The History of Video Game Movies (Part 1: The 1990s)
Video games have been made into movies for almost three decades now. In this article, I’m going to talk about the very earliest examples.
Before getting into the first live action video games movies of the early 1990s, I’d like to mention what is apparently the first adaptation of a video game into film.
I’m referring to a somewhat obscure animated version of Super Mario Bros. released in 1986 (one year after the original NES game). It was called Super Mario Bros.: Peach-Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen! and directed by Masami Hata.
They never released it outside of Japan or dubbed it into any other language. The English translation of the title is “The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach.” This would be the first of many anime versions of video games.
The anime is kind of “meta” in a way as the plot involves Mario and Luigi getting stuck in a Famicom game.
The first live action adaptation of a video game was also based on Super Mario Bros. The film of the same name came out in 1993 and is one of the most infamous movies of all-time. It was a huge disaster both commercially and with critics and is often mentioned as one of the worst movies ever. Super Mario Bros. only made $21 million back out of its $48 million budget.
It was so bad that it seems to have scared Nintendo off making any movies based on their properties. There has not been a live action TV or film version of a Nintendo series since.
The film was directed by husband and wife team Annabel Jenkel and Rocky Morton, who were known for creating the Max Headroom TV show, but not much else.
Bob Hoskins starred as Mario and John Leguizamo played Luigi. They were referred to in the movie as “Mario Mario” and “Luigi Mario” due to them being known as the “Mario Bros.” This is somewhat logical, but I believe this has never been the case in any of the games.
Dennis Hopper played a version of Mario’s arch-nemesis Bowser, but he was called King Koopa as he was in some of the cartoons. The role was also offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton.
Bowser looks totally different from the games, as he is basically a reptilian-looking human instead of a creature that is clearly of a different species. Yoshi is also much more realistic and looks nothing like the original character.
The next video game adaptation came out the following year in 1994. Double Dragon was based on a beat ‘em up series of the same that started out in 1987 in arcades. It was eventually ported to many consoles as well, including Atari 2600, NES, Game Boy, Sega Master System, and the Sega Genesis. There were two sequels for arcades in 1988 and 1990 that got NES versions and Super Double Dragon on the SNES in 1992.
The movie version was the first feature directed by a guy named James Yukich. He’s only made one more feature since then, as he mainly works in television and music videos.
Obscure actors Mark Dacascos and Scott Wolf starred as the main characters, brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee. However, the supporting cast included somewhat notable names in Alyssa Milano and Robert Patrick. Also, for some bizarre, inexplicable reason, there are cameos by Vanna White and George Hamilton as newscasters and Andy Dick as a weatherman.
The film is pretty awful and cheesy and has some dodgy effects, but it’s worth checking out for some over the top 90s ridiculousness. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQeepP1yjqE .
So far, video games adaptations haven’t been doing so well, but in 1994 we also see our first success (at least financially) in the genre. I’m referring to Street Fighter, based on the iconic fighting series of the same name. The first Street Fighter game came in 1987, but it rocketed to popularity with Street Fighter II in 1991. So in 1994, the series was at the height of its popularity. The series is still around and relevant as Street Fighter V is coming to the Playstation 4 and PC in 2016.
The movie version was directed by Steven E. de Souza, who wrote many big films such as 48 Hrs., Commando, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Judge Dredd .
The cast included Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, and Kylie Minogue. The movie was mostly based on the incredibly popular Street Fighter II game, but it was more comical than the source material.
Street Fighter was definitely a commercial success. It only cost $35 million to make while grossing just shy of $100 million at the box office. However, the reaction of critics was a different story. The Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes has it at a paltry 12% approval rate. It’s user rating on IMDB is slightly better at 3.7 out of 10, but definitely still below par.
That same year there was also an animated version of Street Fighter, but it was made in and released only in Japan. It was called Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie.
The director was Gisaburo Sugii, who worked as an animation director on the 1960s Astro Boy series, and written by Kenichi Imai. It was eventually dubbed and subtitled for American audiences. 20th Century Fox even distributed it in some countries.
This version seems to be closer to the source material, as Ryu is the main character instead of Guile.
