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May 20, 2019

Are video game movies the worst type of adaptations?

The recent release of Pokémon Detective Pikachu has prompted some readers to get in touch and ask about the quality of movies based on video games.

Most of the questions were variations of: “Are video game movies the worst type of movie adaptations?

To answer this, I looked at all movies released in US cinemas between 1993 and 2018, inclusive. (See the Note section for a more detailed explanation of the dataset and sources).

I’m going to use the Metacritic score and IMDb rating to serve as measures of quality from the perspective of film critics and film audiences, respectively.

Let’s first acquaint ourselves with the genre.

A primer in video game movies

The first movie adapted from a video game was 1993’s Super Mario Bros and in the 26 years since then, 45 such movies have reached US cinemas – an average of just under two per year.

2016 has been the peak year so far, with big screen audiences “enjoying” Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XVRatchet & ClankAssassin’s CreedResident Evil: The Final ChapterThe Angry Birds Movie and Warcraft: The Beginning.

The largest such movies to date have been Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Warcraft: The Beginning and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Unsurprisingly, the league table of ‘top grossing video game movies’ contains many of the same titles as the chart above showing the movies with the biggest budgets.

But let’s get to the topic at the heart of today’s question – quality.

Are movies adapted from video games any good?

In a word: no.

In a few more words: No, and they are often very, extremely, very bad.

Across all movies in the US cinemas between 1993 and 2018, the average Metascore was 55 out of 100 and the average IMDb rating was 6.4 out of 10. Only one video game adaptation beat the average score for critics (Mortal Kombat, with a Metascore of 58) and just six for audiences (Warcraft tops the list with a score of 6.9).  

How do video game adaptations compare with other script sources?

Let’s end by looking at how the scores for video game adaptations compare with those of other script sources.

On average, critics give movies based on musicals or operas 63 out of 100, whereas they give video game adaptations just 32.  In fact, video games are the lowest rated source for movies.

But, wait” I hear you cry, “Movies based on video games are not for snooty critics but for the public.  Only they can fairly judge the quality of movies“.

Well, the result is the same, albeit less pronounced.  Audiences give video game adaptations an average of just 5.3 out of 10.

So, it would be fair to say that almost everyone agrees that most video game movies are awful.

Notes

The raw data for today’s research came from IMDb, The Numbers and Wikipedia.  The script source classification came from The Numbers, although in some cases I tweaked the data due to differing criteria (see below for more on this). I excluded some script sources as there were too few movies to make the results meaningful.  These include movies based on a toy, song, ballet, web Series, theme park ride, among others.

Not all movies have all the required metadata (i.e. some movies were not reviewed sufficiently to receive a Metascore, some movies do not have a script source from The Numbers, etc) and so any percentages are of those movies with the required data available.  I only used IMDb audience scores for movies with at least 500 votes, to combat vote stuffing by the cast and crew.

The lineage of a movie’s script or idea can be complicated.  For example, it could be argued that some of the later Pokémon movies are described as adaptations of a television show rather than from Pokémon’s original source, that of a video game.  For today’s research, I have used the broadest definition of “based on a video game” which would, therefore, include all of the Pokémon movies.

I am only looking at movies which grossed at least $1 at the domestic box office.  This means we’re measuring the types of movies the public are most likely to see (and this had the added bonus of meaning that I didn’t have to rule over whether or not unauthorised fan-created movies should be included!)

Epilogue

The vast majority of video game adaptations are either horror or adventure films.  However, in researching this piece I discovered a courtroom drama that was adapted from a video game.

Ace Attorney is based on the game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. IMDb describes the movie thus:

The plot follows Phoenix Wright, a novice lawyer, who faces off against expert prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, who had a perfect win record. He defends Maya Fey, the sister of his deceased mentor, Mia Fey. The court system of the time dictates that the trial can only convene for a total of three days before a verdict must be reached. In the second case, Miles is charged with murder, and it is up to Phoenix to defend him against the best prosecutor of all time, as well as Miles’ mentor, Manfred Von Karma, who has not lost a case in forty years! In order to resolve this case, Phoenix must look beyond the drama of the courtroom and search for clues left by Mia on a 15 years old case, the DL-6.

Sounds thrilling!

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5 Responses

  1. Jak May 20, 2019 at 9:56 am #

    Really insightful article, as always!

    I imagine it’d be extremely difficult to measure, but it’d be interesting to see if there was a variance in audience reception between people who played the games then watched the films vs people who watched them without any knowledge of the game prior to viewing.

  2. Trish Rigdon May 20, 2019 at 12:15 pm #

    With the evidence so strong that movies based on video games are “awful”, it makes me wonder who the writers are. Do the movies have anything in common where the writers are concerned?

  3. Jonathan R May 20, 2019 at 4:48 pm #

    I wonder what the Uwe Boll factor is here. He’s notorious for adapting video games and will be responsible for a number of these, and his reputation is not… favourable.

  4. Joshua K. May 30, 2019 at 4:45 pm #

    Near the end of this post, it says, “I am only looking at movies which grossed at least $1 at the domestic box office.” Was that meant to say $1 million?

    • Stephen Follows May 30, 2019 at 6:02 pm #

      Hey Joshua. Nope, one dollar. It’s a quick way of focusing on movies with a domestic theatrical release

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