In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explain the rise and fall of movie tie-In games.
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What Happened To Movie Tie-In Games?
Although it may sound odd to younger gamers, there was a time where a video game adaptation could be expected to drop alongside every major franchise film. Sometimes the game would come slightly after the movie was in cinemas, but with any major release, – and sometimes even for smaller releases – a video game counterpart was inevitable.
This is a trend which dates back all the way to the early days of gaming. The very first example of a movie tie-in game was the Death Race arcade cabinet released in 1976 based on Death Race 2000, the film which was released the year prior. However, this title never came to home consoles.
The first movie tie-in game released for home consoles was Star Trek: Phaser Strike, which was developed by Milton Bradley to coincide with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Phaser Strike was released for the Microvision; a mostly forgotten handheld console which was also created by Milton Bradley.
After that point, more and more big movie companies cottoned on to the idea of paying a game studio to create something which would at least somewhat resemble the film which it was launched alongside, (admittedly with varying degrees of success.)
Movie corporations saw this practice as a hugely effective marketing strategy. You have to keep in mind that video games were much cheaper to make back then, so forking over 200 grand in order to fund what was essentially seen as a playable advertisement was considered to be a savvy investment.
That is up until the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. At the time, a video game adaption of a hugely successful motion picture released the year before seemed like a no-brainer. Atari hoped that releasing the game just before Christmas would lead to masses of copies being purchased as gifts for children.
In December of 1982, The New York Times even published a piece speculating that video games based on popular movies would become, “an increasingly profitable source,” for video game development. Needless to say, this prediction could not have been more wrong, given that the Video Game Crash took place the following year and the failure of the E.T. game was seen as a major catalyst for the marketplace collapse.
By 1983, E.T. had garnered such a toxic reputation, that Atari actually ended up burying thousands of surplus copies of the game in a landfill along with unsold cartridges of the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man. For years, this story of a video game tomb in New Mexico only existed as a strange conspiracy theory, up until the site was excavated in 2014 and the story was proven to be true.
Thankfully, the gaming industry survived the oversaturated console market and the surplus of over-hyped, low-quality games which populated much of the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, the industry saw a meteoric rise with the launch of the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation One.
These systems were hugely successful and brought with them a plethora of licensed games based on movies. Some of these tie-in titles are still regarded as some of the most innovative games ever developed, even to this day.
Although the movie tie-In games were initially conceived for the sake of financial benefit, it was not long before some creative innovation could start to be seen within this sub-genre of media. For example, The Die Hard Trilogy, – which was a video game adaption of the classic action movie franchise, – featured three different games in one. Each of the movies from the trilogy was adapted into a game with a different genre and gameplay style respectively, with one being a third-person shooter, one being an on-rails FPS and one being a racing game.
Later in that same decade, titles like Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue and Small Soldiers on the PS1 showed that a popular IP aimed at children could be converted into a functional platforming game. The Blade video game is also one of the earliest examples of a 3D action game based on a superhero movie.
However, it was in 1997 when Rare really raised the bar for video game adaptations of popular movies. Goldeneye 007 released for the Nintendo 64 and quickly became the reference point for how to convert a blockbuster movie into an innovative interactive experience. Goldeneye became a universally ubiquitous title for any self-respecting N64 owner.
Goldeneye 007 was the first video game adaption which would go on to inform an entire genre of game development over the next decade. Without Goldeneye developing its iconic FPS mechanics, the early Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games would have likely looked very different to what we know them as today.
Not only did Goldeneye essentially manage to undo all of the damage which ET: The Extra-Terrestrial had done to the reputation of video games in the mainstream, it also informed a generation of developers to work on a formula which is still being fine-tuned today.
Looking back, the period of time between the late 90s and 2000s was a golden era for video game adaptations of popular movies. Adaptations from franchises such as; The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter were all well-received by both fans of those respective franchises as well as gamers in general.
Though, it was in 2004 that everything changed yet again due to a video game movie adaptation. By this time, the character of Spider-Man had already enjoyed a few respectful adaptations within the medium of video games, but the movie tie-In games for Spider-Man 2 were something truly special.
Spider-Man 2 revolutionized an entire genre of gaming. The techniques used in this title pioneered how open-world adventure games would play for the next twenty years. Many of the mechanics used in this game served as the foundation for so many of the mechanics still being utilized in the present-day development of open-world games.
The fact that such an essential facet of game development came from movie tie-In games is nothing less than astonishing. The legacy of this title cannot be understated. Without it, we may never have gotten the recent beloved Spider-Man games from Insomniac.
The next five years saw another batch of decent movie tie-in games drop and then in 2009, we got what many consider to be the last truly great video game adaption of a popular movie. Notably, it is another game based on a Marvel movie.
The less said about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the better. That film is one of the worst comic book movies ever released and almost completely decimated the character of Deadpool. The only good thing to come from the release of that abysmal dumpster fire of a film was the surprisingly fantastic tie-in video game.
The gameplay was similar to that of God of War 3 and it was a blast. The violent carnage that you could unleash as a stalky indestructible man with 12-inch claws coming from his fists was amazing. Although 2017’s Logan did a good job of realistically portraying how brutal a fight involving the Wolverine would be in reality, this game was one of the first times that the brutality and goriness of the character was put on full display.
