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How to Write a Video Game Adaptation

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

This has to be one of the most difficult tasks in the history of movie lists. Looking at the sad line-up of movies based on video games in the last twenty years, there are only a handful that are barely tolerable, let alone any good. Shall it be called the Video Game Movie curse? There has been only one decent video game movie, and still it’s not a very good one. But here are the best I could muster…

5. Super Mario Bros (1993)

The first film based on a video game, this one does everything wrong. From the banal plot, to the awkward pacing, to the bizarre creature effects, to the godawful special effects, this film fits in that so-bad-it’s-kind-of-enjoyable category. Probably the best thing about this film is the casting, but not even Dennis Hopper as the villain can save this mess. Still, though, there’s more accidental entertainment value to be had here than in films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, Doom, Max Payne, Prince of Persia, and countless other video game adaptations!

4. Resident Evil (2002)

This long-running series definitely has its highs and lows, but the original has the most genuine tension and suspense, as well as creepy atmosphere. While the second film, Apocalypse, deserves points for including more elements from the games, this first entry is the most successful as an overall movie. The rest that I’ve seen become all about the action, all about the drop-kicks and the gunfights. At least there’s more going on in the 2002 original.

3. Street Fighter (1994)

This, like Super Mario Bros, is pretty rough stuff, but this piece of over-the-top craziness has something no other video game movie has — Raul Julia. He makes an otherwise confused, mediocre action film worth watching. Making his final film appearance (!), Julia plays the big bad named General Bison, and he upstages everyone else in the movie, including Jean-Claude Van Damme and pop singer Kylie Minogue, in one of her few (and mostly forgotten) film roles.

2. Mortal Kombat (1995)

Paul W.S. Anderson (the director of Resident Evil and many of its sequels), appears again here, in what is arguably, still, the best video game movie ever made. While it has nothing in terms of substance, the film moves at a brisk pace, featuring one awesome fight scene after another, and it captures the spirit of the game exceedingly well. Cameron Diaz was meant to follow up her role in The Mask with this film as Sonya Blade but had the pull out due to a broken wrist — now that could’ve been interesting.

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Is this cheating? It might be, but a great film based in the world of video games should appear somewhere on this list, and this documentary is nothing short of excellent. Directed by Seth Gordon, who went on to direct Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses, the film takes the viewer into the lives of diehard video game players competing to set the world record score on Donkey Kong. This is one of the most thrilling, entertaining, and uplifting documentaries I’ve seen to this day.

Watching Like a Writer

This list overall makes me think about how I’d adapt a video game I love into a piece of fiction. My favorite game growing up was Donkey Kong Country, and I’m not sure what the hell I could ever do with that. But what about my second favorite, the Mega Man series? As absurd it would be, I’d love to take a crack at a short story about that small heroic figure.

Exercise!

Pitch an adaptation of your favorite video game in one or two sentences. What would be the storyline? What would be the conflict?

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