Adapt or die: videogames at the movies

In the wake of box office smash The Super Mario Bros Movie and acclaimed prestige television series such as Arcane and The Last of Us, we explore the evolution of videogame adaptations over almost 40 years, from early duds to recent triumphs.

12 September 2023

By Thomas Flew

The Super Mario Bros Movie (2023)
Sight and Sound

Mario was never meant to be a movie star. With his blue overalls and red cap, the moustachioed Italian plumber may, since his debut in Nintendo’s 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, have become gaming’s most iconic character, but every facet of his being was decided either arbitrarily or out of necessity. (In fact, he almost didn’t exist at all; he was only conjured up after his creator, Miyamoto Shigeru, failed to acquire licensing rights to Popeye.) Mario was going to be known as ‘Mr Video’, before an encounter with Nintendo’s American landlord, Mario Segale, sparked inspiration. His large nose and bushy black moustache were a neat way for Miyamoto to create a full human face with the tiny amount of pixels at his disposal; his red cap removed the need to animate moving hair; his blue overalls and red shirt created visual contrast against the game’s background. As for his profession and nationality, Miyamoto explained his thought processes in 2010: “We had a setting [in Super Mario Bros] that was underground, so I just decided Mario is a plumber. Let’s put him in New York and he can be Italian. There was really no other deep thought other than that.”

Such pragmatic and impulsive decision-making works without issue in the world of platform videogames, in which Mario is a voiceless avatar moved via simple controls. He doesn’t need to be a compelling or even a coherent character when he only exists as a means for the player to get to the end of each level. He needs to be able to fail, to die over and over again and, should the player manage it, eventually succeed. Other platforming series, such as Sonic the Hedgehog (1991-), Rayman (1995-), Spyro (1995-) and Crash Bandicoot (1996-), built on Super Mario Bros’s foundations, creating characters with more expressive personalities, but the core gameplay of trying, dying and trying again remained, the pleasure of the experience coming from the player’s mastery of the game. Despite this aspect of gaming being irreplicable and untransferable, Hollywood inevitably took notice of the upstart videogame industry and saw potential in an untapped market.

Since Mario warped on to the scene, videogames have exploded as a medium. Games are puzzles to solve and master, but they are also worlds to explore (Fallout: New Vegas, 2010; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, 2017) and narrative experiences (The Last of Us, 2013; Undertale, 2015). They also include real-time events (World of Warcraft, 2004; Fortnite, 2017) and can be played as competitive esports (Counter Strike: Global Offensive, 2012; Rocket League, 2015). With this expansion came new opportunities for adaptation: the notoriously inauspicious beginnings of the videogame film (errant cinematic efforts, including one fascinating Mario-starring folly) have made way for a previously unimagined diversity of offerings. As the newly released The Super Mario Bros Movie breaks box-office records, prestige TV series push the format into fresh directions and new collaborations form between the creative minds of gaming and cinema, are we at the dawn of a golden age for the videogame adaptation?

Super Mario Bros (1993)

“I didn’t even know it was a game… I saw this thing jumping up and down and thought, ‘I used to play King Lear’,” lamented Bob Hoskins when his children showed him Mario, the character he was to play in the new Super Mario Bros movie (the first ever live-action film adaptation of a videogame, set for release in 1993). Dennis Hopper, who played dinosaur-human hybrid King Koopa in the film, spoke to the Los Angeles Times during production: “The script had probably been rewritten five or six times by the time I arrived here. I don’t really bother with it any more.” New pages of dialogue arrived daily as the production lurched further into chaos.

Hoskins was right to be disheartened by the prospect of performing the role of a collection of pixels; various versions of the Super Mario Bros script pitched Mario and his surrounding universe in clashing tones and styles – some dark and dystopian, others crisp and colourful – all struggling to transform Mario the avatar into Mario the movie star. (The issue was compounded, we can assume, by Nintendo’s involvement. The production company is notoriously protective of its intellectual property, and would have recoiled from anything other than an inoffensive rendering of its key earner.)

