TV shows based on video games are notorious for being… not very good. In fact, they’re usually terrible.
In theory, it doesn’t seem that difficult. The characters already exist, and so do the worlds they live in. You also already have a built-in fan base, so it can’t be that difficult to get fans hyped about the show. What could go wrong?
Apparently, a lot can go wrong.
Many shows based on existing video games are notably bad. We all know there’s something that goes wrong in the transition from “playable video game” to “watchable TV show.” We’ve seen it time and time again, with the likes of 1989’s The Legend of Zelda and 1995’s Street Fighter. The live-action Mortal Kombat: Conquest from 1998 may have had some cool fight choreography, but it was riddled with bad CGI and a confusing storyline.
And who can forget Donkey Kong Country? (If you have managed to forget it, I am jealous!)
Sure, computer animation at the time wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. But if we are being honest, the animation on the series was pretty bad even by 1997’s standards. There were clearly lots of shortcuts taken by animators. And I don’t even want to talk about the musical numbers. I have a hard time believing that the show actually ran for two seasons. The world did not need 40 episodes of Donkey Kong Country.
Are There Actually Any Good Shows Based on Video Games?
We’ve come a long way since Donkey Kong Country. And I have a theory about why video game shows aren’t as universally terrible as they used to be.
Until recently, most video game adaptations were made for younger audiences. However, newer video game-based shows are starting to take aim at adult audiences, too. Perhaps this has something to do with the shift towards better-quality shows. Look, I’m not knocking kids’ programming or anything, but kids will watch literally anything. Anything.
I know that the ability to dive in and become part of the story is the fun of playing video games, but sometimes you need to give your fingers a break. Here are a few video game-based TV series that managed to break the code and do it right.
The Witcher is actually a TV series based on a series of action role-playing games based on a book series. Confused yet? Regardless, it’s still one of the best TV series to come out of a popular video game franchise. The show, which stars Henry Cavill (swoon!) in a white wig, could have easily ended up feeling like a mediocre cosplay.
Instead, we got a wonderfully gritty performance on an incredible fantasy show. The Witcher sucks audiences in and makes them feel like they are part of the dark, violent world. The show has been renewed for a third season, and we’re also getting the prequel miniseries The Witcher: Blood Origin. I don’t want to drop any spoilers since the series is still going, so just go watch it already.
Although Netflix’s Arcane is based on the online battle arena game League of Legends, some viewers might not know – or care. That’s because the show has been praised for its ability to please both League of Legends players and casual viewers who have never even played it. If that’s not a hallmark of a good video game-based show, I don’t know what is.
Arcane was actually produced under the supervision of Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends. The visuals are stunning, with a mix of CGI animation and illustrated backgrounds. Critics also praised the characters, story, voice acting, and action sequences. The first season was so successful that Netflix already announced a second season.
Perhaps I share some humor with kids, but I think the Rabbids are hilarious. I am not alone there, either. These characters were originally antagonists in the Rayman series of video games, but they became popular enough to warrant their own separate franchise. After a few Rabbids games under the Rayman name, they went on to star in several more games as a separate franchise.
They also leaped over to the small screen with their own TV series, Rabbids Invasion. It’s as dumb as you’d expect – in a good way! – with non-verbal slapstick humor. There were four seasons of the Rabbids’ wild and crude antics, along with the hour-long Rabbids Invasion: Mission to Mars.
While there is an entire Castlevania game series, this adult animated dark fantasy show is based largely on 1989’s gothic action-adventure Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. There are also elements and characters pulled from Castlevania: Curse of Darkness and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Castlevania is another one of those shows that can be appreciated by viewers who have never played the video games. The animation style is heavily influenced by Japanese art, and the fight scenes are wonderfully executed. And for anyone who is a fan of the games, it’s pretty faithful to the atmosphere from the Castlevania series.
The Cuphead Show!
There’s an odd juxtaposition in Cuphead between the game’s style – a throwback to the golden age of American animation and its surrealist qualities – and the run-and-gun gameplay as the characters repay their debt to the devil.
Although The Cuphead Show! doesn’t indulge in much of the game’s shoot-em-up action, it does still have the same zany slapstick vibe paired with the 1930’s aesthetic. It’s definitely different than the rest of Netflix’s catalog, and it’s a good time for anyone, not just fans of the video game.
A lot of the video game adaptations on my list are geared towards adults. (Hey, remember when I said kids will watch literally anything?) But Skylander Academy stands out as one of the game-based shows geared at kids that was actually done well. It even features voice talents from the likes of Justin Long, Ashley Tisdale, Norm Macdonald, and Bobcat Goldthwait.
The original Skylanders is a “toys-to-life” game. That means that you can purchase physical figures that interact with the game. As one of the most profitable game models, it helped the Skylanders franchise rake in more than $3 billion over a few years. One can only assume that the profitability was part of what drove the franchise to secure its own TV series.
The new series from Paramount+ might have garnered mixed reviews from audiences so far, but I personally think Halo is one of the more successful video game adaptations out there. It can be hard to please hardcore gamers, and I’m not sure some of them would have liked anything in a Halo TV show.
In reality, the show is relatively faithful to the source material as it adds to the vast Halo universe. Was I slightly taken aback by Master Chief’s face since he rarely ever removed his helmet in the video games? A little, but that’s perhaps a topic for another time. The action, fight scenes, special effects, and CGI look great. Is it exactly like the games? No, but we can’t just rehash existing material!
There are actually Pokémon fans out there that have never even played a Pokémon video game. Even my mom likes Pokémon. That says a lot for how well-done and how popular the animated series was (and still is). In fact, it may be one of the most successful video game adaptations ever. It just keeps going and going… like the Energizer Bunny. Or The Simpsons.
The series began in 1997 and is currently in its 24th season. There are more than 1,000 episodes of Pokémon, and more are still being added. Throughout all of those seasons, the anime has managed to keep pace with the games. This is likely what has helped keep the series fresh and interesting for each new generation of Pokémon audiences.