Video Game Adaptations Are Good Now. How Did This Happen?

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About a decade ago, and for twenty years before that, if you asked someone what their favorite movie or TV show based on a video game was they would have laughed at you. Video game adaptations were mostly jokes throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Some high-profile stinkers like the Mario Bros movie and Mortal Kombat largely soured both general audiences and video game lovers on the concept of adapting gameplay to the big or small screen.

On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. Video games are a dramatically different medium from movies or TV shows. The kinds of things that make a video game entertaining just don’t translate well to a passive narrative. Watching Mario run around and smash Koopas for an hour and a half wouldn’t be a compelling moviegoing experience. However, in recent years, something’s shifted in the industry.

Video game adaptations are good now. This seemingly crept up on us with a few sneaky hits like Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, but with shows like Arcane and The Last of Us bringing faithful adaptations of beloved games to the small screen, too, it’s impossible to overlook just how awesome these adaptations have gotten. How did this happen?

The Terrible Video Game Movie

The “terrible movie adaptation” basically turned into a rite of passage for any sufficiently-massive game franchise in the 1990s. The aforementioned Mario and Mortal Kombat films fit the bill here, as do the disastrously bad Street Fighter and Double Dragon. It became conventional wisdom among gamers that the medium simply didn’t lend itself to another format.

There’s some truth to this assertion, too. The things that make a video game enjoyable don’t necessarily make it watchable. Despite what Twitch viewership numbers will tell you, watching someone else play a video game isn’t as fun as watching a compelling narrative unfold onscreen. This was especially true back in the 90s when games were simpler in presentation. While several 16-bit games have gripping storylines, those stories are told with pages of text and rudimentary cutscenes using pixelated characters.

Even as games became more “filmic” themselves in the 2000s, the tradition of the “awful video game movie” continued. At least half of the terrible films from this era came from universally-loathed director Uwe Boll, who helmed the awful Postal film, as well as aggressively bland movies like Rampage and BloodRayne. Other standout stinkers like the Resident Evil franchise and the Silent Hill adaptation failed to capture what made their source material so frightening, despite horror being perhaps the most natural genre to straddle the line between games and films.  

Games Became Movies

As technology advanced and home gaming consoles became more capable of rendering complex graphics and expressive character models, games started to more closely resemble movies. The Uncharted franchise is a great example of this–the series is basically a playable version of the Indiana Jones films. Sony made this the cornerstone of the PlayStation brand in the 2010s, doubling down on cinematic storytelling in games like The Last of Us, God of War, and Spider-Man.

Beloved game studio Rockstar famously modeled the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III on classic mobster movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather. Its other franchises, like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne, took generous inspiration from Western films and hard-boiled action movies, respectively. In many ways, these games were indistinguishable from their film counterparts as long as a cutscene was running. Things only got “gamey” when the camera settled behind the protagonist for a shootout section.

Another thing started happening in the 2010s, too: nerd culture in general became so mainstream that it was impossible to ignore. In the 2000s and before, being a hardcore gamer wasn’t really the norm. Film studios treated gaming-adjacent projects as niche products because, well, they were. 

Culture Shift

As such, game adaptations of prior decades tried to serve two masters. On the one hand, they wanted to appeal to a dedicated fan base by using a known property for branding. On the other hand, they needed to bring in general audiences to break even on the often-expensive productions. Usually, these adaptations failed both of these tasks miserably. 

But something shifted in the 2010s. Kids who grew up with video games and took the medium more seriously started to get jobs in the “real world”. Some of those gamers got jobs at Hollywood studios and took it upon themselves to provide a product for an underserved market, promising to make movies that could appeal to the coolest parts of the games we all loved growing up. 

Enter Detective Pikachu, the most surprising movie of 2019. While the Pokemon franchise was no stranger to box office success in the West, Detective Pikachu was something different. Prior entries in the film series were animated fare based on the wildly-successful anime–itself an unusually excellent adaptation of the smash-hit video games. Detective Pikachu, meanwhile, was a live-action movie that upped the scale and realism of the franchise dramatically. And it was awesome. 

They Got Good

Detective Pikachu isn’t just good “for a video game movie.” We’ve had plenty of those middling entries in the genre that seemed good enough to be watchable and thus were heralded as great entertainment since they weren’t overtly terrible. Some notable entries in that camp include The Prince of Persia and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Instead, Detective Pikachu was just flat-out good.

Seeing the titular pocket monsters rendered in a realistic CG style alongside human actors was enough to excite the inner child of many adult moviegoers. It also delighted young fans and captivated general audiences, with the film impressing box office analysts and proving that something was missing from the market. While progress on the sequel has stalled out, it’s easy to see how influential the movie was in reigniting interest in the long-running RPG video game franchise. 

The 2020 film Sonic the Hedgehog followed suit, providing a genuinely enjoyable buddy movie with a similar premise to Pikachu. A cute, talking CG video game creature teams up with an everyman protagonist for a wacky adventure, and hilarity ensues. These movies weren’t the first great adaptations, either, but they represented just the tip of the iceberg and the clearest turning point for the genre yet. 

Opening the Floodgates

It seems numerous studios were poised to release great video game adaptations in the late 2010s. Netflix’s excellent anime series Castlevania started in 2017 and only got better as its run continued. Another Netflix exclusive, Arcane, landed in 2021 and impressed fans of the source material (League of Legends) and general audiences alike with its stunning visuals and engrossing storyline. 

With these excellent animated properties setting streaming records and live-action fare performing admirably at the box office, it was only a matter of time before a studio finally settled on the idea of a prestige TV series based on a video game. Netflix tripled down on gaming-related content with Arcane, but its second foray into the genre was the 2019 live-action Witcher series, based on the popular book series of the same name. That popular series helped reignite interest in the already-popular The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, an open-world RPG with a phenomenal script.

Another game that found itself adapted into a prestige TV format is The Last of Us, a video game that was already written like an HBO series. Thanks to its moody, dialog-heavy gameplay, the game was a natural fit for a TV show adaptation. Fans adore the adaptation because it’s so faithful to the source material. General audiences became enamored with the franchise as a replacement for the recently-ended Walking Dead, with many publications noting the similarities between the two properties.

A Bright Future

There’s a bright future ahead of the video game adaptation. Games are easier to adapt to the screen these days than ever before due to their expressive characters, in-depth storylines, and well-defined locations. Moreover, the audience for gaming-related content is bigger than it’s ever been, with entire generations of kids growing up with video games as a “serious” medium for entertainment. Today’s moviegoers don’t carry any residual Mario Bros. baggage into the theater when they see a Nintendo franchise on a movie poster.

It’s also worth noting that many of today’s moviegoers and TV watchers grew up watching Twitch streams. As such, the concept of a video game being passive entertainment is much more palatable for them than an older gamer who is accustomed to controlling the action themselves. Beyond all this, Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog proved to film studios that the once-cursed genre of “video game adaptation movie” has lost its poisonous reputation. 

Now, the only question we have is how long it will take for Nintendo to greenlight a Metroid movie. We can’t wait to see Samus Aran stalking down a dimly lit corridor as her nemesis Ridley tries to outsmart her. Failing that, Nintendo, could we at least get an F-Zero movie with the same unhinged energy as the 2008 version of Speed Racer? That’d be enough to hold over F-Zero fans for years to come.