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Weekly Musings #1 - Do movie-license video games all suck?
Author: Michael Ahlf
Date: June 12th 2004

Comments about the recent release, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, have all without fail mentioned how movie video games inevitably suck, and how this game is the one exception that proves the rule. Unfortunately, that's a rather overgeneralization of how movie video games are, not to mention a gross oversimplification even of Riddick.

You see, Riddick's not the first video game license to succeed with (or despite) a movie tie-in. And some of them, even now, could easily qualify as pretty decent games. The point of this article is to go back in time a bit, pull up some good examples of both failed and succeeded games, and see if we can tell whether it is that video games based on movies "always" suck, or whether it's more of a myth in the video game community - after all, if it were an obvious truism that movie video games were going to suck, wouldn't we be seeing Hollywood and the video game industry both shying away from making them in the first place?

We'll start in the "Good old days". Two movie licenses, one that obviously lends itself to movie games, one that you'd never think you could make a game out of. Yes, we'll start with Star Wars and E.T the Extra-Terrestrial.

Star Wars

Star Wars titles in the days of the Atari 2600 were pretty minimal - though the Arcade Game, as well as the hacked version that became known as The Empire Strikes Back, did entirely well in the arcades. All in all, there were four Star Wars titles on the Atari 2600 - The Arcade Game, The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi Arena, and Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle.

But do they work? The answer seems to be, unsurprisingly, that only one of four is really any good. In the first, you're reenacting in a vector-graphics setup the flight to the Death Star and down the central trench, over and over again. It's highly addictive, even with the minimal approach of just repeating the same task through increased difficulty over and over again.

Empire Strikes Back was a silly flying-back-and-forth title, with blocky graphics that looked pathetic even by the standards of the time; your goal was to shoot down as many AT-ATs before they reached the end of the screen, left-to-right. In function, it was similar to Defender, only a whole heck of a lot more boring.

Jedi Arena was interesting, built in the same vein as the Atari classic title Warlords, but there really wasn't all that much to it, either. Basically, you deflected attacks from a practice droid with your "lightsaber" protecting your own shield and trying to hurt your opponent's.

The Return of the Jedi catridge was supposed to be the first of multiple RotJ cartridges, similar to how Star Wars: Episode I later saw multiple licensed titles - but, unsurprisingly, the demise of the Atari 2600 pretty much finished that idea off before any more were produced. And in any case, the play control of RotJ was just awful.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Ah, our poor little Extra-Terrestrial friend - how do we miss you? Not very much, unfortunately, especially after Spielberg went back and replaced a bunch of guns with walkie-talkies in a fit of politically correct pique.

Our friend E.T., unfortunately, got on the wrong end of a rushed-product-cycle kick. Coded in just five weeks, it featured (mostly) anguished gamers running around, falling in pits over again, trying to figure out what screen led to where in an entirely non-Euclidian geometrical setup, and was just generally BAD. It was also one of the most overproduced console games in history, with thousands winding up in landfills, and other people hunting for more unique ways to dispose of them.

But really, so far what do we have - One of five? Not so great odds. But these were the days of quick builds, where decent games could be programmed in a couple months - the product cycle allowing one man, for instance, to program Pitfall pretty much on his own. Today, that luxury isn't allowed, so you might think that the general ratio of bad games to good, would have gone down? Not a chance.

And, to be fair, there were other consoles on which even MORE abysmal titles were published, like the Commodore 64 and the TRS-80. But still, the record of movie tie-in games wasn't very strong during the Atari 2600 age, as these games, as well as games like Krull, Spider-Man (at the time focus of morning cartoon shows and lame live-action made for TV shows), and Superman all managed to prove.

But even worse - the history of bad (and good) movie tie-in games didn't just stop with the Atari 2600. No, it went on and on - onwards, good friends, to the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System!

Weekly Musings 1: Do Movie-License Video Games All Suck?

Added:  Sunday, June 13, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

Page: 1/6

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