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Game On: Movie and video game tie-ins aren’t always a box office hit

UPDATED: Thu., April 1, 2021

“Star Wars: Squadrons” capitalizes upon the immense brand recognition of “Star Wars” to create its own story instead of following a movie beat-by-beat.  (Electronic Arts)
“Star Wars: Squadrons” capitalizes upon the immense brand recognition of “Star Wars” to create its own story instead of following a movie beat-by-beat. (Electronic Arts)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

It doesn’t seem too long ago that many of the video games filling store shelves were movie tie-ins – love them or hate them, they were particularly ubiquitous in the 1990s and 2000s. You couldn’t escape the multitude of “Harry Potter” games based on the films, nor “Alien” games.

Even flops such as “Eragon” and “Catwoman” spawned video games, and such tie-ins were often even worse than the films that inspired them if you can believe it. Fast forward to today, and such games are practically nonexistent.

“Marvel’s Avengers” was released last year, and, while it borrows beats from the Marvel Cinematic Universe here and there, it certainly doesn’t attach itself to the film franchise like these “movie games” used to. Similarly, the “Batman Arkham” saga that ran from 2009-2015 takes inspiration from all over the Batman mythos, never attaching itself to any film.

The vast majority of tie-in games were, of course, released very close to the theatrical release of their respective films. This is precisely why most of these games were, in a word – awful. 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” for the Atari 2600 will forever go down in history as one of the worst video games of all time, and it’s often credited with kicking off the video game crash of 1983.

That crash was a three-year industrywide recession that occurred due to American consumers becoming disillusioned with the influx of subpar games. Thousands of “E.T” cartridges were quietly buried en masse in a landfill in New Mexico, unearthed three decades later in 2014.

“E.T” was created cover-to-cover in six weeks, and it shows – it’s a bug-riddled mess. In fact, I’d argue most movie tie-ins are similarly broken. There’s a pretty straightforward reason for this: most films take about a year to produce from principal photography to completion. Meanwhile, a typical video game produced today takes several years.

This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, it wasn’t unheard of for game studios to be composed of a dozen or fewer individuals working moderately long hours to push a game out in a matter of months.

As graphics and game logic became more complicated, however, production times skyrocketed, and soon many development teams ballooned to more than 100 people working around the clock to produce one game in about three to four years.

Accordingly, movie tie-in games were a no-brainer cash grab in the 1990s and much of the 2000s but quickly became an exercise in futility with the introduction of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Games were becoming far more sophisticated, and it became impossible to produce decent titles within a span of a few months. To top it off, years of mediocrity and poor reviews left consumers appropriately wary of such games.

I was also wary after growing up playing some stinkers myself. While “The Lion King” and “Toy Story” on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were decent outings, I was also subjected to the horrors of “Instruments of Chaos Starring Young Indiana Jones,” “Back to the Future Part III” and “Chicken Run.”

Young Indie had some of the most unresponsive controls I’ve ever experienced; the 16-bit “Back to the Future” tie-in played like a game already a decade old; and while “Chicken Run” was a passable stealth venture, it was essentially a subpar clone of “Metal Gear Solid.”

As fun as it is to roast bad games, I don’t want to lead anyone to believe there have never been any good games based on movies. “Star Wars,” “Die Hard,” “007” and “The Lord of the Rings” are just a few film franchises that spawned excellent titles.

“The Phantom Menace” is arguably a better game than a movie, and many other “Star Wars” games throughout the years have successfully emulated the tense spaceship battles the series is known for on the big screen.

“GoldenEye 007” was a landmark title for the once-fledgling first-person shooter genre; “Die Hard Arcade” successfully brought the stagnating beat ’em up genre into 3D for the first time; and all of the “Lord of the Rings” tie-ins made for great co-op hack-and-slashers, something I’d been sorely missing after the “Golden Axe” franchise faded away.

In their prime, it was difficult to discern which movie tie-ins were worth your time and which weren’t – truly good ones were a welcome surprise. They were rarely a good investment, but a silly part of me will miss seeing their tacky covers lining store shelves, pondering whether each one was a predictable mess or a hidden gem.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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