Live-action videogame adaptations are notoriously bad. It’s amazing how little the films change in their mediocrity throughout the decades. Other film categories vary wildly in technique and feeling when times change, but not videogame movies! Nope, Street Fighter: The Movie (1994) has the same feeling of terrible as Resident Evil (2002) which has the same feeling of terrible as Assassin’s Creed (2016). Something’s morbidly comforting in that. There are nuances to mediocrity that most dare not delve into. I’m a glutton for videogame punishment, so here I stand on the precipice of mediocrity to tell every reader bold enough to click this everything they need to know about videogame movies. I’m not going over everything, just everything that matters.
Forget Cinema Appreciation 101 at your local community college, you’re in school with me now.
Cynicism, Sell-Outs, and Celluloid.
If the eighties were the time of excess and commercialization, the nineties were the cultural hangover. Grunge conquered the musical counter-culture, and a general nihilism approached everything in entertainment. The nineties mined live-action adaptations of every kind of identifiable property the other decades were just too scared to try. The Flintstones (1994) starring John Goodman and Rick Moranis? Sure, why not? The Addams Family (1991), Lost in Space (1998), you name it – if there was some semblance that it could make a movie, Hollywood wanted it. Some were even good.
Then they looked at the growing medium of videogames and how it dominated a child’s attention, and naturally, everyone saw dollar signs. Still, just because a videogame is super popular, doesn’t mean it’s going to make a great film. Films need a strong artistic direction, strong characterization, and a tone that is approachable by at least one kind of audience. Most of these films will fail this, but some will succeed, and we’ll discover why.
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
So this movie was inevitable. Mario has been the face of gaming for decades now, but even in the early nineties, he was a complete juggernaut. This film felt necessary in its own way like it was too big of a cultural thing to be ignored. That must be why everybody involved with the project had so much confidence in it at the start. There were dozens of wildly varied scripts, talented production designers, and a talented cast, yet the final product is clearly a lazy mess. This movie had a unique vision because it had to. These early games were close to abstract art in their visual design, so the Blade Runner (1982) aesthetic was the closest anyone could get to the bold concepts of tyrannical reptiles and helpful fungi that anyone could’ve done. The lesson, though, dear readers, is that vision isn’t the same as direction. This film didn’t know what it was doing; it just cared so much about getting it done.
This was the first live-action videogame movie, but in many ways, it’s the alpha and the omega. The beginning and the end. Every flaw you can find in other videogame films can be traced to here. What’s particularly fascinating was the complete rejection of iconic designs and the feeling of the games. So what was left was something alien. There’s a reason Detective Pikachu (2019) keeps the Pokémon recognizable. If you remove what people liked about the property initially, then you have to replace it with something equally engaging. If you don’t… You get Super Mario Bros.
Double Dragon (1994)
Why Double Dragon was the next game on the Hollywood adaptation list perplexes me, but perhaps it’s because of the basic story. Mario was so outlandish of a story, Double Dragon actually has something gritty and real and simple enough to understand… At least, it did, but this film wanted to do something very, very different and didn’t want to just use some street justice story. Instead, this is a post-apocalyptic vision by way of the Goonies (1985). Big business, mutated men, and barely anything resembling the original game (though future games would try to incorporate some of this film’s imagery and characters).
This confirms a trend started by Super Mario Bros.: Hollywood doesn’t want to make a film true to the game, they just want to use the brand to sell the film.
Street Fighter (1994)
Cue the Street Fighter film. So eager to capitalize on the arcade game Street Fighter II‘s popularity and unique cast of characters, Capcom and movie producers forced this turd out without caring at all about maintaining a film’s quality or consistency with the simple videogame. This film’s problems are easy to see: the writing and production are rushed, and the film seems to want to include everybody from the game in the film despite not fitting the story. Most of the film abandons iconic designs such as E. Honda and Deejay so they can fit more generic supporting roles. It’s because a lot of the cast of a Street Fighter game doesn’t actually have to do with the singular conflict of Bison’s Shadaloo vs the world’s protectors. Dhalsim was just an Indian guy that fought for his village, so in the film, he’s a scientist that dresses up as the game Dhalsim near the end. Yay.
My favorite part of the film is Raul Julia’s performance as M. Bison. He is electrifying (quite literally), and sells every terrible line with a gravitas most actors don’t want to give. I’m looking at you Van Damme.
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994)
The first major animated movie I’ll mention in the list; this film was almost the opposite of the Street Fighter live action film. A coherent story with nice A/B plotlines while maintaining the visceral action of the original game. The draw is the art and the combat, and they don’t screw up the simple story or characterizations either.
