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What happened to all the video games based on movies?

Once upon a time, every major blockbuster was accompanied by a tie-in console game. What caused the Flipendo in their fortunes?

Wonder Woman is having an excellent week. The newly-released superhero blockbuster has earned $206.5m (£162.2m) in its first ten days in American theatres, and is now one of the highest-grossing movies ever made by a female director. There is no denying it: the film is a success.

Now imagine it’s 2002. After begging your mum to drive you to the local Blockbuster, you snatch the last rental copy of the DVD off the shelves and make your way to the counter, your blue and yellow membership card at the ready. But what do you see on your way? A brand new Wonder Woman video game, ready to get stuck into your PS2. With your popcorn-sticky fingers firmly wrapped around a rumbling controller, you were in for a pretty good night.

There was a time when every major movie had an accompanying tie-in game. After watching their counterparts on the silver screen, you were ten minutes of fiddling with some red, white, and yellow cables before you too could be Frodo battling for Middle Earth, James Bond sneaking past some Russians, or Harry Potter Flipendo-ing his way through the halls of Hogwarts.

Nowadays? Not so much. This month’s new reboots and releases The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will not be accompanied by the console games that followed their original counterparts. Wonder Woman, too, won’t have a big-budget video game to call her own (she is, however, now available as a character in the DC Legends mobile game!)


“There are a number of reasons for the change but it is a complicated topic,” says James TerKeurst, a computer games lecturer at Southampton Solent University. TerKeurst explains that the first generation of film-based games ended with a crash after the Atari game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial flopped. Created in just six weeks, the game is widely cited as one of the worst of all time, with unsold copies rumoured to be buried en-masse in a New Mexico landfill site.

But that was 1982, and the Nineties and Noughties saw another boom in movie tie-in games, with TerKeurst explaining that the first-person shooter GoldenEye 007 actually made more money than the film. “Hollywood fell back in love with games,” he says. “This resulted in quite a few reasonable game tie ins like Lord of the Rings, Alien Isolation, Wolverine Origins, and Spiderman Two.

“But it’s always been difficult working to film industry timelines.”

It is an undeniable fact that many movie-based video games are bad. Like, very bad. This was often because deadlines were kept incredibly tight in order for games to coincide with a film’s release.

When this schedule was combined with licensing costs and the fact that many tie-in games are, at their heart, a cash grab, this meant low quality games were released. In turn, this meant falling sales, meaning smaller budgets, meaning more bad games. Nowadays, studios often prefer to avoid the risk by allowing LEGO to make a tried-and-tested video game of their movie. 


Yet movie tie-in games were and are, for the most part, still profitable. So why did they disappear? The answer is: maybe they didn’t.

There is, in actuality, a new Pirates of the Caribbean game. “THE OCEAN IS YOURS TO RULE,” barks the description of Pirates of the Caribbean: Tides of War, a free-to-download mobile game complete with in-app purchases.

If you’re a fan of Disney’s Frozen, it is now one of hundreds of puzzle games on the app store that are based on the action of swiping matching jewels. Rather than spending thousands of pounds and two years developing plot-based console games, movie studios can now simply add the characters and aesthetic of their movie to pre-existing games. Last year, Disney released its own version of the immensely successful mobile game Crossy Road, imaginatively named Disney Crossy Road.

There has also been another dramatic change. With the boom of the video game industry, it is now movies that look to profit from the good name of games, rather than vice versa. Den of Geek! reports there are 59 video game movies currently in development.

Last year alone, there were movie spin-offs of Ratchet & Clank, Angry Birds, World of Warcraft, and Assassin’s Creed. None of these, it’s safe to say, are particularly great movies. Can movies and games ever really work together?

“Both industries are hit and franchise driven and try to capture the current zeitgeist, but each has its own strengths,” says games expert TerKeurst. “Consequently when the industries can support each other from their unique strengths they do have potential.  However, when they have simply copied each other it hasn’t been particularly successful.”

Many, then, might not mourn the death of movie tie-in video games. The internet is full of “The Top Ten Worst Video Games Based on Movies” lists, with gamers lamenting Ghostbusters II (1990), Street Fighter: The Movie (1995), Robocop (2003) and Fight Club (2004).

Yet games based on films are, if nothing else, incredibly accessible – and can be the first foray into gaming for many young children. It might not technically have been good, but Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events on (what else?) the Nintendo GameCube, propelled an 11-year-old me towards a love of gaming. And, with ever-increasing snobbery about what makes a gamer “a gamer”, shouldn’t we celebrate accessible games? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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The Back Half #19: Sting & Shaggy, Annihilation and the bumbag

The NS culture podcast with Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman.

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the unlikely musical collaboration of Sting and Shaggy on the album 44/876 (out on 20 April), review the new Alex Garland film Annihilation (with special guest Helen Lewis), and celebrate the noniversary of the bumbag (or fanny pack, if you're American).

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Get in touch with questions or noniversary suggestions on Twitter via @tom_gatti or @ns_podcasts.

Further reading:

Kate's interview in New York with Sting and Shaggy.

Helen's review of Annihilation.

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.