The news is out: Sonic the Hedgehog, starring Ace Ventura, Westworld's sad-eyed cowboy robot and the trust-fund idiot from Parks and Recreation, has had the best opening weekend for a video game adaptation since... well, ever. But is this the end of the infamous video game movie curse?
After the brutally-negative response to Sonic's first design last year, the film seems to have made something of a comeback in the eyes of the public, gaining middling-to-positive reviews and notching 57 million dollars domestically in its first weekend. Looking at Sonic and the similar success of Detective Pikachu last year, it's easy to assume that the infamous curse of video game movies may finally be coming to a close. There will be no more Super Mario Bros. or DOOM-level catastrophes. The industry has seemingly learned and moved on.
I'm not convinced that's the case though. Sonic and Detective Pikachu work as movies but barely feel like adaptations of their source material, and I really don't mean that as a criticism. Be honest, were you expecting the first big Pokemon film to be a noir detective thriller set in a cyberpunk city? Were you expecting Sonic to be a road-trip flight from the law set in rural America?
Adaptation is a tricky art at the best of times, and gets even trickier when you're trying to pull from an entirely different genre. Sonic and Pikachu's approach to editing is extremely cutthroat, hacking out any world-building that isn't necessary to the story and keeping it to background gags or quick quips. There's no room or need in Sonic's script for deep lore like the Chaos Emeralds, evil King Arthur, Charmy the Bee and the Mean Bean-Steaming Machine, so they're simply not included.
Likewise, Detective Pikachu recognises that introducing the world of Pokemon, League tournaments, the weird structure of battling and all the relevant technology seems a bit much for one film. So it doesn't get bogged down with most of that, picking and choosing its battles carefully. It's a film first and an adaptation second, which is precisely the right way of doing it.
I also can't help but notice that both of these films are kids' movies. They're not family films, they're not for all ages, these are clearly made from the ground up to appeal to children. They have big-headed plushie-looking mascots, their humour is accessible to the point of barely needing language, and they don't refer to anything from more than ten years ago. I'm not trying to insult any adults who enjoyed them, but let's be honest: these films are not aimed at you. When I saw Sonic over the weekend, the audience was overwhelmingly junior; a peal of squealing laughs going up whenever Sonic flossed or Robotnik did some bit of physical slapstick.
And that's why I can't help but wonder about another two movies that we know are in varying states of production right now: Illumination's animated Mario film and the Uncharted movie. The latter has been stuck in varying levels of development hell since 2008 and only recently seems to be picking up some kind of traction.
I'll make a prediction now: Mario will be a success and Uncharted will not, at least financially speaking. The lessons that Sonic and Detective Pikachu keep hammering home don't bode well for the adventures of Nathan Drake, but might give some hope for the Mushroom Kingdom.
Everything I hear about Uncharted makes me think that it's playing by all the old rules, the ones that we've seen don't work, time and time again. It has a focus on game lore as an apparent prequel to the existing franchise, it appeals to a market that's a lot older than the one that kept Pikachu and Sonic high in the box office, and the casting is throwing up a few red flags. Forget not getting Nathan Fillion for the leading role, I'm trying to wrap my head around Mark Wahlberg as Sully, the charismatic, educated smooth-talker. And if you don't believe that a globe-trotting adventure movie with a famous video game protagonist could ever fail, I got two words for you: Tomb Raider. With the project recently losing its sixth director, it's clear that things aren't exactly running smoothly. Unfortunately, it feels like Uncharted could be more of what we're used to with video game movies, rather than being a hit like Sonic.
Mario will likely fare a lot better, and not just because it's a much bigger brand name (though that'll definitely help, no doubt). It's clearly going to be directed more at children, and a comment from Illumination's founder talks about weighing the needs of the script against the game's iconography. It's not a guarantee of quality, and Illumination isn't exactly Pixar, but it feels like a good place to start.
Let's remember that there is no video game movie curse, not really. There's just a long history of people who didn't know how to translate a story between mediums. It's not about lore or accuracy, it's just about making a good film. If "the curse" is ever to end, it'll be because creators recognized what's really important. Hopefully, the industry learns the right lessons from Sonic and Detective Pikachu, and stops attempting beat-for-beat retreads of stories first told in video game form. I think we're still a ways off getting a truly great film based on a video game property, though recent attempts have certainly made the future look a little bit brighter.
Major Game Releases: February 17 to February 21
Here are the major releases for the week of February 17 to February 21. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- Bayonetta & Vanquish 10th Anniversary Bundle [February 18 for PS4, Xbox One]: A brand new collection featuring some of the best action games of all time. You'll get remastered versions of both games, with 4K graphics available at 60fps. Given that it's been a while since we heard anything about Bayonetta 3, this should keep fans ticking over until Nintendo gives an update.
- Hunt: Showdown [February 18 for PS4]: Hunt: Showdown combines PvP bounty hunting with PvE monster shooting and permadeath. It's been out on Steam and Xbox One for a while, but is debuting on PS4 on tuesday. It's worth a look if you like shooters with a survival slant.
- Devil May Cry 3 Special Edition [February 20 for Switch]: If you're a Devil May Cry fan you'll want to check out the new special edition of Devil May Cry 3. There's a bunch of new content including a co-op mode, a survival level called Bloody Palace and on-the-fly weapon switching. It looks set to be the definitive version of one of the best games in the series, and it's now portable.
Five Things You Should Know Heading into This Week in Gaming
- With the release of the latest Street Fighter 5 collection, and with Capcom starting to wind down work on the game, Mike and Eric share their feelings on it. Both of them are proven fighting game fans, so expect a detailed breakdown of the roster, V-System, and whether the service game model was the right move for the series.
- Persona 5 Royal is releasing very soon indeed, all 100+ hours of it. With such a huge play time, our resident Phantom Thief Hirun Cryer has detailed three major reasons why you'll want to jump in, even if you played the original already.
- If you've been living under a rock you might have missed that the Sonic the Hedgehog movie released last weekend. Caty wrote down all of the easter eggs she spotted while watching, and Kat offered up USG's official verdict.
- Late last week we learned that Control studio Remedy Entertainment actually has a sneaky secret game in the works. If you include the Control DLC, Crossfire X and the untitled multiplayer game that's a whopping four games. We don't know much so far, but given how much we liked Control we're certainly excited.
- As the launch of the next-gen era of consoles looms, we received confirmation that Rainbow Six Siege is aiming to launch on Xbox Series X and PS5 on day one. Even Dreams developer Media Molecule let slip its game is PS5-ready. It's all coming together.
Axe of the Blood God for February 17
Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here.
Former 1UP/EGM writer Shane Bettenausen joins the show this week to talk about the Sega Dreamcast's unique RPG legacy; his love of Phantasy Star Online, and the excellence of Skies of Arcadia. As is customary, Shane also brings up plenty of import RPGs from the Dreamcast era, many of them very obscure.
Also in this episode, Hirun joins us to talk about the Fire Emblem: Three Houses DLC, Persona 5 Royal, and Pokemon Home!