Do you like movie tie-in video games? Don’t think too deeply about the question, it’s not something I expect many to have a quick answer to. Unless of course you’re one of those gamers steeled by floppy disc handovers, an affinity for shooting monsters on Mars, and knowing what makes you hardcore, which if you are, good for you, I’ll be sure to mark you down as no.
The phrase movie tie-in video game is enough to draw a wide array of emotions from outright disgust, fond nostalgia, and massive indifference. They’re the bargain bin schlock you wouldn’t waste your money on, they’re the infamous Christmas gift that no child ever asked for. In general, their existence could be considered a step up from movie novelizations, but that of course depends on whether or not you enjoy movie novelizations. And yet despite the rather negative connotation that the subgenre can bring upon itself, one can’t deny the enjoyment found within The Lion King or Aladdin, the couch split-screen insanity in GoldenEye 007, or co-op adventures fighting Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings video game series. There are gems to be found for those willing to brave the search; some of these games manage to carve their own path making them entirely unique experiences, like Scarface: The World is Yours, a game that allows you to play a version of the story where Tony Montana escapes death to build a drug empire. The beauty of these games lies in the fact they aren’t limited to the stories their movie counterparts are stuck to and can provide a charming aside for fans.
If that doesn’t convince you, and I’d be disappointed if it didn’t, then we can look at the sales. Information found within NPD annual report shows that Enter The Matrix, despite releasing to lukewarm reviews, was the 9th highest selling game in 2003. Spiderman 2 in 2004 became the 8th highest selling game. 2005? Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at 8th as well. 2007 would see Spiderman 3 reaching 6th in Playstation 2 sales, High School Musical: Makin’ the Cut! at 7th in Nintendo DS sales, and Transformers: The Game coming in 4th in Playstation Portable sales. With games linked to some of the biggest films coming out at the time, and with holiday seasons always being a major draw for many video game publishers, it was only natural for these games to find success in one way or another. Sure, maybe it was the brand recognition, maybe it was the thrill of playing as our favorite characters, maybe a parent didn’t want to live with the judgment egged on by other parents for buying their kid Grand Theft Auto, whatever the case may be movie tie-in games held staying power, and were a considerable force with regards to sales.
Like any subgenre –if we’re to be generous and consider it a subgenre (I happen to be very generous in this regard) – there are merits and shining examples of developers looking to craft enjoyable, immersive experiences not unlike that of their bigger-budgeted contemporaries, even if their purpose was meant more as a side dish than an entrée. This raises a far more interesting question; is it the talent and work of the developers that propels a movie tie-in game to major success, or is it simply a byproduct of a brand name with mass appeal? It would be pure naivety to assume the former in a capitalist world, but it would be too cynical to believe the latter, dismissing the work of a development team. In Gamesrader’s article “How nine people at Rare created a seminal classic with GoldenEye,” lead artist on the game Karl Hilton said, “I hope it would have done well anyway, but I doubt it would have had the penetration into popular culture that the James Bond link gave it.” It’s possible for some games, the relationship is symbiotic, but for others, a brand name can do the major heavy lifting.
But for every Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, a game unique in having the director being a direct collaborator with the project, resulting in its iconic no HUD display, there are practically dozens of duds to choose from. Perhaps you’d be interested in dead on arrival platformer Jumper: Griffin’s Story, dismal beat-em-up Catwoman, hokey 3D fighter Fight Club, abysmal shoot ‘em up Bad Boys: Miami Takedown, or perhaps the nostalgia of Atari graphics will have you gravitating towards E.T., an overwrought series of bad decisions and industry crashing aftereffects mythologized in the form of a piece of plastic, stealing the superlative from then sitting president Ronald Reagan before he stole the title back.
This is to say the history of movie tie-in video games is paved with good intentions and questionable business practices. Most of the aforementioned games were set to be released in time with their movie counterparts forcing developers into a release date they had to meet, which could result in dire and short development cycles. On top of that, if these games don’t do well commercially, it could very well mean the livelihood of the employees working there. In the case of Catwoman developers Argonaut Games, that game would be their last, as they shuttered their studio in October, two months after the release of the game, with no publishing deals coming through to keep them afloat. It’s a situation no one would ever want to face, and in the case of Argonaut Games, it comes with a bit of a bittersweet tinge; they were also developers of Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone, a game that despite its barely passing reviews coming in at 64% on Metacritic, sold 8 million copies placing it sixth on the list of best-selling Playstation video games. Within history, the game sold more than iconic legacy characters in Sony’s library like Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, and Metal Gear Solid. This before we knew how awful J.K. Rowling could truly be. What a time.
