Video games are a unique part of the entertainment industry. Unlike TV shows, movies, theater and literature, they are interactive so you get to control their outcome. On the surface, games like God of War and Uncharted look like Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones, but the skills you need to make a good video game are very different from the skills you need to film a good movie. This is the reason why there are so many bad or mediocre video game adaptations in Hollywood. The two mediums are so different, it’s hard to take what works for one and make it work for the other.
But this isn’t an article about films based on video games. This is an article about a different but similar phenomenon that also often doesn’t go well: licensed games.
We all know what these are. These are the games that are based on pre-existing intellectual properties, most often movies and TV shows. They are annoyingly common and they have been around for as long as video games have existed. It had become so commonplace in the nineties that there was often a term for it: tie-in game. You name it, and there’s a video game adaptation of it. Star Wars, Alien, Indiana Jones, Terminator, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Hello Kitty, SpongeBob SquarePants, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, The Simpsons, South Park, Rick and Morty and tons of video games based on Disney, Looney Tunes, Marvel, DC and James Bond. Even Pepsi’s mascot Pepsiman got his own game!
While many gamers look down on licensed games (rightfully so since most of them are very forgettable), they often sell well and they are an important part of the video game industry business-wise because they represent properties that already have a strong fanbase.
Licensing games has been a no-brainer since 1976 when Sega essentially pioneered the idea with Fonz, an arcade racing game based on the sitcom Happy Days in which you got to ride Fonzie’s motorcycle, and it was obviously popular for audiences in the seventies who would inevitably say “Hey, that’s the Fonz” and check the game out.
However the rocky reputation of the quality of licensed games had its ultimate harbinger in the notorious Atari game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), which is seen by many gamers as one of the worst video games of all time. The movie E.T. was the biggest blockbuster in the world in the summer of ’82, so when Atari’s parent company Warner made a deal with Steven Spielberg and Universal to adapt the film into a video game, its success was seen as all but assured. The main problem was that the deal for the game was made in July 1982 and Warner wanted an E.T. game to be available for their console the Atari 2600 by Christmas 1982, which meant Atari had five weeks to develop the game in order for it to be made available on store shelves by December.
The end result was a game that felt unfinished, low-quality and confusing to the point that it was totally unplayable. Its failure actually contributed significantly to the video game crash of 1983 that nearly ended the game industry until Nintendo came along and revitalized it with Super Mario Bros.
The good news is that few licensed games have been as bad as E.T. since its release, and it taught some video game companies a lesson about the downsides of rushed development schedules. There are still examples of video games that are full of bugs and have performing issues due to unrealistic schedules that sometimes hamper the development process, including CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077, which had a disastrous launch in 2020, but this feels even more common with licensed games because publishers often want a game based on a movie to be released at the same time the movie is in theaters, which inevitably leads to many rushed and unpolished licensed games. These kinds of games are usually aimed at young kids so no one is really scrutinizing the fact that a game like Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue is not as amazing as the actual movie Toy Story 2, but if you are a fan of more original video games like The Legend of Zelda, The Last of Us or Halo, there is definitely a hierarchy among the gaming community with which games deserve more respect.
While it’s true that a large majority of licensed games are uninspired cash-ins, there are outliers, and many of them are actually pretty fun. Take the 1986 video game The Goonies (another game based on a Spielberg movie) and its 1987 sequel The Goonies II, both developed by Konami, the brilliant Japanese game developer behind the Contra, Castlevania and Metal Gear series. The Goonies video games were not outstanding but at least they felt finished, and they were surprisingly well-designed. Normally if the first song you hear in a video game is a chiptune version of a Cyndi Lauper song, your expectations are not high, but fortunately Konami knows how to make fun games.
A more popular example is the 1989 Nintendo Entertainment System game DuckTales by Capcom, based on the Disney TV show. Capcom (another high-quality Japanese game developer) was responsible for the classic NES game Mega Man, and the same developers behind that game were responsible for DuckTales, as evidenced by its impeccable level design and creative gameplay mechanics. While Capcom is one of the most highly respected video game developers for series like Mega Man, Street Fighter and Resident Evil, they are also responsible for some of Disney’s better licensed games, including the NES games Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (1990), The Little Mermaid (1991), TaleSpin (1991) and Darkwing Duck (1992), the Game Boy game Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1991), the Super NES games Disney’s Aladdin (1993), Goof Troop (1994) and Bonkers (1994) and the Magical Quest series which puts you in control of characters like Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck.
Meanwhile Konami had a lot of success with games based on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one of the most highly-regarded being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (1991), a multiplayer beat-’em-up released for the arcade that was a lot of fun. That same year Konami also developed the unlikely arcade beat-’em-up The Simpsons, which was also a lot of fun. Other good licensed games made by Konami include the platformer Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose! (1992) based on the TV series Tiny Toon Adventures, and the beat-’em-up Batman Returns (1993) based on the Tim Burton film, both released for the Super NES.
There were also a lot of good Star Wars games published by Lucasfilm Games, including Super Star Wars (1992) for Super NES, the PC game Star Wars: X-Wing (1993), Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998) for PC and Nintendo 64, Star Wars Episode I: Racer (1999) for PC and Nintendo 64, the Xbox game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) developed by Bioware, as well as the Star Wars: Jedi Knight series and Traveller’s Tales’ Lego Star Wars series.
Other rare licensed games that are actually fun and well-made include G.I. Joe (1991) developed by KID for the NES; Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (1993) developed by Sega for the Genesis; Disney’s Aladdin (1993) developed by Virgin Games for the Genesis the same year as Capcom’s SNES Aladdin game (both games are brilliant); the highly acclaimed multiplayer shooter GoldenEye 007 (1997) developed by Rare for Nintendo 64 and based on the James Bond film; The Simpsons: Hit & Run (2003) which was developed by Radical Entertainment and was like a cartoony version of Grand Theft Auto; The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004) developed by Sweden’s Starbreeze Studios and Vin Diesel’s Tigon Studios for Xbox; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) from Ubisoft; The Walking Dead (2012) from Telltale Games; South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014) from Obsidian Entertainment; Spider-Man (2018) from Insomniac Games, as well as the spectacular Kingdom Hearts series from Square Enix which was a crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy, and the brilliant Batman: Arkham series from Rocksteady Studios, the best of which were the first two games Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) and Batman: Arkham City (2011) which were not only some of the best Batman games ever made but some of the best video games ever made and some of the best Batman stories ever told across any medium. Which is a far cry from the days of licensed games like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (maybe Rocksteady should make an E.T. game next).