A Look at the Strange World of Licensed Video Games

I am currently going through a video game phase of the sort. Recently, I managed to snag myself copies of Uncharted 4, the first four Devil May Cry games, and Kingdom Hearts The Story So Far. The tale of how I got to this point is a bit of a strange one too, since I mainly prefer stuff like books, movies, and anime and manga as my main sources of entertainment these days. That’s not to say I don’t play video games anymore, as I still do collect some titles I want to try out for myself every now and then, but I certainly don’t do it as much as I used to as a little kid. So, what got me into this little gaming phase I find myself in right now? It was actually a licensed video game believe it or not.

A few of you may be wondering what a licensed video game even is. Short and to the point, it’s basically a video game that is based on a pre-existing intellectual property licensed by the game’s publisher, according to a quick Google search. There have been quite a number of games throughout gaming history that fall under this category. It sounds like a match made in heaven on paper. Making video games out of very popular properties sounds like a good thing from a business standpoint, and there are quite a number of games one can make from various different properties. However, taking the definition above into account, these sort of games would end up more as mixed bags more than straight up homeruns, and many would argue that they lean more towards being bad games in general.

The most interesting time for licensed video games has to be any time before the 2000s. Not to say that the 2000s and beyond weren’t interesting for this category, but there was a huge abundance of games based on different properties at the time, to the point where they felt like they were made in a weird licensed game factory than actual development studios. I say this because back then, practically anything was made into a licensed video game, and because of this, not a lot of them were very good. There are some properties that would work extremely well as video games, but some obviously and very blatantly did not, but nobody seemed to care if the property fit well into games or not because apparently some companies felt that they could make more money simply by slapping a popular brand name on a video game cartridge and calling it a day. Thus, we got games like E.T., Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Fester’s Quest.

Now, these are just properties that aren’t suited for the video game format. Surely the properties that were able to translate well to the interactive medium would be better, right? Well, it’s complicated. Yes, it is true that some of them were better, but being better does not mean that they were necessarily good games. Games like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were both games that were bogged down not just by the movies they were trying desperately to adapt, but also the limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Keep this in mind because we will be talking more about it later, but short and to the point, these two factors heavily limited what the people actually developing the games were able to do.

Then there were some properties where developers were given more creative control over what type of game some of the properties could be. They could create absolutely anything without needing to adapt any sort of source material to a fault. As long as the spirit of something was there, they could do whatever the hell they wanted with them. However, even these sort of games had their issues, mainly when it came to deciding what the gameplay for them was going to be and how the properties would be incorporated properly into a well-executed video game format. This was present in stuff like Transformers, South Park, Superman and various other superhero properties, as well as early Star Wars video games. Despite these series being ripe for the picking and rich with gaming potential, many of them weren’t translated well due to a combination of confusion over the type of gameplay each property was suited for, along with the technical limitations of the earlier consoles.

However, there were some gems that managed to gain some popularity among many retro gaming communities. The biggest example that comes to mind for me personally are the arcade games that released for properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, and X-Men. Arcade games are pretty simple and pretty short, so these games really didn’t have much content, but they were certainly fun games to play. They managed to stick well to the properties and use the premises to the advantage of the gameplay, and even when they didn’t, they were still pretty fun to play. These are what people look back on when they think of pre-2000s licensed video games. Other examples that come to mind are the Marvel and Capcom crossover fighters and various Disney titles that are considered classics by many people nowadays.

I think we already have a good idea about how licensed games were like in before the 2000s. They were a neat concept that could legitimately make great games, but many of them sucked due to either uncertainty of what to design the games around or simply using a property that just wasn’t fit for the video game genre in the first place. So, what would the next decade bring for licensed video games? Honestly, I would have to say that the following 10 years were simultaneously better and worse than what came before. I say this because this is the time where I feel game companies were starting to incorporate more competent game design into the properties that deserved it, but at the same time, the issues that I mentioned earlier were still present, and I would even argue that there were even more games made around properties that just didn’t fit the mold, and quite possibly even less effort.

