In the past, when you’d think of “video game movies,” your mind likely shuddered at the thought of John Leguizamo’s cringey slapstick in 1993’s Super Mario Bros. or Raul Julia’s scenery-chewing final role as M. Bison in the disastrous Street Fighter. Over the last thirty-odd years, Hollywood has floundered in their attempts to properly monetize the growing cavalcade of adaptable IP sitting at their feet from the video game world.
Amid the trash heap, there’s been a few bright spots – Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat makes for great hangover viewing and the Tomb Raider films helped catapult Angelina Jolie into action stardom – yet most fall somewhere on the scale from “so bad they’re good” to “I’d rather eat glass.” But times are changing.
With superhero films facing a downturn, studios are looking for their next big wellspring and, after a string of modest successes in the past decade with the likes of Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, video games are beginning to look like the golden goose. Gaming has reached a point where they’re already rivaling the storytelling capabilities of movies and prestige TV, and the shift has begun for video game adaptations to move beyond the bargain bin into cross-quadrant success.
Game publishers have seen this too, with companies like Sony building their own film and TV wings like PlayStation Productions, dedicated to overseeing the transition of their properties from console to the silver screen. The last few years alone have seen the live-action debuts of massive games like Uncharted, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, and second passes at previous successes like Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider.
But 2023 was the turning point. The highest grossing year ever for video game movies, it also introduced a level of sophistication and (gasp!) critical acclaim that seemed forever out of their grasp. Like film executives learning (at a glacial pace) to take superheroes seriously, the key to making games work as movies was to, you know, play the games, doing the legwork to figure out what made them work in the first place. And yes, there will be many, many more failures along the way, but the potential for a whole new world of entertainment isn’t just on the horizon – it’s already here.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
Based on creator Scott Cawthon’s mega-hit horror series, the movie adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s had just about everything going for it to make it a modest hit: a devout fanbase, accessible plot, and a perfectly timed Halloween weekend release. However, few expected it to be as big a hit as it ended up becoming, raking in nearly $300 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing Blumhouse film to date. Pretty crazy, especially given that it was simultaneously released on Peacock.
It’s safe to say that the film’s PG-13 rating had something to do with its success, as did its general premise that begged the question, “What if Chuck E. Cheese wanted to kill you?” As an adaptation, the movie is spot-on, managing to cohesively wrap the increasingly ridiculous (and shockingly dark) lore of the ~10-part game series into something sorta coherent and faithful to the source material. As an actual horror flick, however, it’s decidedly less adept. As noted by the film’s director, the movie didn’t need to be a gorefest to effectively frighten audiences, but for a game predicated on pulse-pounding jump scares, there’s surprisingly few to be found in the end. What could’ve been an easy B-movie shocker ultimately became a vanilla snore that’s neither as ironically enjoyable as the similarly themed Nic Cage payday Willy’s Wonderland, nor as scary as playing five minutes of the actual game. Here’s hoping that the all-but-guaranteed sequels can muster something more terrifying than what you find on your iPhone.
One of two entries on this list that count as a cheat, Netflix’s The Witcher is technically based on the work of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, but the tales of Geralt of Rivia truly caught the world’s attention following the release of every Redditor’s favorite RPG, 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. That game, widely considered to be one of the best action role-playing games of all time, skyrocketed the popularity of the fantasy series, renewing interest in the novels and short stories, serving as a catalyst for the streaming adaptation.
Premiering in 2019, The Witcher TV series started off strong as one of the most successful original launches ever for Netflix and was positioned as their answer to Game of Thrones. But the cracks quickly showed as fans – including star Henry Cavill – took umbrage with the creative liberties being taken with the source material, leading to his departure months before the launch of season three. It was a spectacular fumble that cast a shadow over the franchise akin to the general dead-end vibe of any recent DCEU movie. After all, unless you’re still mourning the Snyderverse, are you really seeing Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom?
It’s a disappointment, too, because Season Three of The Witcher felt like a step in the right direction. Violent fantasy nonsense, elevated by Cavill’s sexily indifferent warrior himbo who’s just sick of everyone’s shit, the show is a solid junk binge. Now it remains a classic tale of what could’ve been, albeit a solid entryway into the games, which will be seeing various remakes and next-gen upgrades beginning in 2024.
The most recent step in Netflix’s plot for video game adaptation domination, Onimusha saw a stealthy release on the streaming service this past November, following the resurgence of titles steeped in Japanese history kickstarted by PlayStation’s Ghost of Tsushima. With Tsushima itself receiving the live-action treatment courtesy of John Wick director Chad Stahelski, there’s bound to be an audience for Kurosawa-esque exploits plundered from gaming’s past. But even then, Onimusha remains an odd choice; it’s a series most younger players are likely unfamiliar with.
A product of the aughts, the Onimusha games were a staple of the PlayStation 2 era. Developed by Capcom, they mostly boiled down to “Resident Evil with samurai.” Outside of an HD remaster of the original game in 2018, the series had mostly fallen to the wayside since 2006, making it a surprising pick for a Netflix revival. The series itself is a mishmash of different inspirations that tells its own story centering on a loosely depicted version of Miyamoto Musashi, a real-life Japanese swordsman and cultural figure. But now, he’s slaying ghouls with a magic gauntlet.
