Cross-marketing, especially with the teenaged and young adult male audience, is nothing new. A successful comic book will be turned into a successful video game, a game will become a popular action figure, an action figure will become television series, the successful series is made into a wide-release movie, and the movie will be turned into a comic book again.
Movies seem to be the heart of the entire process, though. Every other medium will head towards a major motion picture (or two or three) as the climax of its marketable success, while a successful young-adult-male movie will almost immediately be made into a comic book, collectible toy, TV series and/or video game simultaneously.
This being the case, it's interesting that so few movies have had video games as their subject. Probably this is because, until recently, video games were seen as "kid stuff" by the rest of the Western world. This is changing in recent years for two main reasons. First, the kids who grew up with the first video games are adults now, making movies themselves. And second, the games are becoming more adult-oriented themselves, as technology and graphics mature exponentially.
Intrigued by the progression of the tiny video-game genre of movies, I pulled up the IMDb and my own memories and came up with the following list.
The 1980s: Computer Games as Just Another Character
- Tron (1982)
- Just released on DVD in a 20th anniversary edition, this Disney (!) film is something of a classic to anyone who's ever spent a significant portion of their life around computers. This film was from the early 1980s, when video games were lucky to have any actual plot of their own. But the story took those early player-versus-player games and used them as major story elements, the shining example being the light cycle battles which were clearly inspired by the old snake computer games. In fact, it did it so well that the games in the movie were used to make a new arcade game themselves.
- WarGames (1983)
- The entire premise of this movie was classic computer-kid stuff: a teenager hacks into a military supercomputer and challenges it to play video games with him, except that one of those games turns out to be the real thing. Computerized chess and tic-tac-toe, along with some Missile Command-inspired visuals, made this story possible and the movie a cult hit for geeks.
- The Last Starfighter (1984)
- A fictional arcade game turns out to be an alien-built traning simulation which identifies a human game junkie as the last, best hope for defeating an actual outer-space threat. The game itself was actually made by Atari, but never saw production -- perhaps because the arcade graphics of the day couldn't hope to live up to the elaborate special effects the movie enjoyed. Everybody who lived in the world of video games liked to imagine using their specialized skills to actually save the universe, right? This film was their chance to make it happen, at least vicariously.
- The Wizard (1989)
- The games for the insanely popular Atari 2600 were never advanced enough to become movie fodder themselves, although Pitfall probably came close. But the next generation of home consoles brought us the Nintendo Entertainment System, and its far more complex games and quarterless appeal were the stuff of intense competition among kids. The premise of this movie was that a real competition of that sort was attracting kids from all across the United States, and one unusually adept little boy simply had to get there. Of course, the entire film was nothing more than a commercial for Nintendo games and products, most importantly the soon-to-be-released Super Mario Bros. 3.
The 1990s: Good Games Become Bad Kiddie Films
- Super Mario Brothers (1993)
- Finally, video game stories become movies themselves. Too bad this one was such a dud. Like most game-based movies that followed, this one didn't follow the actual plot of any of the SMB games, instead creating an entirely new free-standing and kid-oriented story using the characters and environments of the game. The Mario Bros. games were too surreal to survive a literal translation to the big screen, so they tried to ground the movie in reality by tying the Real World to a parallel dimension. The high-jump boots used by the plumbers were a funny touch, though.
- Street Fighter (1994)
- Building on the widespread success of Street Fighter 2 and its sequels, this movie built on the basic figher-versus-fighter, winner-takes-all plot of the game which, of course, was borrowed from all the Bloodsport-style fighting movies that preceded it. Jean-Claude Van Damme played the lead role, but like "Super Mario Brothers," the plot was targetted for children and the monsters were more cartoony than they were impressive. Another dud.
- Mortal Kombat (1995) and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
- These two films followed the video game plot in the same way "Street Fighter" did, but used impressive CGI animations and a far more "adult" environment. Since the MK video games were far bloodier than SFII to begin with, this was the logical approach to take, but because the audience was still kids and teenagers, a PG-13 rating was the target, a first for video-game movies. The story was good enough to have one sequel made, but just barely. Video game fans begin to wonder why Hollywood even bothers anymore.
- Wing Commander (1999)
- As the Wing Commander games progressed, they became more and more dependent on in-game video to drive the story. "Wing Commander III" took advantage (in every sense of the phrase) of CD-ROM media by combining live-action video with a Choose Your Own Adventure-type storyline, where the decisions made by the player (largely restricted to his social relationships) resulted in slightly different missions and very different endings. The movie was considerably less interactive, and much less engaging.
- Pokémon: The First Movie (1998), Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (2000), Pokémon 3: The Movie (2001) and Pokémon 4Ever (2002)
The Pokémon movies were actually just a big-screen continuation of the successful animated cartoon, which were inspired by the Nintendo Game Boy games. Nevertheless, their enormous financial success on the big screen finally proved that video game characters can make it as intelligent (or at least intelligible) screenplays.
The New Century: Third Decade's the Charm
- Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)
- Like its predecessors, the "Tomb Raider" movies hinged their success on two things: use a massively successful game's characters as the springboard, while retaining virtually none of their story elements. Any one of the four "Tomb Raider" video games could have been the plot of a film, but why would the fans go to see a story they'd already seen the ending to? Add massive amounts of CGI animation, stir and serve: this film was an impressive success among gamers and non-gamers alike.
- Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
- The series of Final Fantasy video games only have two things in common: their name, and their turn-based approach to role playing combat. Following this trend, the movie had absolutely nothing to do with the video games aside from also being made by Squaresoft. In fact, the movie had even less in common with the games than the games had with each other; the games at least shared a loose but common fantasy theme, while the movie was all futuristic science fiction with a little supernaturalism to make it interesting. The movie was 100% CGI, and while the characters were certainly more realistic than those made by Pixar, it was only as good as the movie stills; movements were wooden and expressions even moreso. The plot was also less than fans had hoped for, and the result was less than successful. Squaresoft resolved to stick to video games thereafter.
- Resident Evil (2002)
- Like "Tomb Raider" and "Final Fantasy," this movie's horror-driven plot uses all of the hit game's characters and premise while eschewing its own storyline. It's indicative of current gaming trends that the last three movies based on hit games have all featured beautiful young women as the main characters in an action-oriented story. Again, elaborate computer-generated special effects abound; would you expect anything less?