These were the years where we got games like that one terrible Aquaman game. It was the years in which we got uninteresting garbage made to cash in on popular movies like Shrek, The Bee Movie, and Chicken Little. The years where Phoenix Games would grace the world with their disturbing, incredibly boring, and highly questionable adaptations of classic stories and fairy tales. Never heard of Phoenix Games? I envy you if that’s the case. At least you never had to even look at the cover of shit like Pinocchio, Peter Pan, or Snow White and the Seven Clever Boys. I know the saying goes that one should never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes the cover is just so blunt to the point where it is indicative of the quality of certain titles,

However, like I said, there were significant improvements during this time period that lead to much more higher quality licensed titles that still continue to this day. This was the time that Kingdom Hearts was released, which would turn into a huge juggernaut of a game series that mixed Final Fantasy and Disney and garnered raving critical praise over the years. This was the time that the first Witcher game would be released to the public, leading to a series that would eventually end up arguably overtaking the original novels in terms of popularity. This was the time when Rocksteady broke out into massive success and popularity with the release of Batman Arkham Asylum, a game that is considered to still be genre defining to this day. The 2000s was the decade that showed that licensed video games could be more than just fun to play. They could be so much more and could be more than capable of standing up with even the grandest and most successful of AAA titles. All thanks to developers figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and which properties were right for the video game market.

With that, we come to the most recent decade in licensed video games, that being the 2010s, and whereas the 2000s felt like they were both an improvement and a step backwards, I would have to say that the 2010s was almost entirely a step in the right direction. Compared to decades prior, this one didn’t have that many licensed titles getting churned out left and right like bullets from a machine gun. All those terrible movie games that were rampant before? Not all that many this time. All those straight adaptations of particular properties that heavily limited what the developers could do in terms of gameplay? Almost entirely gone. Phoenix Games and their nightmare fuel? Gone. Reduced to atoms. Now, for the most part, all we are left with are companies willing to take their time with making the games, an excessive amount of creative control, and many situations where both fans and companies end up winning in the end.

Nowadays, licensed video games are treated with just as much care and polish as any other game, and the results speak for themselves. Now, we care just as much for the story of Peter Parker in Spider-Man PS4 as we do Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. The graphics of Kingdom Hearts are on par with original titles like Overwatch. Many licensed titles have online communities just as active as your average Call of Duty title, and such titles like The Witcher 3, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Kingdom Hearts 3 would end up getting nominated and at times even winning awards surrounding the game industry, including Game of the Year. You want to know how much the gaming industry actually cares about licensed games now? They are going out of their way to remake or remaster some old titles dating all the way back to the NES and arcade days for newer consoles and new audiences, and quite a handful of them have received praise from fans of the originals. Licensed games have sure come a long way from being treated like sloppy seconds to everything else.

It’s incredible watching the quality shift of licensed video games over the years just as much as it is watching new technology replace the old. I myself have played quite a fair share of them, and so I would like to do something a little different that I don’t usually do. I’m going to recommend you some licensed game properties. There are quite a number of them out there that I think are legitimately good and not just bargain bin garbage like Open Season The Video Game. So without further ado, let’s run down what I think are licensed games that I think you all should give a shot sometime if you haven’t already.

To start off simple, the LEGO games by Traveller’s Tales are a fun time whenever you play them. Some could argue that they get repetitive after playing them for too long, but honestly, it’s only really an issue if you decide to have a LEGO game marathon in my experience. On their own, each individual LEGO title offers some simple but fun gameplay, a charming sense of humor, alongside a plethora of content to unpack, especially in the later titles, and you have plenty of options for these games too. DC, Marvel, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and so on. If you’re looking for a relaxing time and in the mood for something more wholesome than usual, I would say give any of these games a shot.

The entire Marvel universe has had a far better time adapting their superheroes into fun video games. It’s not just a case of one character getting thrown into the spotlight and given all the goods like with DC and Batman, no. If you want a good Marvel video game of any kind, you have way more options than your typical Spider-Man game. You want X-Men? You got X-Men. You want the Hulk? You got the Hulk. You want the Avengers or better yet the entire Marvel universe? You bet your ass those options are available too.

As for more specific and personal recommendations, I would say you should try out Spider-Man Web of Shadows, The first two Spider-Man games developed by Beenox, the X-Men Legends games, Spider-Man on PS4, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. If you want an open world experience, Web of Shadows and the PS4 games have got you covered. The first two Beenox Spider-Man games are good if you want a more linear mission structure type of game. As for Ultimate Alliance, these are basically any Marvel fan’s wet dream. An action RPG starring characters from all over the Marvel universe? Sign me up, and if you want that but with solely the X-Men, that’s what the X-Men Legends games are for. Put on your spider mask, sharpen your adamantium claws, grab that controller, and have some damn fun.

