see a great Terminator 2 game, for example. The T-800 is a natural bullet sponge with in-built detective vision and a penchant for shooting big guns – allot a decent budget and put a good studio on the job (Rocksteady, for example) and we're certain there'd be an audience for it.
Back to the Future is another one. The Telltale game was the closest we’ve come to recapturing the magic of those movies in a game, but imagine an open-world Hill Valley with a narrative to take you between time periods; driving/flying the DeLorean, dodging terrorists, scooting around on a hoverboard, stealthily following Biff to the auto garage, chasing trains on horseback...
Don’t get us wrong, the huge mix of mechanics we’ve just mentioned would need a studio with serious chops to prevent it becoming a mess of underbaked systems, but there’s a huge affection for the franchise – you can’t tell us it wouldn’t be worth the investment of time, effort and (critically) money.
Those are just a couple of third-person, open world examples; other movies might be a better fit with a different genre. The upcoming Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics looks to nail the aesthetic of the Jim Henson/Frank Oz original and the Netflix prequel series, blending that world into a genre which makes the most sense for that property. There are plenty of opportunities, and not only for reboots and reimaginings. With a 'classic' Ghostbusters sequel movie in the works, anything is possible - even unimaginable things like a *gulp* Back to the Future reboot. Oh, it'll happen - for better or worse - you mark our words!
See? It's definitely a myth that 'all movie-licensed games are toilet', although you'll always find a clanger if you're looking for one. If we opened this out to non-movie licences, we'd have a list as long as your arm. Is there anything missing from this selection that you hold dear? Do you have any horror stories involving dashed expectations when you plugged your freshly-purchased cart in the slot? Share your memories and traumas below...