Five Hilarious Licensed Games and What Could Make Them Great

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 1:00 pm
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Licensed games -- source of occasional brilliance and common hilarity.

Last week I reviewed the new XBLA game South Park: Tenorman's Revenge, and it brought a lot of questions to mind. Some of them were personal questions, like, "When was the last time I watched the Chinpokomon episode of South Park?" Some of the questions were deeper questions, like, "Do I think the idea of door keys made out of poop is funny?" (The answer is yes.) But mainly it got me thinking of video games based on already-existing creative properties: how wonderful they are when they succeed and how miserably disappointing they are when they fail. Tenorman's Revenge, for me, is the rare licensed game that falls between these two poles -- not depressingly bad but not especially good, either.

Usually when a licensed game converts its source material to game form in an effective way, it's near-phenomenal. The best licensed games take characters that you know and love and put you directly in their shoes; they take the indescribable tone of a movie, TV show or book and somehow transplant it into an experience that you, as a gamer, control directly. When it works, it's quite a trick. Not to mention an almost guaranteed cash cow.

But for every really amazing licensed game, there are four hundred that are horrifying bastardizations of the source material, interesting ideas that have been brutally jammed down into something resembling a video game to make an easy buck.

I thought I knew about most of the licensed games out there. The great ones, like Arkham City and Goldeneye. The hellish ones, like E.T. and Superman. But after having my interest piqued and doing some research, there are a feast of crazy licensed games that I never had any god damned idea existed. I hand-picked the five licensed games that most frayed the portion of my brain that controls reason and logic and listed them below. I haven't played these games, but I've included the traits that I think could make each one superlatively good or abjectly terrible. I will now list them in ascending order of dumbness.

5.) Fight Club (2004)

The thing that makes Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club and David Fincher's dark film adaptation tick is a kind of gnawing discontent with the boundaries of modern American life. To reduce the point of the story to how cool it is for dudes to beat the shit out of each other would be sort of like summarizing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by saying that it's about how real badasses can get their buddies in psych wards laid. Unless this is the most subversive fighting game ever imagined, it feels like this game might not be quite in keeping with the source material's themes.

How it could be great: If there's a part of the game where you have to pick fights with strangers in creative ways and then lose; the idea of empowering strangers by breaking the "I won't hit you if you don't hit me" social contract of society is genius.

How it could be lame: If they failed to get permission to use Brad Pitt or Edward Norton's likeness in-game, but instead put Fred Durst of Limp Bizcut in it for no reason. A game that lets you unlock Fred Durst as a playable character is about as appealing as a game that registers you as a sex offender if you beat it on Hard Mode.

4.) McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure (1993)

Action movies or children's TV shows being converted to Sega games make sense -- the developers just took a property already beloved by kids and turned it into a game. But every so often there will be a licensed game that is not based on a story or fictional world that already exists, but based on a product. Cool Spot is one example.  This is another.

It's always kind of unclear to me what the goal of these games is from a marketing standpoint. Do they think kids already have such a connection with Ronald McDonald that they want to BE him? Do they believe that there is public outcry for an epic quest for buried treasure starring everybody's favorite grease-peddling nightmare clown? Or is it the other way around -- do they think that by allowing kids to assume the role of Ronald McDonald in a video game, that they will be more likely to grab the steering wheel from their parents while passing by McDonald's on the highway and force an abrupt, violent, delicious pit-stop at one of America's culinary institutions?  I'm lovin' it!

How it could be great: If McDonald's decided to "go negative" with this ad campaign and portray level after level of evil, grotesque KFC chickens, freed from their cages and lurching toward Ronald. Or hell, why not go the extra mile? Maybe later levels could show Wendy's founder Dave Thomas cutting up orphans into those distinctive square patties? It'd be a nice change of pace to have all-out vitriol in one of these games instead of the usual platforming / product placement mix.

Alternatively, it'd be pretty rad if the Hamburglar had a lockpick skill he could use on chests and safes. 

How it could be lame: If it's just the usual platforming / product placement mix.

3.) The Da Vinci Code (2006)

The Da Vinci Code was an uber-hit in 2003. I remember seeing rebuttals published by church figures, whole books devoted entirely to the task of debunking the plot of a Dan Brown novel. Wherever you were in the world in 2003 - 2004 (and this includes both mainland Antarctica and failed states like Somalia), there was someone less than twenty feet away from you reading The Da Vinci Code.

With this level of success, a video game adaptation was inevitable.  I refused to read The Da Vinci Code based on jealousy and the conviction that Dan Brown couldn't write himself out of a torn paper bag, but from what plot details I've absorbed over the past decade, I imagine the game takes place in France and that some spooky monk is mad that you and Amelie think Jesus got down every so often. Right?

How it could be great: If the game is actually more thoroughly researched than the book, and goes out of its way to correct historical errors contained in its printed counterpart. It would also be cool if you could eschew Dan Brown's tightly-wound plot in favor of open world gameplay. Can Robert Langdon just forget about being a master symbologist for a while and take a baseball bat to the Louvre? The answer, if this game is awesome, is yes.

How it could be lame: If it features numerous cutscenes that use Brown's original dialogue, with occasional quick time events to successfully crack a code.

2.) Austin Powers Pinball (2002)

If you ever wake up and you're unsure whether you're in the late nineties or not, here's a surefire way to tell: walk up to someone and say, "Do I make you horny, baby, do I?" If the person laughs and responds with "Shagadelic!" then you have completed what leading theoretical physicists considered impossible -- you have traveled back in time. On the other hand, if you say, "Do I make you horny, baby, do I?" and the person you're talking to goes, "What the fuck are you talking about?" then you are either in the present day, or you've traveled TOO FAR BACK.

My point is that sometimes licensed games can become dated in a way that other games cannot. For a few years on either side of the millenium, Austin Powers was the literally the best thing any of us had ever seen. Just look at this -- it's a pinball simulator with Mike Myers and Elizabeth Hurley pictures!

How it could be great: If memory serves, the first Austin Powers was hilarious. So I think it'd be pretty great if the entire movie just played behind the pinball action, so you could watch Austin Powers in its entirety while playing pinball!

Or what if you had different characters you could play as with different powers -- Austin could do "Shagadelic" Multi-ball, Dr. Evil could add one million points to his score at any point ("One MILLION dollars!"). Seth Green audibly whines throughout if you play as Scott! It'll add a whole new level to the Austin Powers / Pinball overlap!

How it could be lame: Wait, what the fuck does pinball have to do with Austin Powers?

1.) Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit! (1994)

The fact that Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit! exists is the most direct evidence we have a benevolent God. The fact that people thought taking Tim Allen's sitcom about drills, family and faceless neighbors and turning it into a video game was a good idea is amazing to me, in the same way that I imagine the parting of the Red Sea was amazing to the ancient Israelites.

I am going to directly recite the plot of this masterpiece now.  Tim Taylor (played by Tim Allen, all you Home Improvement neophytes) is doing a Tool Time show with his co-host and foil Al Borland. They argue briefly over the merits of having "MORE POWER" in power tools. Then, Tim discovers that the new line of power tools he is tasked with showcasing are missing! A mysterious note taunts "The Toolman," explaining that if he wants to get his tools back he will have to venture out of the Tool Time studio and into the surrounding sound stages to retrieve them.

How it could be great: It is great. Tim Allen inexplicably encounters live dinosaurs and mummies in this video game, and has to kill them with power tools. If that's not "great," I don't know what is.

How it could be lame: If it had LESS POWER!

Aaron Matteson writes a weekly column for Joystick Division called Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000. You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronMatteson if you want.

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