I remember being both excited and puzzled by Super Mario Bros. when it first hit theaters in 1993. I was excited because, well, it was Mario. I was puzzled because Bowser was played by Dennis Hopper and Goombas were strange reptilian creatures in leather trench coats.
Like everyone else, I came to understand one very important rule: video game movies are nearly always bad. They're either cut-rate productions designed to make a few bucks on the side (Double Dragon), only vaguely faithful to the source material (Resident Evil, Street Fighter), or made by Uwe Boll. The longest lasting contribution game movies have made to pop culture is Raul Julia smirking as he delivers the immortal line, "But for me, it was Tuesday."
This week's upcoming releases have re-opened the long-running discussion of whether video game movies can ever be good. On the one side we have Detective Pikachu, a weirdly brilliant re-imagining of the Pokemon franchise that has stoked excitement with one of the better marketing campaigns in recent history. On the other, we have Sonic The Hedgehog, which has garnered attention for its extremely awful take on Sonic's look.
If either end up being good, they'll be the rare exception to the rule. And that's because, production issues aside, video games have never been an especially great fit for the feature films.
In the early days, this was because video games were simple. They were arcade shoot 'em ups, sword-and-sorcery dungeon crawlers, or platformers. If they had a story, it was usually a very basic "save the princess" or "defeat the alien empire" premise. Later, as games became more complex, they were hampered by stock action heroes and recycled tropes—neither of which translated well to a 100 minute film.
If game adaptations have succeeded, it's usually been on the small screen. While Pokemon had had many successful animated films over the years, most have been on the back of the influential anime, which now spans more than 1000 episodes. Castlevania: The Movie would have almost certainly been panned if it had actually come out, but its Netflix adaptation has earned critical acclaim. Even Sonic, so maligned in live-action, found a great deal of success on Saturday mornings.
The episodic format benefits all types of games. Given time to flesh out their worlds and add secondary characters, classic franchises feel much less two-dimensional. It's also a better fit for 100 hour epics like The Witcher 3, which would otherwise feel compressed and unsatisfying within the confines of a feature film. Imagine trying to condense Game of Thrones into just a couple films—that's what The Witcher would look like.
Producers hungry for content are starting to realize the benefits of adapting games for television. The executive producer behind Castlevania is now working on a similar adaptation for Devil May Cry. After multiple false starts in Hollywood, Halo is being turned into a TV show on Showtime. The Witcher, of course, is being adapted for Netflix, which seems like a good move even if we have some questions about its casting decisions.
With these shows, it feels like we're entering a new era for video game adaptations; one in which much-loved franchises like Halo are able to find full expression in mainstream entertainment. This is not to say that video game movies are incapable of succeeding. They just face greater challenges and restrictions than their siblings on the small screen.
Detective Pikachu, to its credit, looks like it will overcome those challenges. We're not seeing it until tonight, but so far it reads as a humorous tribute to the world of Pokemon; one that will offer plenty of amusing nods for hardcore fans, and lots of nostalgia for mainstream audiences and kids. Sonic the Hedgehog, by contrast, looks... well... bad. It has the look and feel of the "other" Sonic cartoon, the one defined by slapstick humor and "Sonic Says" PSAs. Its one redeeming quality may be Jim Carrey, who is back to playing the human cartoon role that made him so famous.
With video games being as big as they are, there will no doubt be more feature film adaptations. Most will probably resemble Resident Evil or Tomb Raider—big, dumb action-fests. A few will hopefully be touching and humorous tributes to the medium in the vein of Wreck-It-Ralph.
But if games are to make any headway in traditional media, I expect it to be on streaming platforms and not movie theaters. Netflix, Disney+, and anime are much better homes for the characters we've grown to love over the years. In the meantime though, we're still totally going to see Detective Pikachu. Ryan Reynolds as a cranky-ass Pikachu looks like a treat no matter what format he's in.
