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).
The greatest games based on movies
- Aliens versus Predator Classic 2000
- Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
- Blade Runner
- Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
- Star Wars: TIE Fighter
- Tron 2.0
Aliens versus Predator Classic 2000
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.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
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.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
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.
Another one for the 'so-so game/well-recreated ethos' pile, this 2D/3D mash-up's frustrating aspects were redeemed by how well it realised the simmering paranoia and uncertain morality of Ridley Scott's revered future-noir movie. Sure, it had overt visual nods to the movie's scenes, but it was the sense of constant danger, that no-one could be trusted and that you, as the nominal hero, might only be making a bad situation worse that made this Blade Runner adventure game feel so much like Blade Runner.
It's also a feast of buttoned-down cyberpunk ideas and imagery, sticking to the film's street-level, oddly low-tech moodiness rather than running off into the sort of chrome excess that a Blade Runner game made today surely would. Deus Ex: Human Revolution thinks it's Blade Runner, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution is all on the surface, openly heroic, openly glitzy. Blade Runner is introspective and maudlin and hesitant to ever be entirely clear about what's going on, or who's really who.
There are some awful puzzles, and the story does get carried away with itself despite what I said above. But it's Blade Runner. It's also an adventure game in which you can draw your pistol at any point. That still seems transgressive.
Where can I buy it: GOG.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
Indiana Jones isn't just about punching and whip-swinging. Hell, Indiana Jones isn't even just about Indiana Jones - it's about Indy and his friends, family, and estranged lovers. LucasArts' semi-unofficial fourth Indy tale gets that the guy's about charm and pratfalls, and about a female foil to his macho bullshit. It's also a little bit about romance, and whole lot of finding your own way to solve problems, at least by the rigid standards of the point and click genre.
The three different available play-styles - action, puzzles, co-operation - are all aspects of the movie character's skills and persona. Indy has never just done one thing, and pity the later games which thought action-only was the answer. Atlantis retains the Saturday morning derring-do, the easy charm, the sparring snark and the screwball comedy of the better movies.
It came from LucasArts during the early days of their Imperial period, but what's odd is the extent to which subsequent - but no less beloved - games dialled back the ambition. The Fate of Atlantis is like an ignored sign post to another possible future of adventure games.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
There's no definitive best X-Wing or TIE Fighter game, really. The original X-Wing was first out the gates with the whole 'omigod it looks just Star Wars and I get to blow up the Death Star and...', while X-Wing vs TIE Fighter has the best multiplayer and X-Wing Alliance is the most modern and still benefits from mods. TIE Fighter's the singleplayer high point though, because it's approaching Long Time Ago fantasy from a relatively new perspective: be the baddie. It's able to have fun with characters - Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine particularly - in a way that the overwhelmingly earnest Rebel Alliance simply wouldn't permit. I just wanted to check I wasn't being mad in naming TIE Fighter the series' best, so I asked Twitter. I think these quotes seal the deal:
"Flying in formation with Vader, and then him unceremoniously shooting you to bits if you try to give him orders makes TIE the best."
"TIE fighter was more refined, had a better story."
Thanks, everyone. You are all correct.
Recent film sequel Tron: Legacy looked and felt unreal throughout, whereas Monolith's earlier and rather lower-tech game follow-up to the silly-but-charming original 80s movie felt overwhelmingly tactile. It's the difference between a creative vision that is 'what would it be like to be inside a world of electronic data?' and one that is 'how can we make this as visually spectacular as possible?' Tron 2.0 is no less cheesily literal in its depiction of computer-world than any other kind of Tron, but it's so much more about worldbuilding than mere setpiece - let alone hokey mysticism and blandly attractive posterboys.
Sure, there's no shortage of shooty sections and racing sections and some particularly egregious jumpy sections, but Tron 2.0's primary interest is in showing the society within the machines. And it's still rare for what is ostensibly a shooter to include conversation and choice elements. Pair that with some gloriously oddball sci-fi weapons which riff off Tron's lore and theme and, yes, genuinely great Lightcycle battles and you've got a game which quite possibly does Tron better than Tron. It looks beautiful too, its edges-not-textures art style saving it from looking anything like as dated as other shooters of the era. I still find it boundlessly sad that, after this, Monolith disappeared down a black hole of crunchy but dour FEAR games.
Read more: Jim Rossignol's retrospective
A number of my colleagues reckoned this should be in here, but I dissuaded myself from including it because a) I wasn't hearing anything more convincing than "it's quite good" and b) while it is indeed quite good as an open-world action game in the desert, I'm really not convinced that it captures something especially Mad Maxian. And it's several worlds away from recreating any of the unrelenting, fine-tuned Fury Road. But as Recent Games Based On Movies Which Aren't Terrible go, sure, why not?
Star Wars Battlefront (series)
The latest game is ridiculously pretty and its two PS2-era predecessors are considered high watermarks for licensed multiplayer games, but I'm not convinced any of its incarnations have really captured some essence of the film beyond the surface level. The new one particularly works hard to conjure nostalgia, but I didn't think there was much to it beyond that.
I know someone who worked on this stealth'n'horror Alien semi-sequel reasonably well, so I can't very well go recommending it. Others may well do, however.
I love 'em, but I think the games owe far more to the book than the essentially action-free movie, and even then they're profoundly different.