Console and PC-based games first became popular in the 1970s. According to the World Economic Forum, video games now generate more revenue than the music and film industries put together. Yet Hollywood was slow to catch on.
The first live-action adaptation appeared in 1993, capitalizing on the gaming renaissance brought on by the 1986 release of the Nintendo® Entertainment System. Many more have followed, and several have generated big box office revenues. Let’s take a look at some memorable entries.
Super Mario Bros. had all the makings of a blockbuster: a built-in audience, high-profile actors, a big budget and a Disney distribution deal. Despite all those advantages, the film, based rather loosely on Nintendo’s massively popular Super Mario series, failed on nearly every level.
Some critics praised the special effects and the performances of Bob Hoskins (Mario), John Leguizamo (Luigi) and Dennis Hopper (King Koopa), but most were generally unimpressed by the writing, pacing and plot. And aside from two overall-clad plumber brothers on a mission to rescue a kindhearted princess, the film’s story and aesthetics borrowed little from the game. That could help explain why Super Mario Bros. failed to attract enough fans to recoup its production costs. Find out where to stream it here.
(Note: The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a computer-animated adaptation, was recently released and has already set new box-office records.)
The original Mortal Kombat was already a massive arcade hit when it reached home consoles on Sept. 13, 1993 — a date many fans refer to as “Mortal Monday.” More than three million cartridges had been sold by Thanksgiving, but the game’s success was tinged with controversy. Mortal Kombat’s unflinching and, for the time, shockingly realistic depictions of violence, gore and death helped prompt the U.S. Senate hearings that led to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings system.
A little less than two years later, the first of three live-action film adaptations reached theaters. Based primarily on the first game with inspiration from its sequel, Mortal Kombat II, the movie pitted “Earthrealm” martial artists Liu Kang, Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade against a series of otherworldly combatants in a tournament staged to determine the fate of humankind.
Achieving a PG-13 rating required filmmakers to drastically tone down the violence, including the games’ signature “Fatality” finishing moves. But critics found plenty to like about the film, and so did audiences: Mortal Kombat held the top box-office spot for three weeks and has become a cult classic. Find out where to stream it here.
In the days before The Hunger Games, Wonder Woman and Black Widow, female-led action-adventure movies were still considered a novelty … and female-led action-adventure video games were rarer still. Then came the Tomb Raider franchise and its inimitable heroine, the British archaeologist, intellectual and all-around badass Lara Croft.
Released in 1996 to critical acclaim and booming sales, the original Tomb Raider video game was the first in a series of 20 (and counting). Five years later, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider hit the silver screen, starring Angelina Jolie as the titular adventurer racing a gang of Illuminati members from Cambodia to Siberia to piece together a mysterious artifact.
The film generated $274 million in box-office grosses but failed to impress many critics. It was followed by a sequel, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle of Life (2003) and a reboot, Tomb Raider (2018). Find out where to stream all three here.
The March 1996 release of the original Resident Evil set a new standard for scary video games. Among its fans was Mortal Kombat director Paul W. S. Anderson, who was so enamored of the game and its dark, zombie-filled world that he wrote a script that would later be reworked for the film adaptation, which debuted in 2002.
Rather than co-opt existing characters and plotlines, Anderson decided to make the movie version a prequel to the games. He also shifted the focus from survival horror to action horror, casting Milla Jovovich as Alice, a renegade employee of the evil Umbrella Corporation, where illegal experiments led to the creation of the zombie-generating T-virus.
Resident Evil overcame generally negative reviews to surpass the $100 million-dollar mark at the box office and spawn five sequels. A 2021 reboot, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, aspired to return the film franchise to its horror survival roots. Find out where to stream them all here.
Warcraft (and, later, World of Warcraft) is a series of real-time strategy and online multiplayer games and novels, among other media. The film version, which was based on 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans video game (the first of a lengthy series), is regarded as a rather faithful adaptation. It’s set in the established fantasy world of Azeroth, whose residents face hordes of orc invaders from another dimension.
The movie earned more than $439 million at the worldwide box office and remains the all-time highest-grossing movie — live-action or animated — inspired by a video game. Yet despite its global commercial success, it failed to win over many critics, earning just a 28% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 32/100 on Metacritic — worse than Super Mario Bros.’s 29% and 35/100, respectively — and low marks for character and plot development. Find out where to stream it here.
Adapted from the family-oriented 2016 video game of the same name, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a rare example of a game-related film that won praise from gamers, moviegoers and critics alike.
Both the game and the movie center around aspiring Pokémon trainer Tim Goodman and a Pikachu who dresses like Sherlock Holmes and whose speech (voiced by Ryan Reynolds in the movie) can be understood by Tim, a rare connection for the species. The pair then team up to solve a mystery involving Tim’s father, a chemical concoction that causes Pokémon to go berserk, and a series of supporting human and monster characters.
The film was a runaway hit, earning more than $433 million at the worldwide box office, trailing only Warcraft among entries in this genre. Find out where to stream it here.
As for the highest-rated feature film adaptation of a video game, it’s not even close: Werewolves Within stands alone with an 86% “Fresh” Rotten Tomatoes score, beating 2022’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (69%) and the aforementioned Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (68%) by a mile.
The movie is based on the 2016 social-deduction game developed by Red Storm Entertainment and Ubisoft for virtual reality platforms. As in the game, a group of people attempt to figure out who among them is the werewolf menacing their community — a medieval village in the original and the remote, modern-day town of Beaverfield in the film adaptation. Reviewers praised the successful blend of horror and comedy and singled out the performances and chemistry of the amiable Sam Richardson (Veep and Ted Lasso) and actress Milana Vayntrub. However, despite the critical acclaim, the film was a commercial failure, bringing in less than $1 million against a multimillion-dollar budget. Find out where to stream it here.
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