The high majority of movie tie-in games are abject trash. It doesn’t have to be that way. Every once in a while, you get a game that is actually worth your time and money, and feels like more than a quick cash grab.
Here is a selection of games that understood the source material and delivered a great experience based off of it. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list and is based on games I have played and completed. Ghostbusters: The Video Game is definitely on my list, but has not been beaten at the time of this writing.
The Lion King (SNES, Genesis, 1994)
The Aladdin games released by Capcom (designed by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil) and Virgin for SNES and Genesis, respectively, are both excellent, and deserve a mention when talking about 90's Disney games. However, Westwood’s The Lion King is my favorite of the lot, even though it scarred me as a child.
It is a truly beautiful game to look at, even today. The sprites and backgrounds were all created by Disney animators, and it shows in the finished product. The music is adapted from the compositions that would appear in the film, and are also great as a result.
Finally, I have to note that this game is viciously difficult, and features one of the harshest difficulty spikes of any game I have ever played. The gameplay is mostly standard sidescrolling 2D platforming, but there is very little room for error in your jumps. The ostrich ride. The Elephant Graveyard. The Stampede. The log jumps and boss fight in the Hakuna Matata stage. For gamers of a certain age, these moments are burned into your brain.
It is all worth it though when you get to the end of the game, beat the hell out Scar, and toss his carcass off of Pride Rock.
As a final side note, Double Fine’s Devs Play with Westwood co-founder Louis Castle is a must watch if you are at all interested in the development of these kinds of games:
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PS3, X360, 2009)
This is an interesting case, because the movie this game is based on is atrocious. In fact, just thinking about it makes my teeth curl. The only good part of it is Liev Schreiber is a convincing Sabretooth. Otherwise, I wish that all evidence of this film’s existence could be rounded up and shot into the sun.
The game though? The game is some good shit.
This is mostly because a more accurate title for this game would be God of War: Wolverine Edition. Logan is finally the star of a video game in which those claws of his do grievous harm to a body. X2: Wolverine’s Revenge (an underrated game that I wrote about elsewhere) pushed the limits of the Teen rating, but Origins: Wolverine just smashes straight through it and into Mature territory. This is the only Wolverine game where you jump on a helicopter, pull the pilot out of the cockpit and throw him into the spinning blades.
If you are a fan of the character, you will get a kick out of this one. It is the Wolverine game that fans had wanted for years. The only major criticism of the game is that it roughly follows the plot of the movie, and as a result you have to fight that “Deadpool in name only” abomination as a final boss.
Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Xbox, PC, 2004)
I have no great love for the Riddick franchise, but this game is undeniably great.
I was not a Xbox owner at the time of this one’s release, but one of my friends was. This was all he could talk about for weeks. In my naivety, I thought he was overrating the game. When I finally was able to go over to his place and check it out for myself, I finally understood what all of the fuss was about.
This game is badass, and really the only major misstep is that it is too short. Escape From Butcher Bay can be beaten in under six hours. But while it lasts, it is a treat. Crawling around in the darkness and taking out people with improvised shivs is feels absolutely predatory. The brutal hand to hand combat probably explains why I would later love the Condemned games so much. The graphics were some of the best of the late sixth generation console era, only really seeing competition from PC games like F.E.A.R., Doom, and the Gamecube version of Resident Evil 4.
If you have never played this one, I urge you to try it sometime. You can beat it in a two or three sessions of play.
The Warriors (PS2, Xbox, 2005)
This is a strange game in Rockstar’s history and the only movie tie-in that they have ever done. However, if anyone in the world is going to make a game based on The Warriors and have it be worth a shit, Rockstar would be the company to do it.
And they do it. The game nails the tone of the film. Just absolutely knocks it out of the park. The visuals, music, and voice acting are incredibly authentic to the source material. You feel immersed in this version of 70's New York City. This is an obvious labor of love.
Another thing that helps set the tone is the brutal hand to hand combat which is the crux of the gameplay. The fighting isn’t fancy. It is knuckle to knuckle, down and dirty brawling. You can use hand to hand weapons to get an edge on your opponents as well. Smacking a foe with a baseball bat is greeted with a thick crunch and a groan of pain. Beating guys up feels badass, but rarely glorious. The combat really taps into the “fight for your life” feeling the best fights in The Warriors had.
Finally, this game is best experienced co-op. Grab a friend for maximum enjoyment.
