We'll probably never see video games based on movies like "Shine" or "The Piano," but Hollywood is waking up in a big way to the creative and financial possibilities of turning popular film and television franchises into games--and vice versa.
To some degree, the link has always existed--"E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" popped up on Atari 2600 back in the 1980s. But the pace has picked up in recent years as PCs and consoles have become faster and more powerful and the line between linear and interactive entertainment has blurred.
Video games such as "Street Fighter," "Mortal Kombat" and "Super Mario" enjoyed new lives--if not critical raves--as movies. Lara Croft is a celebrity in her own right, even before the brainy, busty heroine of "Tomb Raider" stars in her own upcoming feature film.
Primarily, though, the current runs the other way. Popular movies--especially those with lots of explosions or guys in capes--inevitably show up on one platform or another. In the case of MGM Interactive's "WarGames," very different games based on the same movie hit the PC and Sony PlayStation simultaneously.
Most of the major studios--Fox, Universal, MGM--have interactive divisions. Others license characters to software developers. It can add early cash flow to a project, and a popular video game can make more money than a popular movie. "Mario Kart 64," for instance, earned more than Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting."
But are these Hollywood knockoffs any fun? Or are they just another cynical way for studios to cash in? Three recent games based on movies demonstrate how widely the answer varies.
"The X-Files" for PC and Macintosh, for instance, drops players into a mystery every bit as creepy and incomprehensible as the television series. You don't have to be an X-phile to dig this game, but it helps.
Although players don't get to assume the role of field agents Scully or Mulder, the two are, as they say, "out there." The aim of the game--which unfolds over seven discs--is to traipse around the Pacific Northwest in search of the missing agents.
Characters from the series pop up here and there, but primarily players inhabit a universe that runs parallel to the series. It's a nice touch and leaves open the possibility for future games starring agents other than Scully and Mulder. (But don't fret: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny do make appearances.)
Learning the game is a snap. The controls are intuitive, and it takes less time to learn the ropes than the game takes to load. All of the environments are photo-realistic and there is surprising freedom of movement. The interactive scenes are well-acted and help players along.
"The X-Files" requires a Pentium 120 with 16 megabytes of RAM and 250mb of free hard drive space. Good luck getting through the game with those specs, though. You're better off with at least a Pentium 166 with 32mb or more of RAM. I played on a Pentium II 333 with 64mb of RAM and a 24X CD-ROM drive. Even then, some of the movies took a little longer than they should to load. For Macintosh users, the game recommends a Power Mac 603e running at 180MHz with 32mb of RAM and an 8X CD-ROM.
"Small Soldiers Globotech Design Lab" demands similarly beefy processing power--a Pentium 200 with 32mb of RAM is recommended. Players don't get quite as much back for their investment, though.
Sure, it's cool to design soldiers and then pit them against each other in battle, but this is basically a novel fighting game with the "Small Soldiers" brand on it.
Players assemble soldiers piece by piece--arms, legs, torsos, heads, the works--and then program them with a variety of fighting techniques. After that, it's into the ring to do battle with either a human or computer opponent.
The fight sequences are executed in detail and players can jump and punch and kick through 3-D bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchens. In the end, though, it's just a fighting game with characters from the movie. Neat, but not neat enough.
"Batman & Robin" for Sony PlayStation barely even qualifies as neat. Like the movie franchise, the game lumbers under the disguise of moody scenery and somber music.
Players control Batman, Batgirl or Robin in missions to defeat Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy, but good luck getting very far. Even with PlayStation's analog controller, the characters stumble around as if they've been hitting the Bat-bottle. This inexcusable lack of control in an action game dooms "Batman & Robin."
Here's a tip to movie executives and designers converting a film to a game: Think about what makes the movie special. What experience drives the film? If it's a star, it probably won't make a good game. Compelling stories can make great games.
And stay true to the spirit of the film or series. "The X-Files" shows it can be done.
Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Title: Batman & Robin
Platform: Sony PlayStation
ESRB* rating: Teen
Bottom line: Clunky noir
Title: The X-Files
Publisher: Fox Interactive
ESRB rating: Everyone
Bottom line: It's out there
Title: Small Soldiers Globotech Design Lab
Publisher: Hasbro Interactive
ESRB rating: Everyone
Bottom line: Build them up, beat them down
*Entertainment Software Rating Board