It’s a well-known, and generally accepted, rule among gamers: games based on licensed movies are, by and large, steaming half-rotten piles of fecal matter. They’re terrible, generally badly made cash-ins using a license to sell a mediocre game that wouldn’t exist otherwise. To be fair, a lot of games that are entirely original properties also are, to not put too fine a point on it, black holes of suck. But there’s more going on here than Sturgeon’s Law.
This isn’t to say that all licensed games suck. There have actually been decent licensed games. There have even been classic licensed games.
So, sitting down with the handful of licensed games that are actually genuinely enjoyable, and the vast majority that are mind-blowingly awful, we’ve worked out a few rules that will make sure the game’s actually worth playing.
Step 1: Don’t Release It As a Tie-In
The games based on the “Transformers” movies are much like the games; they have the same character designs, feedback from the filmmakers, and the full participation of the movie studio. They are also similar in another respect: they’re almost world-shattering in how terrible they are.
Don’t take our word for it: here’s GameRankings’ summary of the reviews. You’ll notice that both “Transformers: The Game” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: The Game” have ridiculous subtitles and low scores. The highest it gets is 69%, and this is from the video game press, which has shown repeatedly that it’s for sale if you know where to look. So in other words, these games were so bad that not even paying for good reviews could make them look good to the gaming public.
But take a look at the reviews for a game based off of the movies, but not a direct tie-in, “Transformers: War for Cybertron”. It’s not pulling “Best Game of the Year”, but it’s pulling scores for 83%, about eleven points better than its tie-in brethren. So why with the sudden lack of suck?
Pretty simple: it’s not a tie-in to any movie coming out. They’re not rushing out some game for a dozen platforms to appeal on as many people as possible for the advertising campaign. They took their time and made a game that people actually wanted to play. Also we have to admit that the GameStop ads have been hilarious, so there’s that.
Step 2: Be Faithful To The Movie, But Don’t Stick Totally to the Plot
Time for a quick personal confession: “The Lawnmower Man” was a terrible movie. And I mean a TERRIBLE movie. Like, horrible. It had nothing to do with the Stephen King short story it was allegedly based off of, the entire movie centered around forcing information down a retard’s throat until he was a superhuman hacker/computer entity with virtual reality, for some reason, and it had Jeff Fahey playing the retard. Jeff. Fahey. Playing, in a move that should have won a Razzie for Least Subtle Moment in Screenplay History, a character named Jobe. As a twenty-eight-year-old earning his master’s degree in film, I know, heart and soul, that it’s a terrible movie.
Unfortunately, in 1992, when it actually came out, I was ten. So I loved the hell out of that movie. It had video games, a dude getting killed with a lawnmower, and boobies. That was sheer freaking brilliance to a ten year old. Plus it did have kind of an awesome poster:
You’ve got to admit, as posters go, at least it’s striking. Anyway, the one aspect of the movie that I’m not ashamed of was saving my allowance for weeks to buy the game. Because the game was, and is, pretty damn good. It has an extra edge of nostalgia because I never quite beat it. I got incredibly close, but never quite pulled it off.
The entire reason the game works, though, is that while it sticks somewhat to the plot of the movie, it doesn’t feel obligated to tie itself exactly to the movie. Which is great in a lot of ways, since the movie was mostly Jeff Fahey pretending to be retarded and Pierce Brosnan checking his watch. While the sprites, cutscenes, and general plot stick to the movie, they don’t feel the need to hit every single beat. Interestingly, about halfway through the game, they actually feature the ending of the movie, namely Jobe, now an all-powerful computer entity, escaping onto the Intertubes like Ted Stevens’ worst nightmare and taking over the world. The game actually skips ahead in time to the post-apocalyptic world Jobe has created, and you have to go kick his ass. Starting with a vehicle combat section, for some reason. But it’s still fun.
Swinging in the opposite direction, and it’s especially egregious because it’s from a studio that would pump out some classics, is “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, i.e. “The Adventure Game That LucasArts Doesn’t Talk About”. Seen the movie, like everybody else? Then you’ve played the game. It’s seriously that beat-for-beat. And that’s a good example. From the games made out of Indiana Jones.
Licensed games fail partially because they insist on featuring every bit of a movie, even if it’s incredibly boring. So if you let go of the boring stuff, and just make a game of the good parts, then, shockingly, you’ll have a decent game.
Step 3: Actually Involve The Creative Personnel From the Movie
There’s been one studio that’s fairly consistently avoided the curse of crappy licensed games, and that’s Disney. Yeah, the kid movie factory has turned movies like “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” into games worth playing while franchises that should lend themselves to quality gaming, like “Die Hard”, get crap, unless Sega makes an arcade game out of it.
This is because Disney involved itself in the production, and has made a lot of good choices. In fact, Disney actually shows a lot of forward thinking. “Kingdom Hearts” sounds weird and kind of non-corporate at first, but it’s spawned a massive franchise. And Disney was there, every step of the way, without getting in Square Enix’s way.
Step 4: Find Some Decent Writers In the First Place, For God’s Sake
If you think about it, the original “Ghostbusters” games were doomed from the start. The pleasure of the movie is less about the ghost-busting, and more about the comic interplay between the four Ghostbusters as they deal with what can only be described as a disaster of Biblical proportions. What was the NES game going to do? Feature three barely audible one-liners?
Fast forward twenty years: now we’ve got incredibly powerful game systems that can store hundreds of hours of dialogue. But this is arguably bad news because we all know how terrible game scripts can be. So the publishers wound up tapping John Zuur Platten, who had written the surprisingly good Riddick games, and brought in Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray to write one-liners.
The result was, amazingly, a game that didn’t revive that old chestnut about how “[blank] raped my childhood”. It was, surprisingly, a game that felt like a Ghostbusters movie. Hey, it was better than GBII, not that that’s hard.
Bemoaning the writing in video games is pretty common for guys my age, who are apparently old enough to know a crappy script when they see one, but aren’t old enough to stop buying the games anyway. But it’s still a valid complaint; nothing kills a game like terrible writing. So actually committing some creative resources to the game beyond the graphics department? Yeah, good idea.
Try doing it for all your games, guys. It’d really help.