Video games and movies have rarely mixed well together in the past. In addition to getting a slew of horrible movie-based video games from LJN throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, this era brought us several lousy video game movie adaptations like Double Dragon, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat. To be fair, video games are among the hardest mediums to adapt for the screen. Where books and plays have strong characters and stories practically giftwrapped to the filmmakers, most early 2D games didn’t have a ton to go on.
The plot in the original Super Mario Bros. game was as simplistic as it gets. A couple 8-bit plumbers travel from Point A to Point B to rescue a princess. How is that a movie? That’s not to say a good live-action Super Mario Bros. movie couldn’t be accomplished. Such a project would require a lot of creativity, knowledge of the game, and love for video games in general. Needless to say, the 1993 screen interpretation of Super Mario Bros. had none of the above.
All of these video game movies were basically just sellouts looking to cash-in on a popular trend. After all, video games were initially considered a passing fad. They weren’t important art and thus the film adaptations didn’t have to try very hard. Video games struck a cord with people, however, and have had lasting appeal. Over time, games not only found a wider audience, but evolved as an art form too.
In the late 90’s, video games started to become much more cinematic with complex plots and computer-generated imagery. By the time we got to the sixth-generation of gaming, a lot of video games started to surpass most movies in terms of storytelling, acting, atmosphere, and visuals. While the gameplay in Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts were phenomenal, it was the cutscenes that really kept players invested. With more modern titles like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead, video games have reached a new level of emotional power.
Where video games themselves developed, video game movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Doom continued to miss the mark. To make matters worse, we got a collection of horrible adaptations such as Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, and BloodRayne courtesy of Uwe Boll, the most incompetent director alive. For the longest time, people just accepted the notion that a good video game movie was never going to happen. That is until Disney released Wreck-It Ralph in 2012.
The film was a love letter to video games, creating charming new characters like Fix-It Felix and Vanellope von Schweetz as well as incorporating numerous inspired cameos from Sonic the Hedgehog, M. Bison, and good old Q*bert. Wreck-It Ralph proved to be funny, creative, and meaningful, but the reason the film worked so well was because the filmmakers had a clear admiration for video games. That’s the key to making any film great: Passion for the subject matter.
Pixels, another movie centered on video games, will open this Friday. While it hasn’t been receiving the best reviews from critics, the filmmakers do deserve credit for capturing the spirit and whimsy of retro games. They manage to integrate arcade icons like Pac-Man into several colorful action sequences and there is some thoughtful commentary on nostalgic video games vs contemporary video games. It’s certainly not as good as Wreck-It Ralph, but the people behind Pixels do have a clear affection for video games. That at least makes it a million times more fun than 1989’s The Wizard, which was merely a feature-length Nintendo commercial.
Although movies about video games are getting better, we’ve yet to see a quality video game adaptation. Part of that’s because something is always going to be lost in any transition from one medium to another. Descriptive details get lost in book adaptations, intimacy gets lost in stage adaptations, and the interactive experience gets lost in video game adaptations. Games with virtually no storylines are zero fun unless you’re the one holding the controller. Even if a game does have a great, cinematic storyline, it’s still more fun when you’re controlling the character and calling the shots.
Despite losing the privilege of choice, video game movies don’t have to suck. Many modern games, such as Mass Effect, have diverse environments, characters, and lore that could translate masterfully into film. Five video game movies are lined up for next year: Ratchet and Clank, Angry Birds, Warcraft, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed. Hopefully at least one of these five adaptations will break the video game movie curse. In order to do justice to the source material, however, the filmmakers must first understand and appreciate the source material. If numerous fan made video game movies on YouTube can figure this out, surely Hollywood can too, right?
On another note, Rob McElhenney, the co-creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has just been hired to direct a Minecraft movie. Fingers crossed that project is as “strange and wonderful” as McElhenney promises.