The Problem with Video Game Movies

21st April 2023

Featured Image by Joshua Amaro from Pixabay

Video games feel as if they are the natural progression of movies; instead of watching the events of a story, we get to take it into our own hands. Whilst you could assume that converting a successful video game franchise into a film shouldn’t be difficult, the rising list of poorly rated films and box office bombs highlight their inability to be consistent.

It is difficult to precisely pinpoint these inconsistencies at certain times, whereas at others the reasons for their downfalls can be blatantly obvious. With the release of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, critics and fans have been divided over their love for this new family animation – with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 59% “rotten” critic score, but audiences giving it a solid 96%.

This clash between critics and the audience is not an isolated incident. From 2021’s Mortal Kombat and last year’s Uncharted, it seems critics and audiences are often split on their opinions of films adapted from video games. There is also a wide array of quite frankly abysmal adaptations that have also made their way to the big screen.

But why does this happen? It could be a concoction of poor direction, a lack of understanding of the source material, or simply just a quick cash grab. Undoubtedly video game films have improved dramatically over the years, but to understand what made them so bad, it is important to look back at some of the early attempts at these adaptations.

Mario Bros. Vs. Mario Bros.

Given the most recent video game movie is of course The Super Mario Bros. Movie you may be wondering what the very first was. It was in fact 1993's Super Mario Bros. with actor Bob Hoskins taking the lead role. Given the overwhelming love for the newest animated flick from audiences, surely, its older live-action counterpart was just as good? It is indeed the complete opposite.

The original adaptation completely missed the point of what made the games feel so great. A mystical world with interesting creatures and characters which were completely ripped from the film and replaced with creepy counterparts which hardly resembled the game millions had played and loved.

The film so poorly executed these themes from the game in live-action that it has even been regarded as one of the worst films of all time. This not only left a sour taste in the mouth of audiences but even the games creator, Nintendo, actively avoided any more film adaptations after the trainwreck that was the original Mario movie, which is likely why animation was used for the latest picture.

We were both really fearful of what was the failure of past licensed adaptations where there is a distance between the original creators and the creators of the films, and we didn’t want audiences to feel like we didn’t do justice to the original work.

— Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario's Creator

This is what made the latest movie such a joy to fans as they saw the character they already knew come to life on the big screen back in the world of the Mushroom Kingdom which fans grew to love, including characters and music fans would recognise from the games.

Other video game movies

Some recent video game movies which have received a positive response include the Sonic the Hedgehog movies, which initially worried fans in the early trailers, but they were praised upon their release for being fun and faithful to their source material.

Sony is also no stranger to the film industry, with their leading studio, Columbia Pictures, but they have recently begun adapting their own PlayStation video games into feature films. Starting with the adaptation of Uncharted fans and cinemagoers alike were pleased with the outcome of their first attempt.

However, this was not a one-off by Sony as they have gone all in by already announcing the adaptations of popular video games such as Ghost of Tsushima, Gran Turismo, and Days Gone. They have even expanded towards the medium of television with their hit series The Last of Us.

But what goes into making these blockbusters successful? Fan service with the right mix of changes suited to the different mediums. Fans want to be able to recognise the game they have played without it deviating too much from the original game, but also different enough that it feels new to them.

If video game movies want to continue succeeding and deviate away from awful, unfaithful adaptations, such as the older Tomb Raider films or even the laughable Mortal Kombat from 1995, a good director who understands the game is key – especially when paired with a good script.

The big difference between the two

The feature that makes video games so appealing and fun is the ability to take the fate of the character into your own hands, and the experience is tailored towards this. This is often why the appeal is then lost in the cinema.

Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

Some games, such as Minecraft, seemingly have no story to them and would naturally be hard to adapt due to a lack of plot. But despite not being a video game, 2014’s The Lego Movie proved that with the right filmmakers at hand, creating a new and unique story can be interesting.

This is why the upcoming Minecraft film will need good story writers and directors at the helm to ensure a captivating story is placed in the world you recognise from the game. Some have argued that a strong, complex plot is required for this transition, but as this year's The Super Mario Bros. Movie has shown, that is simply not the case.

Final Note

Decades of poor video game adaptations have finally had their much-needed paradigm shift showcasing that they are not cursed and immediately deemed to be bad, and who better to show this shift than both of gaming’s biggest mascots, Mario and Sonic?

With plenty of upcoming adaptations that have already been announced, the future will show us whether this rising trend of quality will continue or not. It is interesting to see how the landscape will play out as this medium rises throughout the film.

But as we look back at how it has changed, it is clear vast improvements have been made Hollywood had begun to understand the correct formula for creating faithful and captivating adaptations.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is already displaying this, as it has already become the highest-earning animation picture ever, along with being the most-seen video game movie of all time.

But no feature can be overlooked from the soundtrack to visuals, along with each and every storytelling element needs to bring back the audience to something that is suited to lifelong fans of the videogame, or even cinemagoers who are about to experience it for the first time ever.

It is clear that as the quality improves, so will the profit generated, and with this profit bring a plethora of new adaptations along with it.