Licensed games have a well-deserved reputation for being awful– cheap cash-grabs that trick fans of the source material into playing sub-par games with little to no redeeming value on their own. Sure, the occasional outlier like GoldenEye 007 or Arkham Asylum comes around and shows potential in great licenses, but by and large, most gamers can have more fun by throwing their money into a raging grease fire than playing, say, Kinect Star Wars.
Games based on TV shows often lure us in with the promise of some sort of “untold tale,” with additional story content, voice actors from the original, or a script written (or vaguely “overseen”) by the show’s creative staff. All too frequently, however, these games fail to provide any kind of remotely interesting gameplay or production values to back up their ambition to honor the source material.
Every once in a while, though, a TV-to-game adaptation pops up that, while it might not be a revolutionary reinvention of the genre, at least serves as a fine addendum to its source material and a passable gaming experience.
Let’s take a look at some of the worst games based on TV shows, and some games which prove that it’s possible to make a decent (or at least passable) title based on small-screen licenses.
Alias vs Buffy the Vampire Slayer
At the turn of the century, cult television was dominated by two ass-kicking ladies; Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias. With their focus on martial-arts fight scenes and character-oriented storytelling, both shows naturally lent themselves to video games.
The 2004 Alias game, published by the now-defunct Acclaim, was set late in season two of the show and featured an original story created by Breen Frazier, a writer for the series. The narrative is enjoyable for fans of the series (if entirely superfluous to the show it’s based on), and getting the entire cast to reprise their roles is a great bonus for the dedicated fanbase. It’s too bad, then, that this PlayStation 2 and Xbox game is bogged down by lackluster gameplay. The combat isn’t broken, but it’s not particularly fun, either, and the stealth sections, while occasionally novel, can be unfairly difficult, frustrating, and tedious. The game also has numerous telltale signs of rushed development. At one point, you play as the show’s male lead, Michael Vaughn. He uses the same animations as Sydney, including her signature acrobatic kicks and flips. Perhaps even worse, the game concludes with a bizarre boss battle against the main villain of the series, Ron Rifkin’s Arvin Sloane, which is weird because he’s 60 years old… And a frail 60, not a “Liam Neeson in The Grey 60.”
On the other hand, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a 2003 Xbox exclusive, focuses mainly on hand-to-hand combat and cramming in as much fanservice as humanly possible, and nails it. The story, written by Buffyverse novelists Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski, is a veritable love letter to all things Buffy, but wrapped around solid combat mechanics and a tight narrative. Set during season three of the show, the story sees new vampires seeking to resurrect The Master, the big bad of season one. The game goes back and forth between linear levels and narrative breaks at Sunnydale High’s library, which facilitates dialogue from the entire cast of the show – with the major exception of Buffy herself. It’s disappointing that Sarah Michelle Gellar couldn’t be coaxed into reprising her most famous role, but Giselle Loren does an impeccable job of copying Gellar’s performance, right down to her cadence and mannerisms. Mark Metcalf doesn’t reprise his role as The Master, either, but D.C. Douglas (Wesker from Resident Evil 5) fills in nicely. In any case, it’s a joy hearing the show’s cast interacting with each other in what’s basically a brand-new episode, and even better that the surrounding game is enjoyable.
Combat is fast and has solid animation work by 2003 standards, and the brawling is entertaining, especially once you get access to weird weapons like the Holy Water filled squirt gun. It’s silly, but fits within the logic of the series. The game gets repetitive by the end, but it’s is a pure delight for fans of the series, and a solid standalone action title for non-fans.
Family Guy vs South Park
On a superficial level, Family Guy and South Park appear to be similar shows: animated comedies with lots of crass humor and foul language.
The most notable Family Guy video game, the awkwardly titled Family Guy Video Game!, came out in 2006 for PlayStation 2, PSP, and Xbox. While it maintained the irreverent tone and writing style of the show, the 3D cel-shaded graphics left much to be desired, to say nothing of the abysmal gameplay. Family Guy Video Game! gave players control of Peter, Stewie, or Brian, but none of them were any fun. Peter’s simplistic brawling levels were a slog, Brian’s stealth segments were an exercise in frustration, and Stewie’s levels were a pale imitation of Ratchet and Clank style action-adventure gameplay. The game’s version of the show’s signature cutaway gags came in the form of rapid-fire minigames, but the loading times were so long and the minigames so short that they grinded the pace to a crippling halt. In 2012 we saw another Family Guy title, Return to the Multiverse, but the co-op shooter fared even worse than the first game, with GI’s Andrew Reiner blasting it with a meager 4.5 review score.
South Park debuted in 1997, two years before Family Guy. Thanks to its family-unfriendly comedy starring a bunch of foul-mouthed children, the show became an instant cultural phenomenon, leading to a handful of video games. The likes of South Park Rally and Chef’s Luv Shack are rightfully regarded as some of the worst games of their generation, textbook examples of a great license being exploited for a quick marketing buck.
