Licensed games are games derived from other media, whether it be movies (the most common) comic books, t.v. shows or even works of literature. I’ll be ranting about the first two categories. These games have always had the potential to be great, but miss the mark 98% of the time. Don’t believe me? Play Superman 64, but only if you have the constitution to sit through one of the biggest turds to ever besmirch the title of “video game.” There are several reasons for their collective failings, but the biggest would have to be the amount of input the license owner has. People who work in other industries may not have the knowledge to relate their property to the wonderful world of video games, so their input would be more detrimental than beneficial. Yet no one wants to go unheard, so they flex their executive muscle and get their way, hurting the game in the process.
Movie-based games suffer the worst in this department because movie execs want the game released around the same time as the movie. Video games don’t deserve to be lumped together with movie merchandise. They are not just a lunchbox with the protagonist’s picture slapped on it, or an action figure given an actor’s likeness. They are at least on par with movies as an art form (which is a whole ‘nother discussion) and deserved to be treated as such. Another big problem is taking a two hour movie and stretching it into a much longer game. If not handled right, this can lead to meandering far away from the core plot and alienating people who bought the game because they loved the story. The problems aren’t always external, either. Sometimes the developer can be at fault, taking a lazy approach with the game and relying on the name to sell copies.
Comic book games are on the opposite end of the spectrum, as far as plot goes. It’s hard to cram years of canon into a video game. Imagine trying to give back story on the Phoenix Force and Jean Grey without having an entirely separate game dedicated to the events in the Shi’ar galaxy. Or the laundry list of examples of Sabretooth pissing in Wolvie’s Cheerios. Perish the thought that some poor developer gets stuck explaining the death and several false resurrections of Superman in a game. It seems like comic games avoid this by expecting the player to have some knowledge of the source material. After all, you probably bought the game because you love the comic, right? But this can be a double-edged sword because some may buy the game because they were interested in a characters story, but never read the comics (for shame!). These poor souls could come away from a game tie-in terribly misinformed if the canon was not treated with care.
Despite these gripes, don’t forsake licensed games entirely. There are games out there that have broken the tragic mold they were to be cast from. Most of the TMNT games of the 90′s did a fantastic job, due in part to the Turtles’ ninja background lending itself well to the side-scrolling beat ‘em up craze of the day. Although most should steer clear of the original NES release. Star Wars: Rogue Squadron handled my favorite universe amazingly well with a flight sim, a far from dominating genre of games. Outstanding examples of more recent games are High Moon’s treatment of the beloved Transformers franchise and Rocksteady’s phenomenal Batman entries. These developers have set a new standard for licensed games by perfectly blending the story and characters of these fictions with game mechanics that work well and feel as if they truly belong in the source’s world. If other developers were to take notes from these guys, the sorry state of licensed video games could become a distant and thankfully forgotten memory in the history of games…