Spider-Man 2 (GC, Xbox, PS2, 2004)
The best Spider-Man game based off of the best Spider-Man movie. I couldn’t leave this one off of the list.
I have a massive soft spot in my heart for Neversoft’s Spider-Man, but this game is superior for one massive reason: It gets Spider-Man’s movement exactly right. Web swinging in an open world New York City is its own reward. It is based on an incredibly simple concept: your web has to attach to something tangible in the game world. Swinging around, changing direction, and zipping across the tops of buildings feels incredible because the locomotion is dependent on the environment.
All of that would be a waste if the game around it was garbage, but thankfully, that isn’t the case. You swing around, complete some missions, and stop the occasional random crime by beating the perpetrators down and webbing them up to be dealt with by police.
It’s the perfect Spider-Man simulator! Unfortunately, outside of the criminally underrated Ultimate Spider-Man, no other Spider-Man game has improved on this mix of solid combat, open world mission structures, and incredibly fun traversal options.
Alien: Isolation (PC, XOne, PS4, 2014)
I am going to be upfront about this one: I don’t love it as much as many other Alien fans do. It is a very good, but not quite great game.
The AI of the titular Alien often impresses, but sometimes it goes from feeling less “intelligent” as it does “omnipresent”. This is excellent for setting the mood, but after a while, the tension around being caught by the Alien gives way to frustration. The Alien stops being scary after a few hours. The game would be a lot more effective if it was a little shorter.
That being said, it is the best Alien game ever made. Much like The Warriors above, it nails the source material, even though the story isn’t based directly off of one of the films. The pervasive feeling of isolation (sorry, it was the best word for the feeling) and dread that positively drips off of the first movie is in full display here, and is enhanced by environmental and sound design elements practically carbon copied from it. Before you even encounter the Alien, it feels like Alien.
There are some frustrations to be had, but if you are a fan of the franchise, you will be sucked in by Alien: Isolation’s charms.
Goldeneye (N64, 1997)
As a Bond film, Goldeneye is ok. As a first person shooter for home consoles, it is brilliant.
Goldeneye’s importance to video game history simply can’t be overstated. Before Goldeneye, first person shooters were almost always the domain of PCs. Goldeneye’s single player campaign is great, but the star of the show was the split screen multiplayer. If you were playing video games in the late nineties, I can almost guarantee that you were involved in a Goldeneye party at some point. I spent countless hours playing The Man With the Golden Gun with friends.
There are some aspects of the game that haven’t aged well, like many 3D games from that era. However, I would still recommend that everyone that likes games plays Goldeneye and its excellent spiritual successor Perfect Dark at least once in their lives.
Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis (PC, PS2, Xbox, 2003)
There have been a ton of Jurassic Park games. Some of them, like Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition, are really good. Others, like the too ambitious for its own good Trespasser, are not.
The game that nails the feeling of Jurassic Park the best is this 2003 park sim. You are tasked with succeeding where John Hammond failed: Build and open a Jurassic Park and make it a financial success.
The music and visual design all feel like the original film, and it is really fun building and managing a dinosaur park. Some of the park building sim features are a little limited, but the game shines in the most important department: the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs all look and sound great, and feature interesting AI for the time. For instance, Pachycephalosaurus and Torosaurus and herding animals that battle with each other for territory, the T. rex is a loner that will try to kill anything in its paddock, and the Raptors display pack hunting behavior.
This game still enjoys a small, but committed, fan base even now, and for good reason. Check this one out.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, PC, 2003)
There are several Star Wars games that more than qualify to be on this kind of list. I enjoyed the hard as hell platformers released for SNES. I like Force Unleashed. I have always had a big soft spot for Jedi Outcast. I am leaving out a ton more, because you could make a separate list that is nothing but good Star Wars games.
I have to call out KOTOR separately though. I always liked Star Wars before I played KOTOR, but really only the films. The expanded universe never really did it for me. This game is what helped me understand what so many people enjoy about the franchise. Even outside of the films, the world of Star Wars is ripe for great adventures.
I still believe, even in a post Mass Effect and Dragon Age world, that this is BioWare’s best effort. It features a great plot, fun gameplay, and instantly memorable original characters. It is a big, expansive, complicated game, but still accessible, and intelligently hooks the player early and often. The game exudes confidence and charm, but never gets lost in its own ambitions.
If you haven’t played it, do so immediately. Meatbag.