In 2014, after years of delays and the closure of original publisher THQ South Park: The Stick of Truth released to rave reviews. The game was written by show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and developed by RPG experts Obsidian (Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity). The Stick of Truth revives many fan favorite jokes from South Park’s history, even nigh-forgotten elements like the space aliens and Underpants Gnomes.
No amount of humor can save a crappy game – just ask Matt Hazard. Fortunately, Obsidian leveraged the South Park license to craft a clever take on the RPG genre. All the kids in town engage in a massive Live Action Role Playing session, with Butters as a brave paladin, Kenny as an anime princess, and Cartman as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep. The player takes control of “the new kid,” who is immediately nicknamed “***,” and selects from character classes ranging from Thief and Fighter to Jew, which is either hilarious or eye-rolling, depending on one’s sensitivity to South Park’s uncompromising brand of humor. From start to finish, The Stick of Truth is both an engaging RPG and an authentic South Park experience. The visuals are indistinguishable from its source material, the story is like a greatest hits compilation of nearly two decades of the show, and the RPG mechanics are surprisingly deep (just make sure to play on hard difficulty, or else it’s snooze-inducingly easy).
The Stick of Truth isn’t a great licensed game; it’s a great game, period. If there’s one major complaint, the story doesn’t have enough subtext to connect to real-life events and teach poignant lessons the way the show does. Maybe the upcoming sequel, The Fractured But Whole can tell a more socially conscious tale… But still have plenty of fart jokes.
The Sopranos vs Game of Thrones
There’s regular television, and then there’s HBO. The Sopranos was the first notable HBO series to get a video game. The Sopranos: Road to Respect released on PlayStation 2 in 2006, toward the end of the series’ run. Despite having the blessing and input of series mastermind David Chase, the story failed to leave a lasting impression on fans. Players took on the role of Joey LaRocca, the illegitimate son of Sal Bonpensiero, a novel conceit that expands the universe of the show without stepping on any narrative toes. LaRocca interacts with many of the regular cast, with the actors all reprising their roles. James Gandolfini is back as Tony Soprano, the great Steven Van Zandt returns as Silvio Dante, and even Vincent Pastore is back from the grave as Bonpensiero, communicating with his son as a ghost/subconscious apparition. It has some clever character beats, but other moments are terribly out of place. One subplot has AJ (Tony’s rebellious son) getting into trouble when the inexperienced teen gets involved in a drug deal gone bad. He gets rescued by Joey, but the sequence ends with violence and death. Such an event would surely traumatize the poor kid, but it is never mentioned in the show.
Sadly, narrative inconsistencies are the least of Road to Respect’s problems. The core gameplay mechanic, hand-to-hand brawling, is broken. Fights are either hilariously easy or unfairly difficult; one can easily get stuck in a frustrating spiral of getting knocked down over and over, locked in a cycle of animations with nothing to do but scream as your health is slowly whittled down to zero. On the other hand, winning fights using that same method doesn’t feel satisfying or rewarding. The fighting makes Alias look like God of War by comparison. Diehard Sopranos fans might be able to press through the crummy gameplay to see what the story has to offer, but it’s not worth it.
After 2012’s disappointing Game of Thrones RPG, it seemed like the series was consigned to the same slog of interactive mediocrity as The Sopranos. Then Telltale stepped in to work its signature magic on the brand.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones, released in six episodes across 2014 and 2015, took the company’s winning formula and applied it to HBO’s fantasy series. The game doesn’t add anything new to the mixture, but it didn’t need to. Fans of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us knew exactly what to expect, and Game of Thrones delivered.
Telltale’s take on GoT puts players in control of various members of House Forrester, a hitherto unseen family from the northern part of Westeros, and the main provider of Ironwood to House Stark, who get dragged into the show’s conflict; the game begins during the infamous Red Wedding, and spins-off from there, telling an original story within the framework of the series, starring a cast of mostly-new characters, with established television faces playing supporting roles in the grim adventure. Numerous series regulars, including Kit Harrington, Peter Dinklage, Natalie Dormer, and Lena Headey reprise their roles, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the proceedings.
No, your decisions don’t really matter, and the plot unfolds in more-or-less the same way no matter what you do, but the illusion of urgency and consequence is there in full force, even if the inevitable GoT Season 2 will basically hit the reset button with only minimal changes with regards to the variables present in the first season. Some Telltale fans were disappointed in GoT for the aforementioned reasons, as well as a seriously dated graphics engine. Still, Telltale’s tried-and-true narrative backbone was a competent framework on which to build an original GoT story, accessible to fans and newcomers alike.
Prison Break: The Conspiracy vs 24: The Game
The Fox network is notable for taking chances on high-concept action/dramas, and two of its most notable shows are Prison Break and 24, both of which had ended their runs before being revived for new seasons in 2017.
