Upon every high-profile adaptation of game to screen, anticipation takes the shape of a curious question: “Will this be the first good one?” Indeed, summoning to mind the back catalog invites House of the Dead, BloodRayne, and Alone in the Dark. These movies were so aggressively bad that they had an outsized influence on our perception of an entire genre. Release a few of their more respectable peers from their contexts, however — chiefly, the expectation that each one had to be the proverbial “first good one” — and there are a few gems.
‘Mirai Ninja’ Is the First Video Game Adaptation
Video game movies got off to the right start with the very first: Mirai Ninja (or Future Ninja: Stealth Joy Cloud Device Side Story), a 1988 direct-to-video release based on a Namco arcade game. It was also the first film by Keita Amemiya, a renowned visual artist who never let a low budget discourage his wacky ambition. He lends an intricate design sense to the costumes, creatures, and weapons, infusing sci-fi silliness with feudal Japanese architecture. Sharing that irresistible D.I.Y. quality with movies like The Evil Dead and El Mariachi, the movie nevertheless commits to itself. Despite the absurdity, the performances are genuine, and the sword fighting is well-choreographed — as well as accented by laser light shows and explosions.
‘Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie’ Is Surprisingly Violent
For a certain anime fan, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (or just Street Fighter II: Movie, as the title card says) is canonized alongside OVAs and movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, from Akira and Ninja Scroll to Lily C.A.T. and Cyber City Oedo 808. The opening scene more closely resembles Fist of the North Star than any later live-action interpretation of the long-running fighting game series. Consequently, the movie features a surprising amount of blood in addition to the nudity of Chun-li’s infamous shower scene. It even has those accidental qualities, like the gay subtext of Ken and Ryu’s manly friendship. That was the style of the time, and Street Fighter II is positively fixated on the male physique. Half-naked bodies loom large in ample frames, each guy bigger than the last. DJ cuts a figure uncannily reminiscent of Rob Liefeld’s Captain America.
And yet, there isn’t a hint of irony, just famous characters rendered with no concern for their absurd costumes, fighting one another in a gauntlet with very little plot. The movie actually feels like an extended first act, as if everyone’s being gathered for the island tournament that never comes. However, enough of the fan favorites get their due, and the fast, brutal fight scenes show off unique styles and powers. This gets to the heart of it: “Is my main treated with respect?” A fighting game adaptation plays by a different set of rules and expectations, but for those curious, the answer is no. Chun-li? Hello? The strongest woman in the world spends half the movie in the hospital, after a fight where she’s both underdressed and too evenly matched with Vega. Come on!
‘Doom’ Boasts Now-Household Names Karl Urban & Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Before Karl Urban was a household name, his name was John “Reaper” Grimm in the 2005 Doom movie. Where the game began life as an adaptation of the film Aliens, we’ve closed the loop with this tale of space marines running down hallways and shooting at monsters. It’s a simple and satisfying formula, executed with the eye of an action veteran, Andrzej Bartkowiak (who may or may not have directed Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-li. Come on!). It also benefits from “The Rock” playing against type, which culminates in a superpowered WWE brawl with Urban.
Though the demon-infested world of Doom 3 was brought to spectacular life by Stan Winston Studios, it’s true that the game was hardly quintessential. John “Reaper” may be the Doomguy, but only insofar as he’s a guy in Doom. This film represents the ultimately scrapped direction the franchise was headed before the reboot series, which turned Doomguy into the Doom Slayer, and recaptured the winking heavy metal of the originals. Doom is instead a borderline horror movie, but it’s a fun one and makes more sense alongside B-movies like Dog Soldiers and Predators.
‘Castlevania’ Spawned a Netflix Spin-Off
Take a time machine back to 2016 and tell anyone that “the Castlevania show will be good,” and the looks on those primeval faces ought to say everything about the success story that was – and continues to be – Castlevania on Netflix. With a voice cast including too many greats to list, and series direction by Adi Shankar, it’s somehow taken the horror cliché pastiche of Castlevania (a monster mash, let’s say) and turned it into a coherent, compelling story. Initially envisioned as a live-action film trilogy, Castlevania’s animation is perfect for creature design and bloody, fast-paced action. Of every wild piece of intellectual property that Netflix has picked up over the years, from The Dark Crystal to Spriggan, nothing was more improbable than Castlevania.
‘The Witcher’ Is Both a Book and a Game Adaptation
Well, except for maybe The Witcher. Not that it wouldn’t work, but that it would work so well? The Netflix series is the second attempt at adapting Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novels to live-action, and that first attempt, The Hexer, wasn’t too well received in its native Poland. Of course, this isn’t technically a game adaptation, but it does bear mentioning for fans of CD Projekt Red’s trilogy. Those games, including the critically acclaimed The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, captured the spirit of the books better than The Hexer, establishing a frame of reference for any future adaptation. The show itself adds impressive fight choreography and breakout stars like Anya Chalotra as Yennefer and Freya Allan as Ciri.
