Why are movies based on games so terrible?

World of Warcraft
The rumors of the live action movie of WoW have gone a bit quiet so hopefully it won't recieve the Uwe Boll treatment

What gets us about the films that are made from our favourite videogames isn't that they're almost inevitably bad, but how bad they inevitably are. There's no good reason they should be.

Every other movie Hollywood produces is based on a book. The equally maligned comic book conversions have at least seen some notable highs with the likes of Superman, Spider-man and, of course, The Dark Knight. Plays, TV shows, and other movies have been huge box office success.

Yet games are trapped in the basement, with the mere mention of their titles putting the audience in mind of Pacman, Doom, and greasy nerds fondling themselves to naked Lara Croft fan art. It's not fair. It's not right.

The trouble is, with the kind of movies we usually have fighting our corner, it's really not surprising. Part of the problem is that the people who greenlight movies haven't historically been gamers themselves.

This is slowly changing as the gaming industry expands, a new generation moves through the ranks, and movie executives realise just how much money a big AAA release like Grand Theft Auto 4 actually pulls in. But not quickly enough.

Rubbish plots

Prior to the 90s, any form of gaming that made the jump to the movies was all but guaranteed a sinister portrayal, whether it was blowing up the world in Wargames (1983), confusing the hell out of people with something like Tron (1982) or suggesting that roleplaying games would kill you, as in Mazes and Monsters (also 1982).

In fairness, at the time, very few games of this era lended themselves to gripping entertainment. Their plots were generally simple, graphics even more so, and the games that people could be relied on to actually know were almost all of the Space Invaders/Missile Command variety.

Not to be disheartened, Ruby-Spears tried bringing a few of these to life for the short-lived Saturday Supercade (1983). If you want a picture of desperation, imagine sitting in a room with orders to build a weekly show around cartoon shorts starring Donkey Kong, Frogger (now an investigative reporter, if you can believe it), Q-Bert and Donkey Kong Jr.

The same company later produced Pac-Man, Rubik The Amazing Cube, Mega Man and Dragon's Lair, carving out a real niche for itself that we in the UK were mostly fortunate enough to miss.

Think we're lying? Search for the clips on YouTube.

By the start of the 1990s, both Hollywood and Japan started getting more ambitious. 1993 saw the infamous Super Mario Bros movie, described by star Bob Hoskins as "The worst thing I ever did", in which the day-glo world of the Mushroom Kingdom became a terrifying, fungus-ridden Blade Runner rip-off.

Turning Frogger into a journalist suddenly seems like such a small leap, doesn't it? This was followed by the truly ghastly Street Fighter II movie, which featured roughly five million characters, two braincells, and exactly one good line ("For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me… it was Tuesday") and the two Mortal Kombat movies – the first of which was decent, given the limitations of the source, and especially compared to the two hours of agonising genital pain that would be preferable to its sequel.

We're skipping a few here, including the first two Pokemon movies, Fatal Fury, and the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros, "The Great Quest To Rescue Princess Peach". However, rest assured, you're not missing much if you haven't seen them.

The only game conversions of this era to hold any fans at all are the original Street Fighter anime, the largely horrific Super Mario Bros/Legend of Zelda cartoons, glorified Nintendo advert Captain N: The Game Master, and the genuinely brilliant Earthworm Jim, which still holds up surprisingly well compared to other contemporary shows in the same vein, such as The Tick and Sam and Max.

As far as the PC was concerned, the transition from games to movies typically went the other way during the 1990s. The birth of interactive movies gave companies the chance to be film producers without going to Hollywood, and while many titles were rumoured to be considering making the jump to movie stardom – including Doom (long before the film we finally got), Monkey Island, and Deus Ex – for the most part it just didn't happen.

The two oddest projects that actually did go ahead were the very cheap kids' gameshows based on Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? (the first of which features the most horrifically memorable acapella track in the history of catchy songs), and a Canadian sitcom based on the classic Lucasarts adventure Maniac Mansion.

Attack of the PC

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) typically gets the credit for being the first blockbuster based on a PC game, and rightly so. It wasn't actually the first – Wing Commander came out in 1999 – but it was easily the first big success, and one of the only conversions up to this point that bothered treating its source material with some respect.

Yes, it's far from perfect, and as soon as Angelina Jolie first dons her padded bra to fight a killer robot, it's clear that it's trying far, far too hard to be 'extreme'… but it's not a bad movie. It's fun, competently made, with a decent budget, and generally good additions, such as adding an extra emotional level involving Lara's relationship with her dead father.

It's also notable that when Toby Gard and Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise with Legend, they made many similar decisions – losing the new Mission Control character Bryce, but adding Zip and Alistair as tech/historical replacements, and putting much more narrative emphasis on Lara's parents, and why she feels so compelled to run around arctic tundra in that infamous green T-shirt and short-shorts.

Despite the Croft movie setting the pace for the rest of the industry, and being very successful in the process (it pulled in over $270 million), its lessons were almost instantly forgotten. In the 16 years since it came out, only Silent Hill (2006) stands out as a genuine attempt to make the most of its source material. It's not a great movie, but at least it feels right.