I had twin criteria for this. The first was ‘is it a decent game?’ and the second ‘does it meaningfully evoke the spirit, themes or characters of the movie in addition to having Quite Good Guns And Graphics?’ The second saw quite a few games which would otherwise qualify ruled out. This year’s Mad Max, for instance, was an agreeable murder-romp but it’s much harder to argue that it nails the desperation or oddness of the films it’s based on. Star Wars: Battlefront, meanwhile, is an OK online shooter with marvellous graphics, but it’s too mechanical to ‘feel’ like Star Wars once you get beyond the spectacular presentation. Ah, ‘feel’. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Does a movie game make you feel like you’re a part of that movie’s wider world, or is it just wearing its skin?
It’s that question which most informed this list. I don’t disagree that there are, in some cases, better games-based-on-movies if ‘game’ is the foremost criteria, but these, in no particular order, are the ten games which most understood and even grew my appreciation for their subject matter, rather than simply piggy-backed it. (Additional FYI: I decided not to include any superhero games, reasoning they’re really their own thing rather than innately movie-based).
It would have been a well-received dark sci-fi stealth-action game in its own right, but by also being so heavily built around Vin Diesel’s titular anti-hero and the world of violence he came from, it succeeded on two fronts. Riddick – and remember this was after Pitch Black but before the Chronicles of Riddick movie made the character a faint laughing stock – is a brutal and uncompromising man. Not necessarily immoral, but certainly not walking a traditional hero’s path. This gave him – and you, the player – a rare license to be a complete prick to anyone he encountered.
Whereas other shooters have to hand-wave mass slaughter as an act of necessary heroism, Riddick is just being Riddick, a violent ex-con surrounded by far worse men, killing or being killed and not having to rationalise it in any other way. Add to that some robust combat and the sort of stalking panther stealth later popularised by the Batman: Arkham games and you’ve got a tight character study of a compelling pulp character, not simply a shooter starring a vague approximation of Vin Diesel’s face.
There are many games which bear the Aliens vs/versus/v Predator name, most confusingly one which came from the same studio as this one some ten years later, but Rebellion’s 1999 tri-protagonist shooter remains the standout. I’d also name it the best Aliens game full-stop (although Alien is a slightly different matter – see ‘honourable mentions’ for more on that). The key here is intensity, both in the mounting dread of stalking through dimly-lit corridors with the knowledge that something far more lethal than you could wait around any corner (or drop from any ceiling), and in the back-to-the-wall, teeth-grinding desperation when combat is in full-flow. It is Aliens – but, most remarkably, this overwhelming sense of danger is present no matter which species you play as. Running your brutal but spindly xenomporph into the line of sight of a marine’s turret is as terrifying as a Marine finding himself cornered by bugs, or Predator realising his box of tricks is spent as he stumbles into a hive or outpost.
AvP is also admirably plot-light: it accepts that we know these characters and their dynamics, and lets us get on with living out the menacing fantasy of it. You don’t need to care about anything beyond ‘am I going to survive?’ In a time when even Alien co-creator Ridley Scott is determined that we for some reason have to know exactly where a big mean space-bug came from, there is much to be said for cutting lore to the quick.
For the avoidance of doubt: I consciously differentiate games based on the Lord of the Rings novels from those based on Peter Jackson’s movies, because they’re profoundly different (to the point that Tolkien’s estate has effectively disowned the movies). I don’t say that as any kind of purist – I haven’t been particularly interested in any incarnation of Middle-Earth since I was in short pants – but only because the books are long, quasi-historical journeys whereas the movies are primarily about action and spectacle. Shadow of Mordor is absolutely the latter. It is profoundly stupid, because it is, essentially, pro wrestling. But it is pro wrestling based on those innumerable sequences in the various Jackson films when a hero character has a short-lived rivalry with a recurring but unnamed Orc.
Briefly, we are lead to believe that this one scarred or maimed monster is a stand-out threat compared to all the thousands of others that are dispatched in an instant, but 15 minutes later he’s been killed in some sort of setpiece and we’ll never think about him again. It’s how the absurdly long LOTR and Hobbit films built drama into their absurdly long battle sequences, wherein we needed to see named characters in peril and reappearing super-threats. Mordor’s structure is pitched, breathless battles against endless cannon fodder interspersed with harder fights against some tougher Orc with a weird face, and with whom you are entirely preoccupied with beating for a few minutes. Then he’s gone. And repeat. It is just like the films. As is the fact that the hero’s powers slowly escalate from ‘quite good in a fight’ to ‘amazing magical death-machine.’ JRR would howl until the world crumbles if ever he played it, but it absolutely nails what the movies tried to do.
Most Star Wars games try to recreate just a certain section of Star Wars – the lightsabers, the space combat, the Hoth sequence – or try and capture a whole damn film into a lacklustre action game. BioWare RPG Knights of the Old Republic – KOTOR to its friends – by contrast appears to have taken a ‘what makes Star Wars Star Wars?’ brainstorm as its starting point. So we get a sprawling tale of destiny and secret identities, planet-hopping and memorable characters, lightsaber battles and space combat, wry romances and Wookie planets. Its age might hurt KOTOR, but if anything it’s trying to do far more than the movies ever did, with more heart and humour, despite using its foundations. KOTOR is Star Wars for (relative) grown-ups – something that only one of six released films came anything like close to. Of course it’s probably non-canon now Disney hit reset on the expanded universe, but who cares? Here’s your Star Wars RPG, usefully untouched by the saga of the sister-kisser and his cheery chums.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Obsidian-developed sequel, KOTOR II, is the better game, but its infamously unfinished nature means it’s still better played as a follow-up to KOTOR 1 rather than a superior alternative. Fan patches have helped it along enormously, however.
Read more: Bastard of the Old Republic, a diary series in which John is a bastard, in the Old Republic, our all-time favourite RPGs, why Star Wars makes for better games than films, why Bioware games’ morality can be very, very silly
This is, I suspect, the one which’ll most have you lot demanding that I’m carried off to the stocks. It is also, however, the paradigm of what I’m talking about – evoking a movie’s spirit, rather than just its visual contents or main action beats. Operation Genesis is Theme Park with dinosaurs, and a fairly brief, more kid-orientated take on Theme Park at that. But’s it’s also that facepalm ‘why didn’t anyone think of that sooner?’ Jurassic Park adaptation. You build the park. You run the park. You fill it with exciting prehistoric wildlife which simply should not exist. You are convinced it is an efficient and safe park. Even though it contains gigantic carnivorous lizards from millions of years ago. A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing and the weather changes in New York. Or a velociraptor escapes its cage and causes untold chaos.
Operation Genesis is a John Hammond simulator, essentially. It’s delightful. You build the perfect mousetrap, but at some point it inevitably goes wrong because what you are trying to do is entirely absurd. Age and smallness keep it from achieving true greatness, roaring to an anti-climactic halt all too soon, but for a few precious hours it’s very much ‘holy crap, I’m doing Jurassic Park!’
Of course, everyone’s conception of Jurassic Park is completely different in light of this year’s dumb-as-a-box-of-newborn-pterosaurs sequel. I’ll save that particular old man grump for another day.
Read more: my own retrospective of Operation Genesis
On page 2 – games 5 through 2, including ones which will probably make you swear at me.