Alicia Vikander Elevates the 2018 ‘Tomb Raider’ Adaptation
The 2018 Tomb Raider is a textbook adaptation. The novelty of the game Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was twofold: interactivity, and the titular heroine’s popular polygonal makeup. Take away the gameplay, and it’s a warmed-over Indiana Jones plot. The film is actually adapted from the 2013 reboot, which explored Lara’s origin with a grounded approach inspired by horror films like The Descent. Gone is the sassy, busty Lara Croft – which would seem to do away with the other asset – but in her place was a sympathetic survivor. The 2013 game proved to be a strong source, despite instances where the needs of the gameplay clashed with the story. This film is effectively a second draft, ironing out the flaws without risking the intensity.
As far as Lara Croft goes, Tomb Raider has a not-so-secret weapon, positioning it uniquely in the game-to-movie canon: one of the best actors working today. Alicia Vikander, who put on 12 pounds of muscle for the role, lends the concise script an invaluable humanity. Surely, she knew that the route to her next Oscar wasn’t through a tomb, but surprisingly, the character allows a wide emotional showcase. With a cast of reliable actors like Dominic West and Walton Goggins, each ingredient, from the script to the direction, is fine-tuned to sell moments of genuine drama.
Most importantly, the film finds a less literal method of capturing the games’ excitement than the admittedly cool first-person shooter scene in Doom. The set pieces communicate clear goals and fail states, ensuring Lara doesn’t have to mutter to herself or notice an objective marker. For all screenwriters’ anxieties about adapting silent protagonists, or in this case, a character who’s alone for most of the games, language can be more than dialogue alone, and the success of Tomb Raider in that regard is a testament to its craft.
‘Mortal Kombat’ Enjoys Two Strong Adaptations
The two good Mortal Kombat movies share a title and act as separate sides of a coin, or the separate colors of a palette-swap ninja. The original from 1995 is arguably the better film, acting as the lost sequel to Big Trouble in Little China and fitting the infinite universe of the games into a campy, compact adventure. The 2021 reboot, then, is truer, despite not actually featuring the titular Mortal Kombat, and introducing a needless plot device in the “Arcana.” It scores major points for a well-earned R rating and a terrific cast, including Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, and a wild Josh Lawson. Neither are masterpieces exactly, but they’re consistent with the martial arts films of their respective eras. The original is lighthearted and fun, and the more recent one is gory. Both are worth watching and make up a strong duology. No other Mortal Kombat movies exist, and we all lived happily ever after.
‘Werewolves Within’ Is the Rare Comedy Video Game Adaptation
This one is the rare comedy based on a game, and granted, there aren’t a lot of “comedy” games to adapt. The humor of Werewolves Within seems to arise naturally, as a chaotic multiplayer game in VR released for PlayStation 4, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive in 2016. Like the game Mafia, players sit in a circle and attempt to deduce who among them is the werewolf in disguise, making for a lot of shouting crosstalk in crackling low quality over the Internet. The players are represented in-game by a cast of goofy-looking characters, making for mismatches in face and voice, and they’re all flailing at each other in accusation.
The 2021 film updates the medieval setting to a snowed-in Vermont town, but preserves the goofy cast. In addition to comic talent like Harvey Guillén, Michaela Watkins, and Sam Richardson, the film is a rare spotlight for Milana Vayntrub, who really turns up the charm. The filmmakers capture the emergent comedy in the game but also tap into the hysteria inherent to contained horror like The Thing. Come on, “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this fucking couch!” It’s almost as if this was a strong idea for a movie that had a tie-in game just before release, and the electric setup is executed by an appropriately flailing ensemble.
‘Arcane’ Is Adapted From the Popular ‘League of Legends’ Game
Werewolves Within was, in part, supervised by Ubisoft, who also developed the game. That isn’t a guarantee of success, and in the case of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, may have been a detriment, but it does seem to be the pattern going forward. Sure, Riot Games can double as a developer and a production company, and that isn’t even a hypothetical. They’ve proven as much with the Emmy-winning Arcane, in conjunction with Fortiche and creators Christian Linke and Alex Yee, which not a few publications hailed as perhaps the greatest of all game adaptations.
To look at League of Legends with television in mind, one transforms into a fuzzy-headed Nicolas Cage before the typewriter, because it’s a God’s-eye view of tiny people shooting laser beams at each other. Who are these people? Who controls them? And why? Turns out, there’s a deep lore behind the multiplayer online battle arena game, and as Arcane demonstrates, compelling drama inside of that. A painterly visual style is impeccably animated, making for a steampunk spectacle that powerfully expresses the emotional turmoil of its heroine. And emotion! That’s the ingredient still rare to the genre, but if it can be done for the MOBA that also inspired the mockumentary Players, it should be considered the standard going forward – when appropriate. Still waiting on Mirai Ninja 2.
‘The Last of Us’ Might Be the Best Video Game Adaption of All
The adaptation that just might be the best of all, though, is this year’s The Last of Us on Max. Starring Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller and Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams, the series set a high bar for what a video game adaptation should look like. The changes it made from the source material were both intentional and meaningful, adding to the intrigue of the series and never making viewers question the accuracy of the beloved game’s adaptation. It proved to be a hit with audiences and quickly earned a Season 2 renewal. In addition, the series’ Emmy nominations are proving to audiences and studios alike that video game adaptations don’t need to be as maligned as their reputation.
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