To distract from their dull protagonist, the filmmakers conjured up a Blade Runner-style urban wasteland called Dino-hattan for Mario and his green-garbed brother Luigi to save. Further inspiration was drawn from the games’ never-explained use of mushrooms as power-ups and turtles as villains. Unsurprisingly, Super Mario Bros was derided upon release, its convoluted plot, bizarre performances and inconsistent production design making it a film maudit. The driving force of Super Mario Bros the game is to save a damsel-in-distress princess; this end goal is retained in Super Mario Bros the film. But what in the game is a conceit to drive gameplay – the satisfaction from completing the game is the real reward, not the pixellated message from the princess stating, “Thank you Mario! Your quest is over.” – becomes artificially inflated in importance when the pleasure of gameplay is absent.

When Super Mario Bros was followed by the dire Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995), both based on bankable fighting game franchises, a trend appeared to be emerging: videogame movies weren’t any good. This so-called ‘videogame curse’ is old hat at this point, the incantation usually cited in order to argue that it’s being broken or that it doesn’t exist, but for a spell it held legitimate sway; when, after 20 years of efforts, the best-received films had been directed by the critically sneered-at Paul W.S. Anderson, there was real cause for concern. These teething issues (to downgrade the ‘curse’ somewhat) were likely caused by two industries that had never worked together before butting heads in approach, as mentioned previously with Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. Capcom, the studio behind the Street Fighter games (1987-), was the primary financier of the film adaptation, requiring final approval on all creative decisions and setting a tight release date unsuitable for the unpredictable nature of film production. Another factor often ignored is that Hollywood produces plenty of films that are not all that brilliant: are Batman Forever, Casper and Waterworld (to pick three top-grossing films from 1995) any better than Mortal Kombat?

Nintendo, scarred by its negative experience with Super Mario Bros, wouldn’t take a second bite of the cinematic cherry until the recent The Super Mario Bros Movie. Compared with the disaster of 30 years ago, this animated outing (produced by Illumination, the studio behind the Despicable Me franchise, 2010-17, and its Minions spin-off prequels, 2015-22) is a more considered affair. The visuals are bright and child-friendly and the simplified plot has been given a modern twist, with the helpless princess in a less passive role. But Mario remains Mario, an avatar without a player behind the controls to bring him to life (this feeling compounded by a dire voice performance by Chris Pratt).

The Super Mario Bros Movie (2023)

Where Super Mario Bros made no attempt to directly represent its source material’s gameplay mechanics of running, jumping and stomping on turtle-like enemies, The Super Mario Bros Movie does at least nod to its gaming origins. A training montage depicts Mario ‘dying’ repeatedly as he fails to complete an obstacle course; another short sequence replicates the side-scrolling view from traditional 2D platforming games. But representation can only go so far. Without the haptic interactivity of user input that makes gaming a distinct, active medium, these scenes are empty and affectless. But Nintendo won’t mind: the movie is busy making a mint, swiftly becoming the highest-grossing videogame adaptation of all time, and a sequel has already been announced.

The only one of Mario’s fellow platforming heroes to make his way to the cinema has been Sonic the Hedgehog, whose eponymous film does away with any attempt at transposing gameplay into action. (The lack of other such offshoots is telling in itself, given Hollywood’s hunger for fresh intellectual property.) Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) nods towards key gameplay elements (collecting golden rings, Sonic sprinting at extreme speeds) but focuses on a generic good-versus-evil action plot that has little to do with the game’s own storyline. The essence of the game is lost, the film an empty shell into whose centre any character could be placed. It’s hard to call this a videogame adaptation at all; it is more a case of well-known IP being used as a shortcut to brand familiarity and loyalty.

But the question of what exactly constitutes a videogame adaptation is perhaps overly pedantic – the definition ‘a film or series based on a videogame’ will, for now, suffice. The fact that there is any room for discussion at all does raise interesting points about how games are used as IP. Can the upcoming Gran Turismo, a biopic of a teen who played the racing game competitively and hoped to become a professional racing driver – and which has been described throughout its development as “based on Gran Turismo” – be thought of in any way as a real videogame adaptation? Or what about the in-development adaptation of the Just Dance series of games (2009-), which have no characters or story, based as they are around a player making assigned dance moves in time with music? Perhaps these more spurious examples – as well as other true-life tales that offer fresh avenues for the IP to be exploited, such as the recent Tetris, based on the legal battle for copyright over the eponymous puzzle game – are simply proof of the hot ticket that gaming has become, with studios keen to find a way to the pixellated dollar sign, no matter how outlandish.