Major Game Releases: May 6 to May 10
Here are the major releases for the week of May 6 to May 10. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Shakedown: Hawaii [May 7, PC, PS4, Vita, Switch]: The long-awaited sequel to Retro City Rampage is arriving this week with more open-world action—only this time in 16-bit, not 8-bit. It's an ambitious title, where as a waning CEO and two of his acquaintances, you commit harebrained schemes to put his corporation back on top. It's very silly in tone, but if Retro City Rampage is to judge by, it's looking to be a lot of fun. Plus, for Nintendo 3DS fans out there, a port is in development for that platform too. Long live the 3DS.
- Puyo Puyo Champions [May 7, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch]: Puyo Puyo Champions is sounding like it'll be similar to Tetris 99 earlier this year: all Puyo Puyo, with no fluff. It's a competitive installment of the series, where players will be able to challenge friends locally and online, selecting characters from across the Puyo Puyo series' history. Its art style borrows from the Puyo Puyo Tetris iteration. It's budget friendly too, costing only $9.99.
- Yakuza Kiwami 2 [May 9, PC]: Yakuza Kiwami 2, which landed on our Top 20 Games of 2018 list, is coming to PC this week. It's the latest Yakuza game coming to PC, after Yakuza 0 and the first Kiwami launched on Steam in the past year. More Yakuza (and Sega, by extension) games are expected to join Kiwami 2 in the future.
- Life Is Strange 2 - Episode 3: Wastelands [May 9, PC, PS4, Xbox One]: Life Is Strange 2 is getting another episode. The season is currently set to wrap up later this year, with five episodes in total. Compared to the buzz around its predecessor, Life Is Strange 2 has quietly been moving along. We've enjoyed it quite a bit, as you can read in our reviews of the first two episodes, and you can look forward to our review of whatever Sean and Daniel get up to next later this week.
- Saints Row: The Third - The Full Package [May 10, Switch]: There was a time where it felt like everyone was playing the zany open-world adventure of Saints Row: The Third. With its Switch release this Friday, maybe that time will arise again; only now people will side-eye you on your morning commutes for swinging a dildo bat around.
This Week's News and Notes
- Last week, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer dropped. Reactions were, uh, not good. The director has even apologized for it, and assured audiences that Sonic's live-action design will be fixed before release. Here's to hoping those poor VFX workers aren't strained too much.
- In other video game movie news: Detective Pikachu is out this Friday! Plus, Saints Row is getting its own movie too.
- Last week, we published our own extensive report on the ongoing allegations of crunch at NetherRealm Studios. We spoke with four former contract employees who detail an unhealthy work environment of low wages and class division among contractors and full-timers.
- We're getting something Ghost Recon-related this week. We know that in a recent Ghost Recon Wildlands update, a string of missions starring The Punisher's Jon Bernthal were added. In that same update, players uncovered mysterious easter eggs alluding to something happening on May 9, which Ubisoft has come out and announced will be the date of a world reveal of sorts. We'll see what's next for the Tom Clancy series this Thursday on May 9.
- Back at PAX East 2019, we caught up with The Walking Dead: The Final Season's creative director Kent Mudle to see how he reckoned with losing Telltale, almost losing The Walking Dead, and then seeing the project through to the finish line at Skybound.
- Sony's State of Play livestream is returning this week with a promise of MediEvil news and a new game debut. You can catch it this Thursday at 3 p.m. PT / 6 p.m. ET.
- Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night finally has a release date: June 18. Fans who want to pick up the Switch version will have to wait just a week longer though.
- Epic Games has acquired Psyonix, the studio behind Rocket League. In the aftermath, Epic Games has confirmed that there are currently no plans to stop selling Rocket League on Steam.
- Last week, we got our first hands-on time with Borderlands 3. You can read our write up of its surprising Mass Effect-ness here.
- Axe of the Blood God: With the Top 25 RPG countdown now complete, it's time for Kat and Nadia to embark on a brand new quest. Enter the Console RPG Quest: a multi-part series that will take us through the history of RPGs large and small. We'll be talking about powerhouses like the SNES and PlayStation 2, but also curiosities like Wonderswan. First up: Colecovision, Intellivision, and Atari 2600! Find out how these early consoles took their first halting steps into the RPG genre in the days before Dragon Quest! Plus, Nadia plays Trails of Cold Steel, we read your letters, and more. Subscribe here!