With a bloody, somber tone punctuated by frequent high-octane battles, Onimusha isn’t the deepest series out there, but with lavish 3D animation and an eye-popping aesthetic, it’s a visually arresting, kick-ass trip that blends gaming and real-life history into an entertaining chimera. It’s perfect for filling the void of Edo-era action for those who whet their appetite binging Blue Eye Samurai.
One of the greatest challenges of adapting video games has always been the struggle of turning 8-bit bleeps and bloops into something resembling a workable story. A hurdle for sure, but what do you do when a game literally has no narrative whatsoever? Some movies, like the recent Tetris, opt to tell the larger-than-life tale behind the game. That’s precisely what Gran Turismo aims to do.
Coming from PlayStation Productions, the creators of the movie Gran Turismo really want you to know that it’s based on a true story. Beaten into the ground not just in the title and marketing, but reiterated ad nauseum by many characters over the course of the movie, this is the totally true story of a “gamer” (with some stank on the word) who defied the odds to become a “real racer” by becoming the world’s best Gran Turismo player, getting drafted into an elite training program / marketing stunt that results in an impressive IRL career.
Let’s be clear: there is absolutely nothing original about this story. It’s a typical sports underdog movie, with shades of Air, Ford v. Ferrari, and The Last Starfighter, wrapped in one big Gran Turismo ad. But oddly enough, it kind of works. The generic mix of well-worn ingredients, propped up by the allure of Jann Mardenborough’s True Story™ and a sardonic David Harbour, amounts to more than the sum of its parts. And even though it’s a movie by PlayStation, about PlayStation, that seemingly wants to mock people who play PlayStation, it’s a serviceable crowd pleaser for gamers and the gaming-averse alike.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
The second “cheat” on this list, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is also not actually based on a specific video game, functioning instead as a broad love letter to the most popular tabletop RPG ever made. But Dungeons & Dragons has always been intrinsically tied to video games, with pretty much every turn-based and open world game from the last thirty years owing a debt to the mechanics and framework laid by Wizards of the Coast’s classic. We’re in a time when D&D Actual Plays have taken video game-centric streaming platforms like Twitch by storm, and with 2023’s biggest game actually being a D&D title (Baldur’s Gate 3), the bond has never been stronger.
There have been plenty of Dungeons & Dragons movies, each more terrible than the last, but what sets Honor Among Thieves apart is that directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Game Night) genuinely love and respect the material. The cast each play a specific role defined by the game’s classes, including Chris Pine’s bard, Michelle Rodriguez’s barbarian, Regé-Jean Page’s sorcerer, and Sophia Lillis’ rogue. Using the underpinnings of an action-comedy heist flick, the plot is the kind of story players could improvise their way through in their own campaign, down to the multiple sequences of characters arguing about the litany of ways they can proceed only to stumble upon the solution through dumb luck. There’s even an owlbear.
With Dungeons & Dragon becoming more mainstream than ever, Honor Among Thieves serves as a great extension for people looking for more of the game’s world with a few hundred hours less to commit.
Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix
From professional edgelord and creator of the “Bootleg Universe,” Adi Shankar, Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix is the type of hyper-specific gaming hodgepodge that would likely go entirely unnoticed by 99% of Netflix subscribers. But that’d be a loss, as it’s one of the most outrageously eccentric celebrations of gaming culture ever made.
Based on the 2013 spin-off game, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, itself an over-the-top parody of Eighties culture and iconography, Laserhawk is the type of on-the-nose send-up of pop culture tropes that is destined to make some folks cringe. But beneath the mockery is an encyclopedic mixture of gaming minutiae that succeeds where mainstream nostalgia bait efforts like Ready Player One and Free Guy fail, serving as more than the cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia page. As the name suggests, the series plucks various parts of Ubisoft games and reimagines them in the Blood Dragon mold. In a world under corpo-fascist rule, Captain Dolph Laserhawk must team up with characters from properties like Splinter Cell, Beyond Good & Evil, Watch Dogs 2, The Crew, Rainbow Six Siege, and even a coked-out rendition of Rayman himself on a mission to topple the powers that be.
In true Shankar fashion, even the most beloved characters are reestablished as foul-mouthed cannon fodder destined for gruesome fates that will shock longtime fans, but there’s just enough wit and satirical edge to skate by, alongside sequences where the series’ aesthetic shifts from standard anime fare to the visual language of games, from 16-bit SNES era sprites to unsettling digitized FMV scenes pulled from the CD-ROM days. Picture it as The Suicide Squad meets Scott Pilgrim, with a dash of Kung Fury.
