A Brief & Tragic History of Video Game Adaptations

Explore the painful history of failed video game adaptations before HBO’s The Last of Us

The Last of Us arrives on HBO Max very soon and it’s gotten a lot of fans of the game excited, and also gotten a lot of fans very nervous. For those who have never seen, played, or even heard of the game, The Last of Us appears to be a potentially excellent post-apocalyptic, zombie show. However, for those of us who have played the masterpiece of a game, and its incredible sequel, or have even dipped a toe into the medium of video games, we know the challenge this adaptation faces.

Before it stands a curse, a curse of cinema filled with high hopes and dreams and wonderful trailers and incredible casting, and utter misery. If the last 30 years have taught Hollywood anything, it’s that adapting video games into movies is really, really, really, really hard (or at least it appears to be). So many great game franchises, with titles that a lot of fans hold dear, have been let down by poor adaptations. Some didn’t respect the source material, while others didn’t understand it and just did their own thing, and most of them are just bad films.

A quick word of note, we know some of these titles have gained cult followings over the years, and decades, after their release, but that doesn’t matter here. This is not about popularity and the size of the films’ fandoms, it’s purely about cinematic quality.

Where It All Began

Cast your mind back three decades, to a year that gave us Nelson Mandela earning the Nobel Prize, the downfall of Pablo Escobar, and Bob Hoskins being cast as the lead in Super Mario Bros. For those who have seen the film, not much really needs to be said. But for those fortunate enough to have never been strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange and forced to watch this film, let me make your life just a little bit worse.

Here is a still from the original Mario game:

While it’s a product of the technology available at the time, it’s still bright and cheerful and happy and brings joy when you look at it (or frustration if you’ve ever tried completing it).

Now, this is the trailer for the movie:

Where is the colour? Where is the loveable, happy tone of the game?

Aside from bashing the aesthetic and tonal issues of this adaptation, the film was hammered with problems. During production, the studio gave the crew no real sense of what they were meant to be doing, and what the finished product should look like, as this kind of adaptation had never been done before.

While the CGI might have been okay for the time period, it has aged as well as milk, and a lot of the practical effects and costumes used for the “koopas” and other creatures that inhabited this weird, damp and dingey underground world was laughable back in the 90s.

The worst offender is the script, cringe-inducing dialogue, jokes that rarely land, and a terrible plot that has left this film to be considered one of the worst films ever made.

And thus begins the video game curse.

The Bad Batch

It is very tempting to just leave a list here, a shame list of films you should never touch, or do if you’re a masochist (we’re not judging), and I will:

·       Silent Hill (2006)

·       Need for Speed (2014)

·       Doom (2005)

·       Hitman (2007 & 2015)

·       Resident Evil (All of them)

And that’s just a short list of some of our personal un-favourites.

But do you know what stinks worse than a bad movie? Hope. Hope for a great movie, born from a good trailer, and a lot of times the trailers promise an incredible cinema experience.

Adaptations like Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, and most recently Uncharted all looked promising when the trailers first released. But then the film premiered, the negative reviews flooded in and so too did the fans’ opinions.

Assassin’s Creed was lambasted for turning one of the coolest historical-based video game franchises into a dull action film. It focused on all the wrong elements, spending way too much time in the present day as opposed to in the ‘Animus’, the simulation in which the Assassins ran through the streets of renaissance Italy and Ancient Egypt and the pirate-ridden Caribbean, which is a common complaint the games also receive from fans.

Uncharted took one of the best story-driven adventure series and turned it into… a dull action film. Admittedly, this one isn’t as bad as some of the others on the long list of failures. It’s still somewhat cohesive and can be enjoyed if you don’t think too hard about it, but that’s the problem, it’s acceptable and nothing more.

That’s the bar we’ve set for video game adaptations- acceptable. Does its plot make some sort of sense? Is the CGI okay? Is the action kind of fun to watch? Sure. Nice one, then it’ll do.