However, this film has its own problems. Mainly, the Ryu/Ken narratives are stronger than they were in the live-action film but ancillary characters have to have their own development ignored because they truly have nothing to contribute to the plot. I’m glad my main Zangief gets a great fight with Blanka, but it comes at a price. Their characters aren’t completely rewritten like in the live-action film; they’re just ignored. All they’re allowed to do is fight. I can’t blame the film too much for it, but it’s a mark against it.
The biggest problem is the film wants to fan service people in the nineties by showing viewers Chun-Li’s breasts during a scene where Vega ambushes her. Whhaaaaaaaaaa-
Mortal Kombat (1995)
To many, the best live-action videogame movie. This isn’t a high bar, but this is a moment where irony and the subject matter have a perfect marriage with execution. Thankfully, you can get away with mediocrity in a Mortal Kombat movie. What they kept was so much more important: colorful style, a semblance of the original story and design, and great action choreographed by Ray Parks, as opposed to the bare bones choreography in Street Fighter or Double Dragon. Any appeal that was in the original game is found here, especially the over the top humor. Character dynamics work in this film despite a lacking script, and those characters that are glossed over because of the film don’t suffer because they get great moments on their own.
Except for my boy Sub Zero, he goes out like a punk.
Sonic the Hedgehog OVA (1996)
This is actually two episodes of a non-existent anime, and the two parts have a clear distinction. One is about visiting Robotnik’s lair to save the President of the world’s daughter and defeat a machine called Metal Robotnik. The other episode is defeating Robotnik’s plans, saving the daughter for real this time, and defeating Sonic’s rival, Metal Sonic.
The film’s biggest claim to fame is a very strong art style. It’s very reminiscent of the original Sonic CD intro, and that kind of animation is where Sonic as a character really shines. The fluidity and attitude exuding from the character is perfect. Even Tails, Metal Sonic, Robotnik, and Knuckles look and feel great. The big problem of the film is the original content and anime trappings. The President’s daughter, Sarah, is an awful blend of female anime clichés, and that weird owl guy definitely confuses me more than helps the story.
It also has a terrible tagline: “Scrape your knuckles. Catch some tails.” It makes you want to buy a copy, right?
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
If you think the original Mortal Kombat would’ve been enjoyable no matter how bad it is, then this film proves you wrong. This film is drastically worse in almost every way, script and talent primarily. It abandons most of the cast of the previous film, and the production value took a huge nosedive. Not just that, but they decided to stuff the film with as many worthless characters from Mortal Kombat 3 and onward as possible. Where the core Mortal Kombat cast might have interesting dynamics, Sindel and Cyrax don’t. I’m sorry Sindel and Cyrax fans.
Oh, and Shao Khan is so much worse than Shang Tsung. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa made the original film as a fantastically indulgent villain. Brian Thompson’s Shao Khan just isn’t as good.
Pokémon: The First Movie (1999)
For my generation, this was huge. It’s a 75-minute feature actually called Mewtwo Strikes Back, paired with a short film about Pikachu going on vacation. This, in many ways, was the culmination – I think – of America’s Pokémon craze. I’m not a Poké-history expert, but the use of Mew and Mewtwo and the 150 Pokémon felt like a cap-off to the first season of the anime and the sort of golden moments of the American Pokémon experience. I’m sure Pokémon might’ve gotten more popular after this, but this was the thing that stuck out in my memory as much as the games and initial episodes of the anime.
This film is probably one of the cases where nostalgia armor and internet culture have preserved it from actual criticism. You can really insult any other Pokémon movie or toy or game out there, but too many seven-year-olds cried near the end of this film for me to tear this movie down for its actual shortcomings. I think this is a perfectly fine film for what it is, though, and it made so much money.
Wing Commander (1999)
So, the weird thing about this box office bomb is that the game series it’s based on already used FMV (full motion video) for its storytelling. It even featured professional talents like Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell, and the gameplay was just normal space dogfighting (er, planes shooting each other. I’m not sure if people still call that dog fights. Sounds pretty bad now that I think about it.). Fun stuff, but the blueprints for the movie probably needed a little more innovation than that. The guy in charge of the games got to direct the film, and the Star Wars Episode I (1999) trailer premiered before the film. Bad writing, bad CGI; it’s a standard space box office bomb. We’ve seen these before, we’ll see them again.
I think the big lesson of this film is that what works in a nineties videogame isn’t necessarily an interesting world for the general public. People have different standards and expectations, and people just have them way lower when they get to play the heroes.
The decade of the ’00s (which shall henceforth be called “Double Zees”, you’re welcome.) actually streamlined the approach for videogame mediocrity. They figured out how to make money from these, and didn’t necessarily worry about quality or consistency, either. A lot of these actually feature sequels or come from production companies infamous for these adaptations. It is the era of Paul W.S. Anderson and Uwe Boll. Bloodrayne (2005) and Resident Evil. Yeah.