One of the most definitively “Nineties” experiences in gaming, the Twisted Metal series is a remnant of the PlayStation 1 era where a flaming serial killer clown on a jewel case was bound to catch the eye of twelve-year-olds in Toys “R” Us stores across America. And that exact feeling of juvenile curiosity and grunge-age excess is what co-creators Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) aimed to capture in their Peacock adaptation.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where drivers reign supreme, the series is a profoundly stupid action-comedy led by a motor-mouthed amnesiac played by a gleeful Anthony Mackie. Tasked with delivering a package, Mackie’s John Doe is set on a collision course with a murderer’s row of drivers pulled from the games, including Stephanie Beatriz’s Quiet, Thomas Haden Church’s Agent Stone, and the killer clown himself, Sweet Tooth (voiced by Will Arnett, physically played by wrestler Samoa Joe). It all sounds a little insufferable, in that Deadpool-esque, self-aware way, but showrunner Michael Jonathan Smith (Cobra Kai) manages to dig up enough heartfelt moments to keep things on the rails.
Coming from a game that focused primarily on vehicular slaughter set to a Rob Zombie soundtrack, there was very little going for Twisted Metal from the onset, but the fact that it manages to be a consistently funny, gory action romp with attitude to spare is a success story itself. Steeped in Nineties callbacks and needle drops, it’s a slight yet effective show bound to tickle the lizard-brained twelve-year-old in us all.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie
After the colossal failure of their first attempt to adapt Super Mario Bros. for Hollywood, nobody blamed Nintendo for shelving the idea of making movies for the next three decades. But after making more money than God on the heels of the Wii and Switch, and testing the waters of Mickey Mouse-ifying their IP with Universal theme parks, the Japanese game company finally decided to give it another go. Partnering with Minions creators Illumination, their second go around seems to have hit all the right notes, to the tune of $1.3 billion dollars at the box office.
It’s not perfect. Sidelining longtime voice actor Charles Martinet for Chris Pratt was a blow to longtime fans, and a move reminiscent of a saddening trend happening in the games industry itself. But Pratt, along with more inspired choices like Charlie Day as Luigi and the absolute tour de force of Jack Black as Bowser, managed to make some of the world’s most recognizable characters their own. Story has never been Nintendo’s strong suit, but the briskly paced 90-minute children’s feature packs enough laughs and rainbow-vomit visuals to capture even the shortest of attention spans. Lovingly built with iconography, characters, and scenarios pulled from the pantheon of Mario’s many adventures, there’s tons to appreciate from gamers of every generation. With its massive global success, the floodgates are now open for not just an entire Mario World of movie sequels and spin-offs, but for other Nintendo IP to jump to the silver screen.
The best video game adaptations transform more meager storytelling into something worthy of our attention without the need to control the flow ourselves. Netflix’s initial foray into the world of Castlevania expanded on a single NES game’s barebones lore, creating a horror-fantasy epic that spanned four seasons of animated bliss. Now its sequel, Castlevania: Nocturne, is exhuming the graves of even more beloved entries in the series to spectacular effect.
Based on fan favorites Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night – a game so good it spawned an entire subgenre of games that are still thriving today – it picks up roughly 300 years after the events of the first series, following the latest vampire hunter of the Belmont clan, Richter, during the events of the French Revolution. Evil never dies, and there’s a whole new generation of vampires to slay in dramatic fashion. And dramatic it is! Anime-styled, with dazzlingly choreographed fights that put most live action to shame, Nocturne is even more visually exhilarating than its predecessor, with 3D flourishes that accentuate the illustration, bringing what previously amounted to key art in a player’s manual to life. With political intrigue and hints of more socially conscious writing, the series leans even further into the inherent sexiness of vampire mythos and the visceral bloodletting of horror fantasy. The only drawback is its cliffhanger ending that sets up an unbearably long wait for the adventures to come.
The Last of Us
When it launched in 2013, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us set a new standard for cinematic storytelling in games. Sure, there had been movie-like games before, but from the terse moment-to-moment gameplay, tear-jerking dialogue, and phenomenally lifelike motion capture work done by some of the industry’s best actors, there hadn’t been anything that even approached the highs of what the PlayStation 3 title had done. And until The Last of Us Part II in 2020, there hadn’t been since.
Needless to say, Hollywood has been clamoring to adapt the game as a feature film from day one. After all, the heavy-lifting was already done. Many fans felt differently, opining that the game was already too much like a movie. But co-creator Neil Druckmann had other ideas, and along with series showrunner Craig Mazin, was adamant that the world of The Last of Us could and should be experienced by people who will ultimately never want to pick up a controller. And they were right.
Armed with HBO money, the duo managed not just to create a near-perfect facsimile of the original game, down to many 1:1 recreations in dialogue and imagery, but somehow make it better with expanded roles for supporting characters and perspectives that the very nature of the game simply couldn’t allow. With powerhouse performances by leads Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, alongside awards-worthy turns by bit players like Nick Offerman and Melanie Lynskey, the series managed to transcend even the industry-best work done by the game’s original cast – many of whom appear in roles themselves. The success of The Last of Us (the show) proves that video games, when taken seriously, can make for stories worthy of Hollywood, just as The Last of Us (the game) proved games didn’t need Hollywood to tell those same stories.
With an astonishing 24 Emmy nominations, The Last of Us garnered the kind of critical acclaim that almost single-handedly ushered in the golden age of game adaptations. Now, with all eyes on Season Two, it’s time to buckle up. If the response to the game’s sequel is any indication, the fervor surrounding where the show goes next is bound to break the internet and create a cultural storm all its own.