Videogames have come a long way from the era of the arcade into which Mario first emerged, both technologically and creatively. Their graphics have evolved from chunky pixels to ultra-high definition renderings with realistic lighting and physics; their storylines have gone from text written in an accompanying instruction manual to minutes-long cinematic sequences featuring the likenesses and voices of recognisable real-life stars. They are becoming more like films, and as they borrow more from cinema, the act of adaptation from one medium to another becomes more seamless.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

This progress in videogame development is made apparent by the Tomb Raider series of games (1996-) and their respective film adaptations. The original Tomb Raider was innovative for its 3D level designs and modelling, and even included animated cutscenes (mini-movies which interrupt the gameplay to add narrative elements to the overall story, then a relatively new phenomenon), with voice actors bringing the characters, including protagonist Lara Croft, to life. But when, in 2001, the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was released, with Angelina Jolie as Croft, the game’s relatively feeble story was abandoned altogether, its antagonist Pierre DuPont disappearing and a newly invented backstory involving the Illuminati being introduced – even the game’s locations of Peru, Egypt and Greece make way for Cambodia and Siberia. That’s not to say that the changes made things better; the film was still a dud.

By 2013, when the franchise was rebooted with a game of the same name, the graphics were drastically improved; the newly redesigned Lara Croft looked almost photorealistic, particularly when compared to her original, polygonal form. Camilla Luddington, who voiced Croft in the game, also embodied her through motion capture. Performing as a videogame character had become identical to some forms of cinematic acting (as in the Avatar films, 2009-, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, 2001-03), where body movements are captured and digitised and then dubbed dialogue is added afterwards.

The gap between cinema and gaming closed further with an increase in cutscene length. Where 1996’s Tomb Raider featured 15 minutes of footage, 2013’s version has more than two hours, and when compiled they become a film in their own right (this has actually been done and is available on YouTube, where more than 4 million people have watched ‘Tomb Raider Definitive Edition All Cutscenes Movie’). It’s no surprise, then, that when the gaming reboot of Tomb Raider became a cinematic reboot (also Tomb Raider, 2018, starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft), there was a level of faithfulness to the game’s narrative that was entirely absent from the 2001 adaptation – although Croft’s backstory was largely altered. Some action set pieces were copied almost shot for shot from the game, including Croft’s dramatic escape from the rusting hull of a plane teetering at the top of a waterfall.

This newfound faithfulness to a game’s aesthetics and plot would reach new heights with The Last of Us, an apocalyptic drama set in a world where a fungal pandemic has caused societal collapse. Thirty long years after Super Mario Bros was released, this series, released by HBO in early 2023, finally became the first videogame adaptation to receive widespread critical acclaim. Where the filmmakers of Super Mario Bros had very little to base their film on besides character appearances and a few token items from the game’s world, the creators of The Last of Us were gifted a complex narrative and a cast of richly drawn characters on which to base their series. (A second series has just been greenlit, to be based on the game’s sequel). The reason The Last of Us has become such a beloved game – it has been cited as one of the greatest of all time on dozens of lists – is because it is, as videogame magazine Edge wrote in their review, a “riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic”. The plot is just as important as the gameplay, and so Craig Mazin (who worked as showrunner on the series alongside the game’s co-creator Neil Druckmann) straightforwardly transplanted this raw material into a new format in the way that one would adapt a novel or play. To an even greater extent than in Tomb Raider, cutscenes are replicated with great faithfulness (one voice actor, Merle Dandridge, even reprised her role as Marlene), and the plot of the game is retained in its entirety, as is the narrative arc of the game’s central father-daughter-like relationship between Joel and Ellie.

The Last of Us (2023-)

What also makes this act of adaptation so seamless is The Last of Us’s settings and subject. A plumber falling down pipes and eating mushrooms is not in itself a very cinematic prospect; a middle-aged man and a teenage girl working together to traverse abandoned cities filled with zombies who have – ironically enough – fungus-like heads, is. Where the first, unsuccessful adaptations based themselves on videogames whose characters and characteristics existed solely to embellish gameplay, now the properties becoming films or series could just as easily have been originally conceived as such, with games utilising themes and characteristics long appreciated in cinema – not least the enduring appeal of the zombie, the 21st century resurgence of which has been partially credited to gaming’s influence.

