As the video game industry has exploded over the past few decades, the calls to see wildly popular franchises realised on the big screen have only grown. Unfortunately for fans, adaptations of video games have become synonymous with slapdash production values and tenuous relationships with the source material.
But that’s not to say all of these movies are bad. In fact, there are a handful that are definitely worth a watch. So plug in your controllers and grab your memory cards as we sort the PS1s from the PS-nones in this list of video game adaptations.
Watch – Street Fighter
We know what you’re thinking: isn’t this a notoriously bad film, which sees Belgian-born action man Jean Claude Van Damme star as the all-American Guile? And the answer is yes – but that’s exactly why it’s amazing. The film only loosely follows the plot of its source material (which will become a running theme), but since Street Fighter II: The World Warrior features a caricatured cast of characters caught up in a battle against a psycho-powered crime boss in a red hat, it makes sense to add a bit more detail.
Starring Van Damme alongside the incomparable Raúl Juliá and, for some reason, Kylie Minogue, this action romp is truly unforgettable. Juliá, in his final film, steals the show. Need proof? Here’s one of his lines: “You still refuse to accept my god-hood? Keep your own god! In fact, this might be a good time to pray to him. For I beheld Satan as he fell FROM HEAVEN! LIKE LIGHTNING!”
Don’t watch – Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros is another film that adds a dollop of weirdness to its source material, but this one goes a little too far. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo are the titular plumbing duo who, for some reason, live in Brooklyn. Transported to an alternate dimension, the pair must rescue a princess from the clutches of King Koopa, who plans to merge the two realities and become a dictator of both.
Not only is this film confusing, and sorely lacking the iconic character design of the video games, it just isn’t much fun. Mario is renowned for leaping through the Mushroom Kingdom with a pep in his step, the world a colourful and lively place – fraught with danger, perhaps, but nothing the plumber can’t handle. In this version, which looks like Blade Runner were it financed by your kindly grandmother, Mario and Luigi are having to contend with being pushed out of business by the Mafia. If you are going to watch this, make sure you’ve got a pipe to hand. A warp pipe, that is.
Watch – Rampage
There’s something of a video game movie renaissance just on the horizon, with a star-studded Uncharted movie in production, and even a Tetris movie in the works, so you’d think studios might adapt several games before landing on Rampage. After all, the classic arcade game is about big animals smashing up buildings – that’s it. And yet, helped by the kind of exuberant muscularity that only Dwayne Johnson can provide, the Rampage movie is a whole heap of fun. Unlike all the skyscrapers in the movie, which end up as heaps of rubble.
The film has Johnson play a former soldier and primatologist whose world is thrown into disarray after a rogue pathogen makes his gorilla buddy really big. Other animals are also really big. With the mutated animals loosed on a dense, urban area, the only noise you can hear above all the crashing and explosions is the high-pitched whirr of Frank Lloyd Wright spinning rapidly in his grave. It’s not much more than that, but sometimes a smash-and-grab film is all you need.
Don’t watch – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Forget for a moment the inherent flaws of casting Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian prince. Forget the casting of Gemma Arterton as an Iranian princess. Forget that the plot involves a time-travelling dagger and ancient gods trapped in a big hourglass. Actually, don’t forget those things – they’re all terrible and someone needs to answer for them.
Released in 2010, the Prince of Persia movie emerged in the era when it was trendy to sell Gyllenhaal as an action hero (a category that might also include the more interesting Source Code and End of Watch). While he’s charming and princely enough, the actor’s talents as an intense weirdo are wasted. Roger Ebert describes Gyllenhaal’s performance as able to “make the cover of a muscle mag, but he plays Dastan as if harboring Spider-Man’s doubts and insecurities.” Interestingly, Gyllenhaal would go on to play one of the webslinger’s nemeses, Mysterio, in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home.
Watch – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
If you’re looking for a video game movie blockbuster, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider has to be the best. Sure, the plot is about the Illuminati scheming to exploit a grand planetary alignment for the purposes of time travel, but all that really matters is Angelina Jolie kicking people in the face. Jolie – the daughter of actor Jon Voight – had grown up in Hollywood, and even won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Girl, Interrupted in 1999. But it was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider that established the future Maleficent star as a leading actor.
The film grossed a sensational $274,703,340 worldwide, initially besting pop culture stalwart Shrek at the box office, and it remains one of the few female-led video game adaptations. It’s worth remembering that this was uncommon in 2001, even relative to today’s scarcity of women-led action movies.
