The video game industry is relatively new. We could say video games have been around since the ’70s. The Atari 2600 was released in 1977, so maybe 50 years. This is about half the time that the film industry has been around, which was since the first Oscars (the most famous film award ceremony) in 1929. Video games and films are different. Games are interactive, have gameplay loops, and aren’t always story-driven. Whereas films try to tell a story (usually), and whether fact-based (like a documentary) or fictional, they always try to make some point (in some way or other). However, games and films also have similarities. They both try to entertain, whether you’re playing Tetris (1984), or watching Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Video games haven’t usually translated well into films or TV series. However, there are some exceptions, like the recent Castlevania anime. With films based on games being made more than ever before (The Super Mario Movie releases this year), are we at a tipping point where the quality of game-based movies will increase?
Early Attempts: Street Fighter and Resident Evil
Back in the early ’90s, Street Fighter 2 on arcades and home consoles was becoming a cultural phenomenon. This resulted in the movie, Street Fighter, which was released in 1994 starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue. The film was a flashy, colorful mess. With an all-star cast and disjointed action sequences, it really didn’t live up to expectations. The Street Fighter 2 game is stylish and the characters look suitably scarred up to create a feeling that these fighters were real warriors that had been through things. The gameplay was also responsive and felt balanced. The movie of the game didn’t have this realistic feel. It kind of felt like parts of different action movies all put together but with sticky tape, rather than sown by a good tailor.
Resident Evil is another video game that has inspired movie adaptations. The first Resident Evil, starring Milla Jovovich, was released in 2002, while the latest Resident Evil, Resident Evil: Return to Raccoon City, starring Kaya Scodelario, was released in 2021. There have been seven Resident Evil films and none have been really well received by critics. Resident Evil as a horror franchise seems to be a good fit for a movie adaptation, yet none of them have quite lived up to the hype of the games.
I think it comes down to video games just not being easy to adapt to film or TV because popular story-driven games have satisfying, addictive gameplay loops that require simple stories. These easy-to-understand stories are too one-dimensional for full movie adaptations. Then, once the stories are made more complex the film just comes across as awkward and embarrassing. I think that could definitely be said of the original Super Mario Bros. movie (1993). That’s one theory at least.
Anime Success: Studio Ghibli and Castlevania
Films like Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbour Totoro are anime classics, and the Japanese studio that made them, Studio Ghibli, has become synonymous with great emotive anime that is meaningful in a similar way to games. The themes of Shinto (a Japanese spiritual belief system) are present in much of their anime and also in many Japanese-made videogames including the Zelda series, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy.
The art in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is created by Studio Ghibli, but it’s not the only anime-inspired property that is transcending the videogame anime line. Castlevania, which is a classic gaming franchise with its’ origins on NES (and then genre-defining with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on PS1), has recently been adapted into a successful anime. The story of the anime, like the games, is dark and explores adult themes. It’s still quite niche, but I think that suits it considering the content it’s based on and it feels right that it has tried something different.
The Last of Us TV Series
The Last of Us TV series premiered on January 15th, 2023, and was met with critical acclaim. Based on The Last of Us Playstation game, the series has smashed the silver ceiling that exists between video games and film/TV and has spurred sales of the video game it is based on. It was released on linear channels and HBO Max and has done really well.
With Devil May Cry getting the anime treatment (by the same creators as the Castlevania anime), will adaptations like The Last of Us, and the Sonic Movie encourage more video game developers and publishers to try and adapt their work? Imagine a Shantae series. It could be colorful, full of character, and positive in its themes and vibes. We could be on the verge of loads of beloved series getting TV and movie adaptations.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)
2023 is going to be the year that the most famous videogame icon, Mario, gets his second shot at the big screen. The first movie, released in 1993 and live-action, is notoriously bad. The 2023 movie will be animated and follow in the steps of Mario’s eternal rival, Sonic who had quite a successful movie debut with Sonic the Hedgehog in 2020. This was followed up with an equally successful Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in 2022, and the third movie is in production for 2024.
Nintendo is understandably protective of its properties and it’s a big step for them to allow the Hollywood treatment to be given to one of their franchises. The trailer for the new Mario movie looks good, although there were complaints about Mario’s accent and his voice generally (voiced by Chris Pratt). Charles Martinet, who has voiced Mario in the games for over twenty years, has been dropped in favor of a famous celebrity (Chris Pratt). However, he will have a cameo role, so I guess that’s good. The movie is being made by Illumination Studios. The trailer for the movie has that Illumination charm with the penguins from 3D Mario games appearing and having to defend themselves from Bowser (it’s all very cute). Overall, it should be a good film for families and youngsters.
Tetris Movie and Other Future Projects
I’ve heard about the story of the Tetris rights being fought over when the game was first created in the 1980s. It definitely sounds interesting, and in fact, Hollywood thinks it’s so interesting that they’ve decided to make a film about it. Tetris will release in 2023 and stars Taron Egerton and Toby Jones. Maybe a film like this is what they should be making? Rather than basing the film on the gameplay or story of a game, focus on the drama that lead to its development or the sale of its rights. I’m actually really excited to see this one, and because it’s not actually based on the game itself, maybe the video game curse won’t apply and it’ll actually be good!
A Zelda anime is something that I could see happening and might actually be good. There have been rumors over the last few years about a Zelda Netflix project, and I think something came out that there was some truth in that, however, Nintendo backed out at the last minute because they wanted to protect their IP. I really can’t see a live-action Zelda ever working. He’s meant to be a silent protagonist and be the link between the player and the virtual world. Although I’m not completely against him speaking, I just don’t want it to end badly.
Only Time Will Tell
So, we’re at an interesting time in terms of video game adaptations. The Super Mario Bros Movie and Tetris movie are around the corner. In the future, maybe we’ll see more anime adaptations like Castlevania. The video game movie curse might finally be lifting. However, I do think that video games fully integrating themselves into mainstream cinema wouldn’t be good in the long run for games. Games have always been niche and if they properly become mainstream, the videogame industry will never be the same again.