Add to that the real-time healing factor which the game incorporated, an ambitious fight with a Sentinel, a sky-diving section and an actual fun boss fight at the game’s conclusion with Deadpool, and you have the makings of one of the most extraordinary movie tie-in games ever developed.
Given that both the Spider-Man 2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine games are both stellar examples of solid movie tie-in games, one would think that the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would only bolster the quality of these kinds of projects. Unfortunately, however, this turned out not to be the case.
Although there were a batch of movie tie-In games released along with the early MCU movies, none of them were remarkable in any way whatsoever. Every one of them felt like a lesser version of another superior game. They all lacked any real originality to help them stand out in the gaming market and so, they faded into the background.
The best superhero video games in this era were the fantastic Arkham games developed by Rocksteady. These titles were loosely inspired by Batman: The Animated Series from Bruce Timm, (who also served as a writer on these games,) although they were not a direct adaptation of any other Batman media. This made them feel somewhat familiar and nostalgic, whilst simultaneously feeling fresh and original.
One of the video game adaptations of the early MCU movies was called Captain America: Super Soldier and the gameplay was nothing more than a poor imitation of the combat mechanics perfected by the Arkham series. Even still, it was the best game of all of those games based on the early MCU films.
As we moved into the 2010’s the budget required to develop a video game rose exponentially in comparison to what it cost to make a game ten years prior. Due to this increased budget, big video game publishers were more hesitant to take risks on projects whose success was not a foregone conclusion.
That increased level of uncertainty amongst the gaming financial fat cats meant that video game adaptations of blockbuster movies essentially became a thing of the past. The segment of the market known as the “mid-tier” also pretty much fell away entirely during this era, leaving only high-budget triple-A titles and small indie games.
Game development on titles based on licensed IPs has changed vastly in the decade between now and then. Following the success of the previously mentioned Arkham series, the new model became to release a game within a few years of a movie being released based on the same character. Direct adaptations of Hollywood movies were mostly relegated to ad-filled mobile games during this era. On consoles and PC, proper game adaptations of movies were all but dead.
The only difference between the new model and the old one was that instead of being a direct adaptation of the movie’s plot, the game would tell its own story and would not incorporate the plot elements or setting of the film. The game may not even necessarily feature the same characters seen in the film and even if it did, they would be alternate versions to the ones from the movie, not looking or sounding the same way that they did in live action.
This allowed developers to get creative and craft their own stories and universes based around a previously established character from popular culture. The two greatest examples of this method being carried out successfully are the Arkham games and the aforementioned Spider-Man game released in 2018.
Some would likely argue that the bubble has also burst for this style of licensed game following the disastrous Avengers game from Square Enix which was released in 2020. With that being said, the positive reception to the Guardians of the Galaxy game also published by Square Enix released in 2021 did slightly make up for the butchering of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes the year before and managed to restore some of the industry’s faith in licensed video game titles.
At the time of recording, there are a plethora of games in development which are based on popular intellectual properties. Some of these include; an Indiana Jones game coming from Bethesda, a James Bond game being worked on by IO interactive, (who are responsible for the Hitman series,) and Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League from Rocksteady, (who are the studio most notable for developing the Arkham games.)
EA Motive have announced they are working on development of an Iron Man game, although very little is known about it at this time. EA Motive are also the team behind the upcoming Dead Space remake.
A World War 2 game where you play as the popular Marvel heroes Captain America and Black Panther is also being created by Skydance Interactive. Interestingly, Skydance Interactive is a subsidiary of Skydance Media, who are primarily a movie studio. The gaming branch of the company was only established recently and they have brought in Amy Hennig of Uncharted fame as a creative director.
In addition to this, a totally separate open-world game is heavily rumored to be in development based around the character of Black Panther. The existence of this title has not been confirmed at the time of recording, although based on the multiple rumors that an open-world Black Panther game is on its way, it is looking more likely to be true.
All of this would suggest that the licensed game is far from dead. Whilst it does not look likely that we are going to see a return to the blockbuster movie video game adaption anytime soon, this new model of games based on popular characters from the big screen looks like it will stick around for years to come.
Whilst the idea of the movie tie-In games going away completely may come as sad news to some, there are positives to be taken away from seeing game developers put their own spin on previously established characters from pop culture. This new method of adaptation allows creative game studios to tell a unique story and offer up something different to what we have seen before. The telltale Batman series is a good example of this.
Not being directly tied to a huge movie also means that studios don’t have to rush the development of their game in order to meet tight deadlines set by movie executives. Stories have come out in the past of video game adaptations being rushed in order to match the release date of their cinematic equivalent. This issue is now mostly a thing of the past.
Rules of the universe can be broken, essential characters can be killed off at the drop of a hat and video game creators have free reign to tell the story that they want to tell. This is an exciting prospect for many, as it means that we aren’t being fed the same old stories time and time again, even though we have seen the same story told before.
Do you agree or do you miss the good old days of movie tie-In games being released alongside every blockbuster movie? Let us know in the comments section down below and subscribe to the channel for more gaming-based content coming soon.
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