Even though many choose not to look back fondly on this particular subgenre, their absence is deeply felt, with the last movie tie-in game seeming to be Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier released back in 2017 for the Playstation 4 (with ports to Xbox One and Windows releasing in 2018.) The game didn’t favor too well critically, pulling in a 59 on Metacritic, and with no information on its sales, it’s safe to assume that it didn’t inspire too much confidence for other publishers. There’d be no joy in Mudville tonight, for the movie-tie in games have struck out. But if the aforementioned Aladdin and Lion King games were able to find themselves ported to 8th generation consoles (very close to saying current generation before I remembered that, haha, that’s not true anymore) and if ten years of fan clamoring for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game resulted in the game making a grand reappearance at last year’s E3, then clearly someone somewhere has an interest in the subgenre. Who can say?
However, if we’re to progress forward with this idea of reviving movie tie-in games, that is if we want them back, then perhaps it should be done with a better understanding, and hope that the working men and women will be given the proper resources to create not just a good product, but a memorable experience. It would be a future where publishers aren’t in such a rush to meet deadlines to receive that windfall from a blockbuster film’s release. Maybe even promote finding new and innovative ways to tap into the mobile and indie gaming market, engaging with players directly, and allowing them to experience their favorite stories in exciting new ways. Take for instance 2017’s The Mummy Demastered, developed by WayForward studios. Instead of releasing in time with 2017’s The Mummy (which may have been a good thing all things considered), or featuring cliché uninspired gameplay beats, the game is a retro throwback to Metroidvania style gameplay (a word that somehow both gains and loses the more it’s said) and was released quietly in October. What’s more, the game reviewed well, receiving a 78%, 75%, and 73% score for PC, Playstation 4/Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One respectfully, with Thomas McDermott of DarkZero saying, “It may have been spawned solely as a means to promote a movie, but it overcomes those unassuming origins and rises to become a tremendous addition to the Metroidvania genre.”
Is there hope that in the future children will be able to play Pixar’s Soul as a so-so adventure platformer for the Nintendo Switch, or perhaps Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) in the vein of old school beat ‘em ups. I personally would love to experience a survival horror game in the Event Horizon universe. But would they even want it now? While Gen Z is notorious for being better crate diggers than most 90s DJs, it’s a completely different realm attempting to tap into that subgenre for reappraisal. The fact of the matter is, unless a movie tie-in game happens to sell well while also transcending the label, it’s very likely no one outside of that specific window of time will ever have the opportunity to discover it. It’s simply out of our hands, and in the hands of those who have yet to see a purpose for these games. They’re the holder of the keys and for some unfortunate games, they’ve permanently locked the door. To me, that’s a tragedy and serious oversight and speaks volumes in the ways we treat the idea of video game preservation and the work of thousands.
There’s so much to consider with regards to this particular issue; if a Spiderman fan in 2021 happens to get an interest in playing Treyarch’s Spiderman 2, a game that any fan of Insomniac’s seminal 2018 hit will feel at home with, a game which Andrew Reiner of GameInformer considered, “one of those games that you will continually go back to and have the time of your life in,”… well they can’t. The game currently isn’t listed on any digital platforms, nor are there any remasters of it. Should you happen to have the consoles and simply opt-in buying a physical copy, Amazon has a copy of the Xbox version for $72.87. Prefer your games on Playstation 2? You’re in luck because that version is listed at $72.69. There are local video game stores that surely may have it, but it’s a game of chance and is never a certainty. While emulating may be the common sense go-to choice for any form of retro gaming, it is still considered illegal and goes unspoken for the most part. Even so, emulating just isn’t a practical solution for the average everyday consumer to access these games in the same way the average everyday consumer may want to access older movies, music, books, or any art form.
I digress. Maybe the time has come and gone for this particular sub-genre. Maybe we’re better off not having to deal with the scourge of cash grab shovelware designed for everyone and no one. But to write them off as such would be gravely undermining their placement in the history of it all, and for many, proved to be their entryway into being gamers before anyone of us had any concept of what hardcore gamer really meant. Think it’d only be fair if we offer similar opportunities for future generations moving forward, no?