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Games on film: it's getting better


Games on film: it's getting better

Uncharted and Sonic2 prove: game movies are (finally) hitting their mark.

Arjan Terpstra

08 Feb 2022 ⋅ 5 min read

Uncharted players have something to look forward to, with the March release of the first movie based on the popular game franchise. If trailers tell you anything, the Tom Holland flick looks like a truthful adaptation of the action-adventure games, one that succeeds in faithfully translating the excitement of Naughty Dog's award-winning titles to the silver screen.

Sonic fans share the same kind of excitement. Their hero starred in the successful 2020 "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie, a film that many pundits saw as one of the best movie adaptations of any game franchise. The blue blur will soon be joined by Tails and Knuckles in "Sonic the Hedgehog 2", a movie that (again, judging from trailers) looks to be in the same good shape as film number one.
© Paramount

Promotional image for Sonic the Hedgehog2. Sonic saw some changes throughout production for the first movie, with fans disliking the original designs. The studio listened, and took care to alter the video game icon to its current form.


With two quality game adaptation blockbuster titles slated for this year, one can't help but wonder if the "movie of the game"-genre is finally out of the woods. Because even after a good 30 years of adaptations, a successful game movie is still an exception, not the rule.

For decades, more entertainment came from dunking on titles like the straight-to-video flick "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li" (2009) or the puzzling "Hitman: Agent 47" (2015), than from enjoying them for what they offer us as movies.

Check any metacritic, scan old reviews, and you know most movies based on game franchises sunk at the box office, got crushed in reviews, or both. Simply put, most famous games bombed as movies, and it didn't matter one bit if the source material was Prince of Persia, Doom, Need for Speed, Ratchet & Clank, or Far Cry.

Concept sketch for a car chase through Antananarivo, Madagaskar. Working on this image for the Uncharted 4 game, Naughty Dog artist Nick Gindraux tried several different vehicles "to catch the vibe of old action movies." The art is part of the Uncharted 4 fine art collection.


If anything can be learned from decades of game movie making, it's that successful games may seem ripe for cinematic treatment, but are terribly hard to work into genuinely interesting movie adaptations.

At first glance, this may seem strange: a successful game already has an audience, a story, art direction, a cast of interesting characters and hours of stories and plot lines, so what's keeping Hollywood from launching one successful game movie after another?

Promotional image for the Uncharted movie, with Tom Holland as Nathan Drake, and Mark Wahlberg as Victor Sullivan. The Uncharted games borrowed heavily from adventure movie tropes, so it comes as no surprise that a movie adaptation of the games has a chance to succeed.

A lot, it seems. A game can be super popular with players, who have no interest in a movie based on the characters they play with, leaving a movie in the wind. Other movie adaptations do interest video game players, but players alone, which is what happened to the "Warcraft" movie, that featured characters and plotlines that only players of World of Warcraft were able to relate to. "Assassin's Creed" movie broadly suffered from the same issues: movie-goers without prior knowledge of the Animus had trouble understanding the time-travelling part of the film.

Super Mario Bros.

With other films the problem is not the audience. Super Mario has tons of loyal fans, and yet the 1993 flick "Super Mario Bros." failed to deliver Nintendo the blockbuster they had hoped for. Granted, Nintendo was among the first game developers to try and bring their IP to the big screen, but they soon learned this was easier said than done.

Not your regular Super Mario Bros. With several script writers, directors and producers involved, all with their own ideas about creating a film "loosely based on the Mario games", Super Mario Bros. (1993) was a disaster. Here's Bob Hoskins (r) as Mario, and John Leguizamo as Luigi.

In a well-documented case of "development hell," movie production burned through several scripts, lead actors, producers and directors, and ended up being a mess that exited exactly no-one, including Shigeru Miyamoto, the famed creator of the Super Mario games. In an interview with EDGE magazine, 2007, Miyamoto summed up what went wrong: "The movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. videogames were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a videogame, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself."

Source material

Miyamoto's quote points at the pivotal question for any movie script writer engaging with a game adaptation: how close or "true" does a movie need to be to its source material to cater to the fans? And conversely, what distance to the source material is needed to appeal to the non-fans? Complicating the matter are the contents of the source material: while some games have conveniently linear plotlines that are easily translated into movie scripts, others simply don't. Meaning that it will be much simpler to translate an Uncharted game to the big screen, than a Street Fighter or, indeed, Super Mario Bros., where the gameplay elements far outweigh the larger story.
© Paramount

Knuckles dusting off his, er, knuckles. The range of characters in the Sonic the Hedgehog universe ensures there's plenty of films to come.

And still… It may be wishful thinking, but it looks like "movies from games" are getting somewhere. The aforementioned Sonic the Hedgehog movie hit the sweet spot between quality fan service and well-crafted family entertainment, introducing iconic characters like Dr. Eggman and Sonic to new audiences. Alicia Vikander in 2018s "Tomb Raider" was a big improvement on the two Lara Croft movies with Angelina Jolie in the titular role. And "Detective Pikachu" delivered both as a proper teenage adventure movie, and a homage to (the world of) Pokémon games.

If "Uncharted" and "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" hit the same high note, it looks like movies from games are finally getting somewhere…

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