Japan produced another animated version of a video game that year, Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture. Like Street Fighter, Fatal Fury is also a series of fighting games. It started in 1991 with Fatal Fury: King of Fighters, originally on the somewhat obscure Neo Geo console made by Japanese company SNK. Other consoles such as the Sega Genesis, SNES, and eventually the Playstation 2 got ports. There were sequels throughout the 1990s, but the last game in the series came out in 1999.
It was directed by Masami Obari, who worked on anime such as Bubblegum Crisis and Gun Sword. This film was in the same universe as two Fatal Fury TV specials that had previously aired in Japan.
Another huge video game adaptation came next year in 1995, Mortal Kombat. The Mortal Kombat series is one of the biggest in video game history. It started in 1992 in the arcades with a game that was also ported to the SNES, Genesis, Game Gear, and Game Boy. The fighting series is still going strong with Mortal Kombat X released in April 2015 on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
The movie version was written by Kevin Droney and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, who had previously only directed one film, called Shopping. He went on to make films such as Event Horizon, Resident Evil (another video game adaptation, he also directed two of the sequels) , Alien vs. Predator, and the Death Race remake.
It ended up being pretty successful at the box office, making over $122 million globally (much higher than the $18 million budget) and spending three weeks at the number one spot in the United States.
However, like with Street Fighter, the critical reception was much worse. Many complained that it was cheesy with bad acting and dialogue and it only has a score of 33% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The cast was made of up relatively unknown actors, such as Robin Shou as Liu Kang, Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage, and Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade. The role of Johnny Cage was actually offered to Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he turned it down to do Street Fighter. The only somewhat notable name was Christopher Lambert as Raiden, who you may know from the Highlander series.
The games were known for their over the top, brutal violence, but the movie was much tamer, as it was only rated PG-13.
Two years later in 1997, a sequel was released called Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. The director was John R. Leonetti, who was the cinematographer on the first film. Most of the roles were recast, except for Robin Shou and Talisa Soto.
The second film was definitely not as successful as the first. It had a much higher budget at around $30 million, but made less than half at the global box office at slightly over $53 million.
The critical reception got worse as well. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an amazingly terrible score of 3 percent. Metacritic has it at 11 out of 100 and its IMDB score is slightly better at 3.6/10.
A third film in the series was briefly in development but fell through. A reboot has been rumored for a few years, but nothing official has been announced.
Next year in 1998 we have the animated film Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back. The massively popular RPG series started in 1996 on the Game Boy and has received entries as recently as 2014 in Pokemon Omega Ruby and Pokemon Alpha Sapphire on the Nintendo 3DS.
The movie was originally made in Japan but was also dubbed into English and released in American theaters. However, the English version was significantly changed and edited. One major difference is the Mewtwo is more of a clear cut villain than in the Japanese version.
The director was Kunihiko Yuyama, who would continue to work on the Pokemon series for years to come.
It ended up being a big hit, with its $163 million dollar worldwide gross dwarfing the $30 million budget. However, and you may be noticing a trend here, critical reviews were much less kind. It has a very poor rating of 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly said that “any grown men or women who pay to see the movie face a harrowing ordeal.” In the New York Times, Anita Gates said the film sent some “unfortunate messages.”
Wing Commander, the final video game movie of the 1990s, came in 1999. Created by Chris Roberts, the series began in 1990 as a PC DOS game and simulates space combat. The initial game was later ported to SNES, Sega CD, and the Commodore Amiga. The most recent Wing Commander game came out in 2007.
In an unprecedented move, the film was directed by the creator of the games, Chris Roberts. It had a decently notable cast, including Freddie Prinze, Jr., Matthew Lillard, and Jurgen Prochnow.
The movie was pretty much an all around failure. It only made $11 million globally at the box office, not even half of the $30 million budget. Furthermore, as with all the other video game films of the decade, it was a critical failure as well. Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at a 10% approval rating.
Unfortunately, none of the video game adaptations from the 1990s were that great. Across the board, they were critical failures, although there were definitely financial success. At best, they were cheesy, tongue-in-cheek fun like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
However, in the 2000s, video game movies started to get a bit more mainstream respect with films such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Resident Evil series, Max Payne, and Doom. This will be covered in part two of this essay series.