Typically, many wince at the idea of seeing video game adaptations come to the big (or small) screen. Over the years, Hollywood has tried to make use of video game franchises. More often than not, it misses the mark entirely. That might’ve been due to a poor script, bad CGI, and a general lack of understanding about what made the game special in the first place.
That said, we may have finally reached a turning point where video game adaptions have a better chance of turning out well than ever before. Recent success stories like the critically acclaimed Castlevania on Netflix, as well as well-received films like Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu, are proof that video game adaptations can work. And it’s becoming more of a regular occurrence now.
The top of the class
To many fans, great video game adaptations are ones that faithfully recreate the plot points of the source material as they originally were. Yet, fans of the supernatural action games in the Castlevania series should be aware that the story in those games isn’t the strong point. Castlevania as a video game franchise excels at crafting atmospheric and fun action platformers with beautiful art and catchy music. On the other hand, the stories are often cheesy, and the subject of plenty of memes. That’s why, instead of choosing a single game to adapt, the team at Netflix went with the wise decision to let the showrunners create an original story that makes use of the established lore. They were given the freedom to execute a new tale in the Castlevania universe.
Vlad Dracula Tepes has risen and set loose an army of demonic creatures upon the poor people of 15th Century Wallachia. It’s up to familiar characters like Trevor Belmont and Sypha Belnades to save the day. Rather than using Dracula as a one-note villain, the story sets the tone by giving him more depth than ever before. He has genuine motivations for his actions, making him a more compelling villain than he was in the earlier games.
It’s a story about good and evil, but it also taps into man’s superstitious nature and how fear and reason are often clashing in the minds of humans. The result was a sublime narrative that interwove Castlevania’s characters with a surprisingly mature plot that pays reverence to the franchise. And it’s all wrapped up in a package of slick visuals and solid voice acting.
Sonic the Hedgehog
We’ve been down this road before. Iconic gaming mascots like Mario have had adaptions in the past, but all of them had failed for one reason or another. Even Sonic the Hedgehog was originally set up for failure thanks to a horrible design for the character. But, in one of the rare instances when fan complaints resulted in a positive change, Paramount Pictures took the feedback to heart and changed the look for the better.
When Sonic the Hedgehog was eventually released, it turned out to be a well-crafted film that showed plenty of respect and reverence for Sega’s signature blue blur. It focused on a simple story that revolved around Sonic needing to find his familiar rings before defeating Dr. Robotnik, but it also sprinkled in a heart-warming theme of friendship.
By keeping things simple, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie didn’t need to take itself seriously, and that allowed it plenty of room to include Easter eggs and references to the classic Sonic games. To top it all off, Ben Schwartz did an admirable job at bringing Sonic’s energetic enthusiasm to life on the big screen, while Jim Carrey’s over-the-top Robotnik was hilarious. The sequel went one step further and introduced familiar faces like Knuckles and Tails, using them to expand on the established story to excellent effect. Both movies have served as solid adaptations for fans of Sonic’s games.
Arcane: League of Legends
League of Legends (LoL) is an unruly beast of a game. The ever-popular MOBA now has a growing cast of over 150+ characters. However, while fans have enjoyed the occasional cinematics and story titbits of these colorful personalities, that lore seldom has any relevance to the gameplay of LoL. With that in mind, Riot Games made the perfect decision: create an origin story that focused on a specific subset of the LoL cast.
Arcane: League of Legends is an animated series created by French studio Fortiche. It can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of your familiarity with LoL, because it doesn’t rely on having prior knowledge of the game. As it turns out, that was the right call. Having never touched LoL, I and many others were moved to tears by the engaging narrative on display.
Various factions are in conflict within the city of Piltover, and a cast of memorable characters are brought to life with glorious attention to detail and flawless voice acting. While large-scale problems loom large, it balances this with a strong focus on three-dimensional characters like Jinx and Vi. The shocking twists, moody soundtrack, and stunning aesthetics stand out from a crowd of similar-looking 3D animated content in recent years. As far as video game adaptions go, it doesn’t get much better.
Cuphead is special for a lot of reasons, but the one that stands out most is its art style. StudioMDHR is a small team that worked for years to create an art style that looks like it was plucked straight out of a 1930s-era cartoon. When you’re playing the game it feels like artistry in motion, and the bizarre set of characters that inhabit the world were ripe for exploration. The Netflix cartoon of the same name does exactly that. Cuphead on Netflix makes use of that same beautiful animation style to give fans some extended time with the characters and world from the game. Its animation comes across as a little cleaner than a genuine classic cartoon may look, but it still has the same spirit as its video game counterpart.
The show turns Cuphead and Mugman into memorable characters thanks to some talented voice-over work, as well as their outrageous and often humorous slapstick comedy. Characters like the Devil and King Dice get plenty of time to shine, and the show even shines a spotlight on Elder Kettle, who turns out to be a fun character in his own right. The short and standalone episodes each cover the duo’s various misadventures, and it also has time to throw in enjoyable musical numbers, and a comedic tone that toes the line between cartoons like Tom & Jerry and SpongeBob SquarePants.
No one expected that a game series like Pokémon could have successful live-action adaptations. It would require a lot of elaborate CGI work to bring the pocket monsters to life, and it would still need to tell a cohesive story with the adorable critters to boot. So, instead of crafting a traditional Pokémon adventure, the first live-action Pokémon movie was wisely based on the Detective Pikachu spin-off game instead.
In a similar vein to the game it adapts, the story is about a teenage boy who is looking for his lost father. Tim Goodman is unlike other characters in the franchise in that he has become disillusioned with the creatures. That sets the audience up for a fun tale in which the protagonist learns to care about Pokémon once again, and it emphasizes what makes them special. That’s most evident in how well the movie treats the Pokémon themselves. In its futuristic utopia, Pokémon feel like a natural part of the world.
Some Pokémon wander about in the wild in packs, whereas others work with their owners in cafes. Charizard looks menacing, Psyduck is hilarious, and Mr. Mime is as creepy as expected. It’s a world that Pokémon fans have always dreamed of seeing, and Detective Pikachu does it justice. Above it all, the movie stars Ryan Reynolds as the wise-cracking, coffee-drinking Detective Pikachu. His humor works for both kids and adults in a self-aware performance that steals the show.
But we’re not there yet
The movies and shows just mentioned are all examples of how video game adaptations can shine in the right hands. Unfortunately, we aren’t quite out of the woods yet when it comes to poor game adaptations. Last year’s Mortal Kombat was generally liked, but it made the traditional error of introducing a new original protagonist that series fans just couldn’t care about. More recently, Netflix’s Resident Evil series was met poorly by many fans, with some positive performances being overshadowed by strange story decisions.
It’s clear that the trend of adapting video games into TV shows and movies is only becoming more and more common, but we hope that recent success stories are a sign that things are finally on the right track.