Don’t watch – Tomb Raider
Just as the Tomb Raider games were rebooted in 2013, so too was the movie series in 2019 with Alicia Vikander as Croft. This film earned an admittedly impressive $273.5 million at the box office, but that’s just one way in which it fell short of its predecessor. Vaguely following the plot of the rebooted game, this version sees Croft pursue the shadowy organisation Trinity as they search for the tomb of Himiko, the Queen of Yamatai. Unfortunately for the film, the plot is just wacky enough to be unbelievable, but not so wacky (that is, involving the likes of the Illuminati and time travel) as to be entertaining.
As for Vikander’s performance as Croft, critics were divided, with some calling her little more than a “punching bag and onlooker.” But the worst offence of the film is just how predictable it is, with every twist highly telegraphed and the movie closing on a sequel-baiting ending. Speaking of which, a sequel is scheduled for release in 2021, which might at least be the sign that video game movies are being taken more seriously.
Watch – Mortal Kombat
Discounting everything else that’s great about this film, Mortal Kombat deserves a rewatch simply for its iconic theme music. It’s been scientifically proven that it’s impossible not to yell “MORTAL KOMBAT!” while listening. But on a serious note, there’s a lot to like about the 1995 martial arts epic, especially since it rarely gets the praise it deserves. The movie is often unfavourably compared to Street Fighter, since the two fighting game franchises have had a decades-long rivalry. But just on the raw numbers, Mortal Kombat heavily outperformed the competition; it grossed $122.1 million (significantly more than Street Fighter) on a budget of $18 million (significantly less than Street Fighter).
And it’s easy to see why. Mortal Kombat leans heavily on its exotic locations to accent its superb martial arts sequences. Of course the plot is nonsense, but you aren’t reading an article about video game movies to find the next Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Suitably gory with beautiful settings, it’s worth giving Mortal Kombat another go and temporarily blocking out what the critics think.
Don’t watch – Resident Evil
There’s a reason why Resident Evil has become one of the most iconic video game franchises of all time, having practically invented the genre of ‘survival horror.’ With few resources and tenacious enemies in pursuit, you’re tasked with overcoming puzzles in a tense, unsettlingly quiet world. Resident Evil the movie, however, discards this delicate moodiness in favour of a zombie-filled slugfest. While the film maintains series staples like the zombifying T-virus and the setting of a spooky mansion, it lacks the betrayals and gut-wrenching twists present in the original game.
Nor is it the case that director Paul WS Anderson simply didn’t know very much about Resident Evil. There are references scattered throughout the movie that link to the games while ignoring what’s interesting about them, Jason Isaacs plays William Birkin, a geneticist who – in Resident Evil 2 – mutates into a horrific monster. In this film, he’s simply a scientist. One of the commandos in the film is looking for his sister, Lisa, who turns out to be a zombie. Perhaps this is a reference to Lisa Trevor, a recurring enemy from the original game who wears her parents’ faces. Alas, no such luck in the movie.
Watch – Detective Pikachu
After the critical and commercial disaster of Super Mario Bros, Nintendo seemed to learn a lesson: rather than sacrificing their intellectual property to the whims of filmmakers, they would instead keep their franchises on a tight leash. So, for 26 years, no video game adaptations of Nintendo properties were made. That is, until Detective Pikachu. There’s been a steady stream of straight-to-DVD Pokémon movies over the years, but it’s fair to say that adapting a niche spin-off game was a surprising choice by the video game behemoth.
Detective Pikachu the game does what it says on the tin, with the iconic yellow electro-rat solving crimes. But on the big screen, it’s even better. Pikachu is chubby and adorable – if voiced a tad too sarcastically by Ryan Reynolds – and the plot is a perfectly functional pace-setter as we take in a gallery of variously terrifying and adorable Pokémon. It’s not exactly Citizen Kane (though the upcoming sequel could yet again surprise us all), but you’d be hard pressed to find a cuter, more wise-cracking video game adaptation than this.
Don’t watch – Alone in the Dark
Alone in the Dark was released for MS-DOS in 1992, quickly becoming one of the most acclaimed video games in history. While its polygonal aesthetic may look dated nowadays, this was arguably the first survival horror game, and in 3D! Several sequels were made, though none could recoup the lustre of the original. So, when Hollywood obsessed with video game adaptations in the early noughties, it was clear which game was next on the list. That’s right: Alone in the Dark. Unfortunately, they picked the fourth one.
Directed by Uwe Boll, the notoriously schlocky filmmaker-cum-restaurateur, the film stars Christian Slater as a supernatural detective who’s investigating the disappearance of an ancient, Mayan-esque civilisation. He then has to use his enhanced strength and speed (don’t ask) to fend off this civilisation as it pours back through a rip in the space-time continuum (also don’t ask). The film earned only 1% on Rotten Tomatoes, but inexplicably still got a sequel in 2008.