Licenced video games, ones based on an established property in other media, have existed since the earliest days of video gaming. There is an obvious niche for licenced video games – fans of movies, cartoons, TV series and comic books have a desire to play as their hero (or heroine). Until very recently the amount of poor quality, downright unplayable licenced games far outweighed the few that could be considered classics. From E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600 to The Amazing Spiderman 2 on the PlayStation 4, poor quality licenced products have persisted through every console generation.
There’s always a root cause that, more often than not, is beyond the developer’s control. The first is obviously cost – developers would blow a large chunk of their budget acquiring the licence, then have very little cash left to actually make a decent game, so developers would look to more successful IPs for inspiration. Wacky Races on the Sega Dreamcast for example was nothing more than a blatant Mario Kart rip-off – themed tracks, weapons pick-ups; with Dick Dastardly and Co taking the place of Mario, Luigi et al. Wacky Races had everything except for the charm and playability of Nintendo’s product.
Lincesor influence plays a huge part in the development of a game, but there’s a fine line between working with a developer to craft a playable game and imposing on a business that the licensor often knows very little about. DC Comics and Warner Bros pushed Titus Software into making so many tweaks and changes to N64’s Superman that it became a clunky, bug ridden hot mess.
Time constraints can obviously stem a developers creative juices; E.T is widely regarded as one of the worst video games ever made, and every gamer and his dog knows that tonnes of game cartridges were dumped in a New Mexico landfill. However, consider that the game was coded by a single person, over a five week period (in order to meet a Christmas release window) in what was a relatively new medium, and that the film’s director Steven Spielberg gave the game his approval before it went gold. Sadly, the game was considered so bad that the bottom almost dropped out of the video game market completely.
Following the crash, companies brought in different measures to ensure quality games were being released on their systems. Despite this, poor quality licenced products continued to flood the market. Nintendo’s seal of approval meant very little, as I doubt anyone has ever described the NES versions of Friday The 13th, Back To The Future and TMNT as “high quality”. Conversely, the NES versions of Batman and Duck Tales were incredibly playable and enjoyable in equal measures.
Flashing forward to the nineties and naughties, there were still a higher percentage of bad games then good ones. Jurassic Park: The Lost World on the PS1 stands out in my mind as one of the worst purchases I ever made (and coincidentally based on another Spielberg movie). The game is a side-scrolling action adventure game, casting the player as both human and dinosaurs. The box promised the opportunity of playing as a rampaging Velciraptor or T-Rex, but I struggled to get any further than the first level, playing as a chicken-sized Compsagnothus before hitting eject and trading the game in at my local video game store shortly thereafter.
Men In Black: The Game, also released on PS1 is another awful title that I wasted my hard-earned money on. The game is a third-person shooter, but aside from the characters and weapons, the game bears little resemblance to the movie it’s based on. Men In Black tried to take a page out of Resident Evil’s book; with fixed camera angles, tank controls and spooky atmosphere, but was too bland and glitchy to play through to the end. As with Wacky Races, the game didn’t have its own soul.
Luckily, better licenced games were crossing the horizon; the N64’s Goldeneye 007, a first person shooter developed by Rare, is still regarded as one of the best game in the genre nearly twenty years after its release. My friends and I would play Goldeneye’s multiplayer until the wee hours almost every weekend. I’d always opt for Odd-Job, being slightly shorter than the rest of the characters meant other players would have to adjust their cross-hairs for that all important head shot.
Spiderman, a semi-open world action adventure / beat em up on the PS1 is another game that I remember as being a decent licenced product. Swinging from rooftops, climbing walls and beating up Spidey’s numerous enemies was great fun; and included vocal performances from the 90s cartoon series, which made the game all the more playable and immersive. The only let down was that the PS1 wasn’t powerful enough to render the web design on Spiderman’s costume.
The Simpsons: Hit And Run also managed to break the mould – the game was essentially GTA Springfield, albeit with cartoon level violence. As with Goldeneye, Hit And Run is another game that is still remembered fondly over a decade after its debut. The Simpsons script writers and voice actors were on-board with the project, and having played the game again recently, can attest that the jokes still feel as fresh as the first time I played it on the PS2. Just as with GTA, the game is open world, which gave Simpsons fans the opportunity to explore a 3D rendered Springfield and complete optional side missions, which added to the game’s longevity and replayability.
Ubisoft’s South Park: The Stick Of Truth is another shining example of the licensor working in harmony with the developer to make a seriously good game. I’ve never really been a fan of RPGs, but as a huge South Park fan, the urge to explore the quiet, redneck mountain town was too strong to resist. The Stick Of Truth pokes fun at RPGs in typical South Park style, and manages to tie in plenty of gags from the series’ (then) seventeen seasons.
Rocky, release on Xbox managed to blend a sports sim with the events of the first five movies. Taking control of The Italian Stallion, the objective was to progress through the ranks, beating lower levelled boxers on route to the main opponent from each instalment: Apollo Creed (twice), Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago and Tommy Morrison. In between matches, Balboa honed his skills at Mighty Mick’s Gym through a series of mini-games. The game featured lifted dialogue from the movies, which at the time was pretty unique.
There are a number of studios that can be counted on to release quality product after quality product, years after year. TT Games’ LEGO series are for the most part consistently good; from Star Wars to Indiana Jones, from the Marvel and DC Universes to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the games have a charm and quirky sense of humour that appeal to nearly everyone due to their simplicity.
The same can also be said of Telltale Games, churning out hit after hit, with very few blemishes on their résumé; their brand of episodic action adventure games has been adapted to The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones and Back To The Future, always building on the source material. A notable failure in their recent works being Jurassic Park – which makes me wonder if it’s the dino franchise itself rather than the developers that are to blame.
Rocksteady have had a string of hits with their Batman: Arkham series. The games elements – stealth, exploration, investigation and melee combat were brought together by a dev team that were obviously fans of The Caped Crusader; managing to coax Batman: The Animated Series voice actors Mark Conway and Mark Hamill into reprising their respective roles of The Dark Knight and The Clown Prince Of Crime. The series remains one of my favourite franchises of all time, and can’t wait to get stuck into the Return To Arkham remasters when they finally get released.
There were plenty of licenced products showcased at this year’s E3, with Telltale (The Walking Dead: Season Three and Batman), Ubisoft (South Park: The Fractured but Whole) and SCEA (Spiderman) amongst others; which proves that licenced games are here to stay. The genre is also moving into virtual reality; Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR is set for release in October this year, along with Ubi’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew and EA’s Battlefront: X-Wing VR due for release before years end. Licenced games have come a long way in thirty years, no longer seen as quick cash-ins and being taken seriously by studios and fans. Admittedly there’ll always be a few stinkers, but by and large the genre has made substantial improvements.
There we have it, licenced games – some good, some bad. Did I miss out your favourite? Did you waste good money on a bad licenced game? As always let us know in the comments section below