The “film/TV show based on a video game” is one of the most critically maligned subgenres we can think of.
As a Gran Turismo movie arrives in cinemas, riding a wave of positive early buzz, audiences will once again find themselves asking whether this is the best video game adaptation yet to grace our screens. And it’s true – competition for the worst game adaptation is so stiff, this runs no risk of being considered bottom of the barrel.
However, there are plenty of video games that have made a successful leap from the console to the screen. Admittedly, not all of these are critically beloved, but stick with me here: when taking the genre as a whole into consideration, it’s pretty easy to see why these ten stand head and shoulders above the rest (at least for me, anyway).
10. Resident Evil (2002)
An advance warning: this isn’t the last Resident Evil movie which will feature on this list. Before it blossomed into an extensive, increasingly meta movie franchise, gritty reboot, and ill-advised Netflix series there was this stripped-down 2002 effort, which prioritised the carnage over the extensive world-building which would define the subsequent films.
There was fan outrage at the time over the creation of an entirely new character in the shape of Milla Jovovich’s Alice, rather than adhering to the iconic figures established in the game, but Jill Valentine’s time in the sun would come later. For newcomers to this world, it still proved an effective entry point, which to this day boasts some of the franchise’s best set pieces.
9. Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)
In the fifth instalment of the Resident Evil franchise, things got meta as we delved deeper into the machinations of the Umbrella Corporation, discovering that they had long ago simulated a zombie apocalypse prior to the real one in order to become global leaders in weapons manufacturing. What follows is a globe-trotting adventure that never leaves their warehouse, as familiar figures from the franchise’s history are resurrected as part of the simulation.
Does it make for the most coherent film? Not exactly – and the divisive reaction amongst fans is testament to that. But there’s a reason why this one has the biggest cult fanbase of any of the sequels; it’s a big, bold swing that doesn’t tie a decade’s worth of films together so much as make their lasting legacies even knottier.
8. Mortal Kombat (2021)
Mortal Kombat is a franchise that shouldn’t translate to narrative cinema. Despite a murderer’s row of whacky characters you can play as, the thrill of the game is pitting them against each other in bloody fights – something which may translate to some exquisite action scenes, but hardly a satisfying movie as a whole.
The recent attempt to relaunch the cinematic franchise, produced by horror maestro James Wan, was effective at fleshing out its mythical world. But most importantly, it delivered on the fights that this franchise is best known for, putting the nineties movies to shame (although, let’s face it, the less said about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the better).
7. Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
One of the most critically maligned movies in the franchise has had its initial reviews drowned out by a devoted cult following. Director Paul W.S Anderson’s return behind the camera to the horror series he kicked off back in 2002 is perhaps its purest iteration as a survival thriller: a prison break movie set in the heart of a Los Angeles completely ravaged by infection.
The third act, which pivots back to the shady going’s on at the Umbrella Corporation, ties events into the overarching storyline – but this stands on its own two feet far better than the movies which preceded it.
6. Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
Arriving on a wave of bad buzz – thanks, in no small part, to the ghastly and hastily scrapped original character design – this live-action outing for SEGA’s most famous creation had a target on its back long before audiences got to see it. It remains something of a surprise that the movie itself was a charming family adventure; a fish-out-of-water tale that may have not won prizes for originality, but worked as a conventional crowd pleaser in ways nobody could have expected based on that first trailer.
Released just a month before lockdown, it was the last pre-COVID blockbuster, and a case could be made that Hollywood post-COVID has been mostly preoccupied with replicating its success. If this movie flopped, would we have recently got blockbuster adaptations of everything from Mario to Uncharted?
5. Tomb Raider (2018)
The duo of Angelina Jolie movies in the early 2000s may have had the larger cultural impact, but this underrated 2018 reboot – itself adapted from 2013’s video game reboot – is quite easily the finest cinematic take on the character designed as a female Indiana Jones.
No, it’s not on the same level as the original Indy trilogy, but this world-spanning adventure does help Lara Croft escape from the shadow of that franchise, which it’s been compared to ever since its PlayStation debut. It’s a shame that a planned sequel was scrapped in pre-production, although there are high hopes for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s recently announced reboot for Amazon; after all, she has personal experience with Indy himself.
4. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)
The Pokémon cinematic oeuvre isn’t exactly an embarrassment of riches; after the initial theatrically released movies in the late nineties, there have been countless more which have struggled to find much of an audience. It’s why it’s such a surprise that it took until 2019 for Hollywood to capitalise on the multi-billion dollar media franchise – and, with the Pokémon company under the firm belief that audiences didn’t need another Ash Ketchum origin story, a bizarre spin-off game was adapted instead.
A noir adventure led by a talking Pikachu, with a visual aesthetic that imagined a Blade Runner-style dystopia populated by pocket monsters, this unlikeliest of cinematic Pokémon adventures was a crowd pleasing treat. It’s a surprise that further movies in the PCU (Pokémon Cinematic Universe) have been stuck in development hell in the four years since it premiered.
3. Silent Hill (2006)
Initially written off by franchise fans for not staying true to the source material, and by film critics for being too light in the plot department, this appropriately eerie take on Silent Hill has managed to stand the test of time. While we won’t deny that it’s light in the plot department, that simplicity is key to why it remains so unnerving; a vague mystery narrative is largely a Hitchcockian McGuffin designed to lead its protagonist into the creepiest locations you can possibly conceive of.
As a result, it doesn’t just feel like a video game forced into a screen narrative. It manages to replicate that unsettling feeling while playing a horror game, unaware of what is going to leap out at you next.
2. The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (2007)
If a biopic of a Gran Turismo player-turned-racer can be counted as a video game adaptation, then we’re counting this infectiously fun documentary as part of the genre too. After all, one of the ingredients that led to its immediate cult success was the game-style rivalry it sets up between two Donkey Kong obsessives fighting for the world title – one that, in just 79 minutes, leads to more twists and turns than several seasons of a TV show, not to mention a triumphant underdog story better than most sports movies.
More than just an affectionate look at two devoted gamers, The King Of Kong was embraced by critics for offering a complex look at what it takes to make it in America. That it could dive into this without sacrificing the crowd pleasing, broadly comic rivalry (complete with genuine boo-hiss villains!) makes it one of the most easily rewatchable documentaries of the new Millennium.
1. The Last Of Us (2023)
Where did we say this was strictly video game movies? The first season of HBO’s expansive adaptation of the acclaimed survival game immediately announced itself as the greatest adaptation of console source material within the first 20 minutes of its premiere episode, an unnerving, slow-burning dramatisation of “Outbreak Day”.
From there, the series takes pride in offering as much depth to side characters as it does Joel and Ellie, staying faithful to the source material whilst diving deeper into the machinations of its apocalyptic world and its new social order than its prior medium would allow. The sure-to-be-controversial second season can’t come soon enough.