Why The Fifth Element still needs a great gaming adaptation

Once there was a time when pretty much every major movie release had some kind of video game tie-in. You probably remember the thrill of going to see a film you love and then being able to go and pick up its accompanying game to take home and stretch out your new obsession over the weekend. 

I recall insisting on making an entire day out of going to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the first time at the cinema and then buying the game to take home and play so that the magic never had to end. 

The problem was that many of these tie-ins tended to not be very good. There are a number of exceptions (one of which I wrote about in this very column only last week) but the restrictions applied to creating them made it very difficult to produce something high quality. 

Movie magic

Tight deadlines arising from the need for release dates to overlap with the silver screen experience, combined with expensive licensing and budgets limited to ensure high profits, meant many of tie-in titles ended up feeling like cheap rush jobs designed to milk the cinematic cash cows for all they were worth. 

Given these are the main reasons games from movies tended to be poor, the game tie-in to sci-fi epic The Fifth Element should have been much better than it was.

For one thing, the game was released more than a year after the film which suggests there was no immediate pressure to release alongside the film. And though it divided critical opinion on release, The Fifth Element was a visually exciting, slightly loopy action-packed sci-fi adventure that given a bit of thought could have made a thrilling video game. In fact, it still could.

Though the film divided upon release, the game mostly united – in so much as critics agreed that it was bad. All the stylish fun that even the film’s greatest advocates were able to acknowledge and enjoy could not be found here. 

Published by Activision, the game was released on PlayStation and PC. I’ll admit the first time I played this game in the very late '90s I only had a short time with it and I had absolutely no knowledge of the film. Now that I’ve seen the film it seems incredible to me that they’re connected. In fact, I think seeing the film has made me like the game less. 

How is it possible to turn something so lively, colorful and humorous with costumes designed by Jean Paul bloody Gaultier into something so flat and dull?

Still, it happened. 

Out of its element

The game allows you to alternate between playing as Leeloo and Korben, with the former using her fists and flips to take down enemies while the latter uses guns. This difference in character abilities and the fact that you sometimes need to balance them in order to get through a level is an idea I actually quite liked from the game. It’s just a shame the levels and their puzzles are all utterly uninteresting.

It’s also a pity the combat mechanics are so useless. I know sci-fi and games require a certain suspension of disbelief but I’m afraid I can’t take mine far enough to get on board with the fact that Leeloo can punch an enemy standing feet from her (I swear this game is where Nintendo got its inspiration for Arms). 

There’s also the fact that you can’t actually aim your gun at all – you just have to point Korben in the right direction, press fire and hope. If you couldn’t actually see the gun in his hand you’d swear he was just throwing handfuls of bullets. This is probably a more true to life representation of how I would fire a weapon but it certainly doesn’t accurately relay what Korben’s capable of. 

Fortunately the game’s AI is so utterly hopeless that you don’t feel alone in your ineptitude.

The first time I tried this game it really didn’t occur to me that a game could be unenjoyable because it was bad. It had to be me. Now, however, I know otherwise and I think I can safely say that The Fifth Element was just mechanically a bad game. 

The Fifth Element wasn’t praised for its graphics when it was released, either, but looking at them now, they don’t look so much worse than those of Tomb Raider 3 that was released in the same year. 

I mean, you absolutely wouldn’t look at in-game Korben and think ‘ah I see this is based on a character played by Bruce Willis’. There's actually a game called Apocalypse that was released in the exact same year as The Fifth Element (by Activision no less) with a character modeled after and voiced by Bruce Willis that's more Korben-like than what you find here.

Still, though there were certainly more visually accomplished games released at the time but the environments in The Fifth Element aren’t entirely  unimpressive. 

Blurry Bruce

I think it’s partly that the controls and camera are so terrible it made the game seem far uglier than it actually was. Irritation with a game has a tendency to color our impressions of it. 

It could also have something to do with the fact that the game’s engine which had been previously used to create Nightmare Creatures (a game that's actually quite good) was so utterly unequipped to capture the life of the world in the film that it was set up to be a visual disappointment before it even started.

It's worth noting that one saving grace is the game's soundtrack. The film's composer Eric Serra got on board and managed to bring some of the spirit of the film to this but sadly it's just not enough.  

Now that it's 20 years since the film's first release the time is right for a nostalgia-driven game release we both want and deserve. Luc Besson has always said he wouldn't consider creating a sequel to the film, but there's always a chance the world and character could live on through a well-developed game. 

  • Emma Boyle is taking a look back at games gone by (some of them older than she is.) Follow her time traveling adventures in her bi-weekly Retro Respawn column. Got any games you'd especially like to see her revisit? Let her know on Twitter @emmbo_  
Emma Boyle

Emma Boyle is TechRadar’s ex-Gaming Editor, and is now a content developer and freelance journalist. She has written for magazines and websites including T3, Stuff and The Independent. Emma currently works as a Content Developer in Edinburgh.