I don’t think I have come across licensed games, anime or otherwise, that managed to adapt the stories of the original intellectual properties as much as a lot of the Naruto games. While there are certainly games that aren’t really that worthwhile, there are two game series that I would recommend, and those are the two Part 1 titles developed by Ubisoft and second, third, and fourth Ultimate Ninja Storm games. The former ones manage to turn the story of Part 1 into unique 2.5D fighters with easily the best open worlds in any Naruto game thus far, and the latter are 3D fighters that manage to capture the more explosive and darker tone of Part 2 splendidly through stylized action, an amazing art style, and a fantastic original soundtrack. Both interesting series in their own right, and when you play them both back to back, it gives off the same sense of evolution and maturity that took place from Part 1 to Part 2 in both the anime and manga versions of the story. These are Naruto games for Naruto fans through and through, and if you want to experience the story in a manner that isn’t the manga or anime, these two game series are your best options.

If I were to recommend specific Transformers titles out of the plethora to choose from, I would definitely recommend the ones developed by High Moon Studios and Edge of Reality. These games are what I would classify as the ultimate Transformers video games. 3rd person shooters with interesting campaigns, a huge variety of firearms and weaponry to choose from, and bombastic spectacle all the way through. The two Cybertron games I would recommend to fans and newcomers to the series and easily the best ones in my opinion, Dark of the Moon is short but easily the best movie game in the series, and even Rise of the Dark Spark had a good amount of effort placed into it that I think should be discussed more and not simply lambasted for being inferior to the previous games. Unfortunately, the online servers for all of these games no longer work, so multiplayer and escalation are out the window these days, but I would still recommend these games for their incredibly fun and repayable campaigns. I’m certain you won’t regret any of your time with these games.

In terms of games based around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they tend to all fall into a certain category of gaming. Many of them fall into the beat em’ up, hack n’ slash, or fighting game genre, which aren’t really the greatest sources for getting huge amounts of hours sinked into gaming. With all that said, these type of games usually don’t last above five hours at most and are mainly meant to be played for a sort of cathartic relaxation time. Much like the concept of the turtles themselves, the games don’t necessarily have to be deep to be enjoyed, and once you have that mindset in your head, I can guarantee that you will have a lot of fun playing these sorts of games as I did.

I would personally recommend four games to you if you want to check them out. Those would be Turtles in Time, The Hyperstone Heist, TMNT The Video Game, and Mutants in Manhattan. Turtles in Time and Hyperstone Heist are basically two beat em’ ups where you basically get to choose your favorite turtle and go and fight your way through the wacky locations of the original cartoon. Nothing more needs to be said, they are just short, simple, and satisfying beat em’ ups from beginning to end. TMNT is more of an action platformer where you basically go through level by level as either one turtle or all four and use the unique abilities of all four to get through the stages, both in the simple combat and actual platforming sections. As for Mutants in Manhattan, this was actually developed by Platinum Games, and while many hate it for being to simplistic for a title from them, I would still recommend it, at the very least for a rental anyway. Satisfying flashy action, fun as hell boss battles in my opinion, and a nice looking cel-shaded art style that fits the comics it was based on quite well. So yeah, these aren’t really the deepest games out there, but I would argue that they are still fun to play, and ones that I think any turtles fan should give a shot at least once.

Finally, we reach one that I’m sure everyone should have seen coming. Nothing much to say other than if you have not played any of the Batman Arkham games, do yourself a favor and play them. What else can I say about these games that haven’t already been said? Solid blend of combat and stealth, amazing aesthetics, engaging story campaigns, and lots of information on the world of Batman that will please longtime fans and newcomers alike while also feeling like it’s own thing at the same time. If you want more specific reasons as to why you should give these games a shot, there are plenty of in-depth articles and videos all over the internet you can look up. So grab your abnormally large gadgets, your cowl, put on a deep voice, and divebomb into the world of the vengeance. The world of the night. The world of the Batman.

I know that I may have missed some franchises that you guys probably wanted me to mention, but that’s what you guys are here for. What licensed games do you personally like? Which one is your favorite or least favorite? What are some interesting memories that you have with any licensed titles? Let me know in the comments down below. I just decided to make this blog post to discuss a category of gaming that I have a soft spot for in my heart. I have been playing licensed games just as much as standard video games, and I just wanted to show my love and appreciation for many of them and discuss how far this specific category managed to evolve and practically become nearly mainstream in the modern age of gaming. It’s amazing the journey that these type of games have gone through, and I am anticipating great things from them in the future.

Have a good day, take care, and thank you for your time. See you all next post.

4 thoughts on “A Look at the Strange World of Licensed Video Games

  1. My favorite thing about this article was that it had words AND pictures. I happen to enjoy pictures, but words give them context, so they are important. I used to have words and pictures of my own, but one day they were stolen from me by an evil Youtuber and I have not been the same since.

    Liked by 1 person

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