Such is the case with the Resident Evil series of survival horror games (ten core titles, joined by more than 20 spinoffs and reboots), whose adaptation into an action-packed six-film franchise has been commanded by Paul W.S. Anderson – his history with the videogame movie began with Mortal Kombat and continued post-Resident Evil with the robust, thrill-heavy Monster Hunter (2020). Although these films lack the emotional depth afforded by characters who have been developed across the length of a series (admittedly this is never Anderson’s priority as a filmmaker), the ten-hour-plus runtime of the combined films allows for various subplots and backstories to be expanded upon. Resident Evil, released in 1996, marks a significant turning point in gaming’s relationship to cinema, with the original game’s designer and director Mikami Shinji inspired by the urge to build upon what George A. Romero was able to achieve cinematically; a year later, Romero was recruited to adapt the game into a film, although that iteration of the project eventually fell through. As the film and game series continued, the adaptation became bilateral, with one character created for the first film eventually finding its way into the series of games. What had started as a simple case of a game becoming a film had developed into something more complicated altogether.

Another highly acclaimed series adapted from a videogame, Netflix’s steampunk-style animation Arcane: League of Legends (2021-), has almost the inverse relationship of The Last of Us to its source material. Based on League of Legends (2009), a hugely successful multiplayer game of a genre in which story is relatively unimportant, the series fleshes out the ‘lore’ (the term used in gaming for backstory) behind playable characters by expanding upon the threadbare information given within the game – it’s notable that Riot, the studio which created League of Legends, didn’t even hire writers until late in the development stage. Here, adaptation is expansion, situating recognisable characters in a sprawling world full of references to in-game phenomena, the spaciousness of the series format well suited to constructing lore that explains how sisters Vi and Jinx became who they are in the game. Unlike The Super Mario Bros Movie and Sonic the Hedgehog, both of which heavily base their animation styles on their respective games, Arcane distances itself from the aesthetics of League of Legends, and is all the better for it. It is beautifully animated with striking tonal variety, its mixture of digital 3D with textured, sketch-like 2D brushstrokes combining the traditional videogame aesthetics of 3D character models and cutscenes with 2D concept artwork.

Arcane (2021-)

The slippages between the mediums of videogame and film are ever-growing, from cutscene-heavy games such as Tomb Raider and Uncharted (adapted into a film of the same name in 2022) that play more like films with some controllable elements, to Netflix’s ‘interactive’ films like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) or Cat Burglar (2022), where viewers pick options that affect the ensuing narrative. With narrative experiences released on to gaming consoles and interactive experiences on streaming services, a time may soon come where those categories become increasingly arbitrary – and Japanese videogame auteur Kojima Hideo looks to be one of those at the vanguard of this intersection.

Sometimes regarded as video gaming’s first auteur – he has acted as writer, director, producer and designer on his recent projects – Kojima’s 2019 game Death Stranding featured Mads Mikkelsen, Margaret Qualley and Léa Seydoux among its cast, all playing motion-captured characters who matched their own appearance. Kojima is also a close friend of filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn and Guillermo del Toro, both of whom were also motion-captured for Death Stranding (the characters’ voices were played by other actors); Kojima has returned the favour, cameoing in Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy series (2022). Kojima told the BBC that his production company Kojima Productions will “in the future… start making films”. With streaming technology meaning that gaming, TV and film are all now accessible from the same physical and digital space within our homes, Kojima said he’s “very interested in the new format of game that will appear [as these mediums intersect] and that’s what I want to take on.”

Perhaps, looking back from 2063, we’ll consider the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a transitional stage towards a new, unified form of entertainment of a kind yet to be invented, with the aforementioned examples only rudimentary attempts to combine the two. Or perhaps the categories will change from ‘cinema’ and ‘gaming’ into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ media, in a similar fashion to the way the terms ‘film’ and ‘television’ have combined in modern business-speak into ‘streaming content’. Until that far off and yet steadily nearing point, we have plenty more videogame adaptations to anticipate, from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and The Super Mario Bros Movie 2 to Gran Turismo and a Death Stranding film (cast and crew yet undisclosed), as the worlds of video gaming and cinema become ever more closely entwined.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Inside the mind of Christopher Nolan Plus: The Zone of Interest – All of Us Strangers – American Fiction – Wim Wenders – Marc Isaacs – The Kitchen – Samsara – Alice Guy-Blaché

Get your copy