Prison Break: The Conspiracy put players in the role of Tom Paxton, an agent of the sinister CIA-esque agency, The Company, who infiltrates Fox River Penitentiary to make sure that Michael Scofield doesn’t succeed in his plan to bust his brother out of jail during the show’s first season. The tension isn’t exactly palpable, since fans of the show (the target audience for the game) know that Paxton can’t possibly have any impact on the inevitable escape because he’s never mentioned in the series. Attempts are made at injecting some personality into Paxton, but he ultimately comes across as little more than a paper-thin character who incredulously journals into an audio recorder. We don’t want to think about how he managed to sneak the device in – but we all know exactly how he did it.
Essentially, the game is a series of worthless fetch quests that do nothing to advance the narrative of any of Prison Break’s myriad characters. The actors from the show all return for the game, and most of them do pretty well in their familiar roles, so it’s a shame that there are no narrative breadcrumbs to build the characters outside of their first-season archetypes.
From the jump, Prison Break is weighed down by a palpable lack of polish, from tediously slow movement during the numerous stealth segments to fighting that looks like a cross between a workout class and the marionette action of Team America: World Police.
On the other hand, 24: The Game is an action game that makes tremendous use of its license to tell a compelling original story. The main hook of the show is that each season is set over the course of one day, with events occurring in real time. While The Game doesn’t literally take place in real time, it follows that same narrative structure, acting as a “lost season” of sorts between years two and three of the show. All the notable cast members are in the game, from regulars like Kiefer Sutherland and Carlos Bernard to fan-favorite figures like Mia Kirshner as Mandy and Zachary Quinto as Adam Kaufman.
It’s tough to reconcile plot points like weaponized earthquakes ravaging the streets of Los Angeles and the assassination of the Californian governor with their complete lack of impact on the events of the show, but the story is still a thrill ride in the vein of its source material. The bread-and-butter third-person shooter gameplay is unremarkable but serviceable, and the proceedings are often broken up by minigames and driving segments. The final result is a novel action game with a compelling narrative hook, but with an additional layer of enjoyment for fans of the show.
Duck Dynasty vs Gemini: Heroes Reborn
Activision’s Call of Duty series is one of the biggest money-making brands on the planet right now. Of course, every company has a dark side, and Activision is infamous for dabbling in crummy licensed games. Few licenses are crummier than Duck Dynasty, which follows the millionaire executives of Duck Commander Incorporated and their adventures in the world of duck hunting…or something. I’d rather drink a bleach martini than watch an episode of the show.
Then again, I’d rather be forced to watch the entire series while strapped into a steel chair with my eyes held open, Clockwork Orange-style, than play the Duck Dynasty video game. The PC version holds a 1.5 user score on Metacritic, and it’s nearly unbearable to even watch footage of the game on YouTube. The game plays out like an episode of the show, with rudimentary on-foot navigation, linear vehicle segments which are practically devoid of physics, realistic or otherwise, and on-rails shooting segments in which the player commits animal genocide with an effortless auto lock-on system which practically plays itself. It’s hard to kill that many defenseless birds, badgers, and other wildlife without feeling dirty. There’s no gameplay mechanic for collecting the remains of the dozens, if not hundreds, of animals you shoot. Sometimes, the game shows a dog running out to collect a single duck, but most levels end abruptly, with a second-rate banjo lick and a low-resolution clip from the show.
Enough about hunting defenseless animals. I’m far more interested in being the hunted, who discovers that they can actually fight back against their hunters. No, I’m not talking about Deer Avenger (how’s that for a deep cut?), but Gemini: Heroes Reborn.
Gemini’s greatest strength may also be seen as a weakness by fans of Heroes; it’s barely related to NBC’s cult superhero drama, and functions just fine as a standalone story for players who can’t tell Hayden Panettiere from Hayden Christensen. The narrative is sparse and the references to the show mostly take the form of in-game documents that border on Easter Egg status.
Without the constraint of following the series, Gemini is free to strike out on its own as a BioShock-meets-Portal first-person action/adventure. After being captured by a sinister group of soldiers, teenage protagonist Cassandra gains a ton of superpowers that she uses to outwit her captors and kill them all with righteous aplomb. She doesn’t use guns, but she can catch bullets (and missiles!) out of the air and fire them back at her assailants, to say nothing of her main offensive ability, which is to bludgeon enemies to death by telekinetically spiking them with environmental objects. Cassandra navigates the environment and sneaks around by traveling back and forth through time, and can even bring objects from one time period to another.
While it never quite rises to the heights of its obvious influences, it still holds plenty of excitement. Gemini is quickly becoming something of a cult classic, in part due to the quiet cancellation of Heroes Reborn, but also due to its own merits as a solid little action game, the rare example of a budget licensed game done right.