The problem is that video game fans, and even a lot of regular cinemagoers, have had enough. They won’t go out to watch blatant cash grabs built on the backs of much-loved franchises. 2020’s Monster Hunter film absolutely tanked at the box office, bringing in around 40 million dollars against its 60 million dollar budget, and that’s just the production costs. A general rule of Hollywood films is that the marketing will cost twice as much as the production.

The Fortunate Few

As tiring as it can be as a video game fan waiting for the latest adaptation to release, it’s not all bad. There have been some films that, much like Andy Dufresne, have ‘crawled through a river of sh*t and come out clean on the other side.’ While you still may not call them cinema in the same way you would for The Shawshank Redemption they’re still decent movies, nonetheless.

Ignoring the ‘realism sonic’ fiasco, Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel were fun family romps. Jim Carrey stole the show as Dr Eggman and treated viewers to a tastefully corny performance, reminiscent of The Grinch and The Mask. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu gave Ryan Reynolds a platform to play himself in another comedy, although this time he was fuzzy, yellow and a foot and a half tall. This flick contained plenty of laughs and an entertaining enough mystery, as well as tons of references to the games, and won the majority of audiences and fans over.

What About TV?

Now I know what you might be thinking, The Last of Us is going to be a TV show, not a film, doesn’t that make a difference? Surprisingly, yes. And even more surprisingly, we have Netflix to thank for a lot of it.

The two stand-out examples are Arcane, based on the League of Legends series, and Castlevania based on the series of the same name. While there are dozens of reasons why these are incredible shows in their own right, there are three main attributes that make them stand out as excellent video game adaptations.

1.     A true love and respect for the source material.

2.     Understanding the appropriate tone.

3.     Trying to be more than mediocre.

I know that sounds like a shoddy list but let me explain.

Nothing infuriates video game fans more than when the source material is tossed aside as if it didn’t exist. Just look at Super Mario Bros. Everything fans loved about the games was tossed aside for a 90’s B-Movie (which is generous). Castlevania and ARCANE both kept true to what inspired them. The shows were filled with easter eggs and references to the games, and not just in a throw-away sense, you could tell there was true love for the original materials throughout the creative teams. The settings and worldbuilding also perfectly reflected and respected the franchises they were based on.

What is the Monster Hunter franchise? A vibrant, colourful world where you hunt extravagant monsters with giant swords, then refuel while a humanoid cat cooks you a five-course meal. Does it sound silly? Good, it’s meant to be, and that’s why fans loved it. Monster Hunter isn’t a handful of U.S. Army soldiers in the Middle East who get teleported to a drab jungle and are forced to survive. Putting the premise aside, the major difference between the two is the tone. The first is fun and entertaining, the second takes itself WAY too seriously. Castlevania and ARCANE both understood the tone of what came before and project it well in their adaptations. They both have their darker, more emotional moments, but are intersected with well-timed and well-written comedic relief.

Most importantly, and I mean MOST importantly, these shows try to be good. You can instantly tell that the production crews have put blood sweat and tears into the animation, the script, the acting, the editing, and every other element of the production process to ensure they release the best possible product to the public. As opposed to an obvious, rushed cash grab.

Is The Last Of Us Doomed?

Does this mean anything for The Last of Us, kind of? From what we’ve seen so far the show appears to be in good hands. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who played Joel and Ellie in the games, have both endorsed the project and Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay make a perfect live-action fit for, non-biological, father/daughter pair.

All we can really do is wait and see. Like any video game adaptation, or really any TV show in general, no one wants it to be bad. Because if it does fail, it’s just another reason for Hollywood to stop trying to adapt some of our favourite franchises, and with projects like a Fallout TV show, a Borderlands movie, and an adaptation of Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding in the pipeline, we’ve all got our fingers crossed.


Responses to “A Brief & Tragic History of Video Game Adaptations”

  1. […] Spaihts’ impressive filmography proves that the writer has the talent to successfully adapt beloved properties from other mediums into successful films, and is a positive step for the Gears of War movie to protect it from the video game curse. […]


  2. […] Movie just released and, despite its mixed reviews, it’s still an enjoyable time, meaning the video game curse may officially be broken. Even before HBO successfully adapted The Last of Us for television, many […]


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