There’s something timeless and pristine about action movies from the late ’80s and early ’90s: a certain mindless, thoughtless, yet reassuring simplicity. If Roger Ebert were a zen master, he might ask “what is the sound of one hand spraying bullets through dense jungle underbrush with a mini-gun?”, and we would all know that the answer didn’t matter because the point was to sit down with a large tub of popcorn, shut down all critical thinking processes, and enjoy pre-gubernatorial Jesse Ventura trying to kill a cloaked space alien with a laser turret on his shoulder while Arnold Schwarzenegger guided his team of commandos to the chopper.
If you were a decent child back then, you might have come home from play to find a copy of Action Movie Title Tie-In: The Video Game sitting next to your video game console of choice. The thrill of using your favorite action hero was only matched by the joys of replicating scenes from your bullet-ridden movie of choice. And all would be right in the world…until you started playing. If you were “lucky,” you would beat the game before realizing its level of awful. If you weren’t, you’d play for an hour and give up as the buggy gameplay, absurd difficulty, and the sheer monotony of fighting the same three enemies (wearing hats of various hues as the only differentiators) made the experience a living hell for any but the most dedicated completionist.
How is it possible that a movie that caused crowds to sit unblinking until they raucously erupted in applause when the hero inevitably saved the day could then be released on a cartridge and cause so much angst and disgust to those very same people?
How is it possible that a movie that caused crowds to sit unblinking until they raucously erupted in applause when the hero inevitably saved the day could then be released on a cartridge and cause so much angst and disgust to those very same people? And more interestingly, why do a lot of those same franchises then go on to successful revivals decades later?
Take Alien3, for example. Released in 1992, the movie’s not nearly as critically acclaimed as the previous two films in the franchise, but it’s a lot of fun, nevertheless. It’s a joyful science-fiction action romp with all the trimmings: babes, guns, and face-devouring, stomach-bursting aliens. Unlike the earlier two entries in the series, Alien 3 is a pure action movie, with none of the suspense or horror elements that makes Alien and Aliens better overall movies, but a lot less fun at age nine. Then there’s the video game adaptation, which is an entirely different beast. The SNES version (the one with which I’m most familiar) starts out interestingly enough. It features lots of creepy music and fantastic visuals, only to quickly turn into a nightmare as you navigate the same pipes and platformed rooms over and over, constantly consulting a clunky map, and retracing your steps while enemies that you will often miss from point-blank range jump out at odd angles.
Batman Returns (1992) is another perfect example of a licensed action movie title gone wrong. Sure, the graphics are top notch, and the brawler action is passable for the time (though nothing compared to what Battletoads/Double Dragondid the year after with only two buttons), but the levels are bland and uninspired, and the game monotonously holds your hand as you relive the same movie you begged your parents to see just days earlier.
Need more proof? How about Cliffhanger (1993), a game that should not exist. Even worse than that are the home ports of the Terminator 2: Judgment Day arcade game. They require players to use the light gun in the desperate hope that maybe, just maybe, the horrible mechanics and buggy interface lets them advance beyond the first level. And the horror didn’t end with the SNES. Anyone remembers the Die Hard Trilogy for the PlayStation? Horrible graphics and awkward shooting combine to make it one of the single worst games to ever touch the platform.
Then, suddenly, in the late ’90’s and early ’00s something happened.
It was a slow shift, and few people recognized it at the time, but looking back it’s obvious that a major shift had occurred. Suddenly, people were talking about movies based on video games. In a good way. Suddenly, we had titles like Aliens vs. Predator (1999). Fantastic gameplay, deep engrossing storylines, and plots that borrowed a mythos from action titles of old only to tell a story that would embarrass any action flick from the last two decades. Lego Star Wars (1999) came out and put the movie it’s based on to shame. Think about that for a second: What was essentially a budget game title stole the thunder from George Lucas’ triumphant return to the silver screen.
Lego Star Wars (1999) came out and put the movie it’s based on to shame. Think about that for a second: What was essentially a budget game title stole the thunder from George Lucas’ triumphant return to the silver screen.
So what happened? There are a couple of theories, but they all tie into the same general idea. We grew up. Gen X, the first generation raised by Atari and Sega and Capcom got older, and some of them went into the software business and began making the kinds of video games they wished they could play when they were young–the same video games they dreamed up during the car ride home from watching Predator. As Hollywood faced a creative desert, some of the finest writers and storytellers began the process of borrowing from the Hollywood of old to fuel the rise in demand for quality games. Half-Life (1998), for example, reinvented storytelling at the moment when major studios ran out of ideas and began rehashing old plots so that they could fill up marquees in time for summer blockbuster season.
Plus, the rise of video-game as art freed a lot of development studios from paying the bills by taking a mediocre platformer and shoestring the latest theatre release into it. Instead, it let them craft stories that only loosely tied in to the franchise they were borrowing. Games like AVP (still the best LAN-party game of all time) and the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum took over where the best action movies of our youth left off, continuing in the finest tradition of telling a story just plausible enough for players to shut off their suspension of disbelief, and doing so in a very visceral and enjoyable way. Instead of being just another movie tie-in, like pallets of mass-produced action figures and McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes, video games began to preëmpt the movies they tied in to, with broader story arcs, greater freedom, and finally the expectation that they were a product in and of themselves.
And now, as we face the prospect of a Halo “movie” on the horizon (even if it is only a handful of shorts cut together), things have come full circle. If we’re lucky, maybe video-games-turned-movie will eventually hit a renaissance like movie-turned-video-games did, and we have some fantastic big screen thrills to look forward to. If not, stay tuned for the review of “Modern Warfare: The Movie: The Video Game.”