As a rule of thumb, licensed games are terrible. It sounds like a huge generalization, and it is, but gamers have been burned many times over the past 40 years or so. This is a problem that has been going for as long as video games have been a thing. It is hard for a pre-existing intellectual property, be it a movie, a TV show, a book, or the odd advertisement, to make the transition to an interactive world while both keeping true to the original material and avoiding being awful. There are literally thousands of licensed games which could fit everything I have described so far.
Yet, overcoming the odds, we are sometimes blessed with a stellar licensed game which nearly redeems the whole genre. So why do producers and developers keep going back to that well? The truth is, if marketed properly to their respective fandom, a licensed game will often make a lot of money on the strength of its name alone. This is why, for example, we have so many Harry Potter games despite none of them being anything more than average.
This list will look at both sides of the coin. It would have been easy to simply list the fifteen worst licensed games of all time; after all, so many of them are dreadful. It takes a lot more work to come up with fifteen good licensed games, which is why it is so important to underline when video games adaptations have been successful.
30 WORST: You Can’t Hide, And You Can’t Even Run
Friday The 13th for NES goes wrong in several ways, but one of its most annoying feature is that its objective is so arcane, and its gameplay so difficult, that it feels like the game is impossible to finish. Maybe the fact that the game is unbeatable is a commentary on the fate of Jason’s victims, and how futile it is to even try to confront the machete-wielding boogeyman. A common session will see a player wander aimlessly through the confusing map, visiting the same two locations over and over by accident.
Eventually, you will run into Jason, and it will end badly.
The process will repeat until all of your characters have been eliminated, at which point you will thrown the thankfully very sturdy NES controller in a blind rage. The newer game seems to have finally figured out how to make a decent product out of the concept.
29 AWESOME: Nice Shootin’ Tex!
I know that the gameplay itself is probably little more than average, but as a total package, one has to consider the 2009 video game version of Ghostbusters to be a tremendous success. The attention to detail in every level and in every reference is what makes the game memorable. Actually written in parts by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, it features voice acting from all the original actors, including the guy who plays Walter Peck. You get to fight the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, which is a fantasy of most kids born in the 80s, and using the Proton Pack feels perfectly destructive. The top-notch story and voice acting elevates the serviceable gameplay above what it should have been. As a continuation of the series’ story, it’s the closest you will ever get to watching Ghostbusters 3.
28 WORST: Down For The Count
I know it’s hard to believe that The Simpsons could ever do anything wrong (ha ha ha!), but most of their video games outings have been less than stellar. In 2001, the show was arguably already past its golden age. To make sure that things would keep going south for the brand, The Simpsons Wrestling was released that year.
Wrestling was at the peak of its trendiness, so combining it with the popular TV show seems like a clear attempt at a quick cash-in by Fox.
The game itself obviously lacks any kind of polish, as it is nearly impossible to control the characters. The gameplay is incredibly lazy, as the developers couldn’t even get the wrestling part right. You must win two rounds to win a match, and it is possible to pin an opponent lying on its belly. A 2D fighting game would have been less transparent of a cash grab.
27 AWESOME: A Road Trip To Springfield, USA
If you are looking for a Simpsons game done right, the best (and possibly the only) example would be The Simpsons: Hit & Run. It plays like a competent take on Grand Theft Auto, but it’s the design of the game which truly puts it over the top. Hit & Run is a love letter to Springfield. The town is gorgeously rendered in 3D, and the map is more or less to scale, giving players a lot of freedom to drive around like maniacs and explore the universe of the TV show. All the landmarks that you would expect are there, from the nuclear plant to the Springfield sign, to the Simpsons’ trademark pink house. It’s the closest you will ever come to actually visiting the cartoon.
26 WORST: Hard To Pronounce, Hard To Like
Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi had the potential to be the ultimate Star Wars fan service in a time where such a thing was not as frequent. Most of the key characters were playable, including Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and Darth Vader. Despite the lack of Lando (who looks like he could hold his own in a fight) and Obi-Wan (who was still just known as an old man back then), it was as close as you could get to an all-star Star Wars roster before the prequels came along.
If we only look at the packaging, this game is a winner. The trouble is, it’s pretty terrible in action.
I’ll just start by mentioning that it’s a fighting game set in the Star Wars universe, and you simply cannot use The Force. Even as a regular fighting game, it just feels soft.
25 AWESOME: The Force Done Right
Before EA tarnished the name, the original Star Wars Battlefront was the game fans of the films played to live out their dreams. The sequel, Star Wars Battlefront 2, was even better than the first, improving on every aspect. More than being a simple soldier, you can now play as your favourite hero, or even become a Jedi Master and wreck your enemies with the power of The Force. More or less every planet that has ever been seen in the series is included, and all the vehicles you would expect also make it. The space battles are gigantic in proportion and epic in scope. More importantly, it’s a game that could be appreciated by yourself, without the need to play online. It’s still, to this day, the perfect Star Wars game as far as I am concerned.
24 WORST: Missing The Point
The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. But apparently, you are allowed to make sub-par games about it. This game completely forgets the message from the movie and instead tries to cash in on the craze surrounding the property. The game’s big hook is that it is supposed to be more real, with hits that will actually break bones, and stain the arena. Unfortunately, more really does not mean more exciting.
You can only throw so many straight punches before being bored.
There’s a reason why most fighting games give you fireballs. There’s one positive though: if you have ever wanted to play as Meat Loaf in a fighting game, now’s your chance. On the other hand, Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst is an unlockable character, so it’s one step forward and two steps back.
23 AWESOME: Let’s Kick Shells!
I would like to mention TMNT II: The Arcade Game, a NES classic which almost made it to this list. Instead, TMNT IV: Turtles In Time stands as the sole Turtles survivor. It is just too good to pass up. It improves on previous games by bringing the series to the 16-bit era. The big and colourful sprites are just perfect to emulate the animation of the cartoon. The fighting is crunchy, and the levels are diverse. You will take the Turtles to the time of dinosaurs, of pirates, even in the future. The enemies are tough, but fair, so finishing the game feels like a real accomplishment. Quite honestly, if it wasn’t for the quality games which accompanied the phenomenon at the time, I am not sure the Turtles would have been as big as they were for as long.
22 WORST: Bad Movie, Worse Game
If you have ever seen Catwoman starring Halle Berry, you might think that the attached game could not possibly be worse. Somehow, you would be wrong. The game is a lazy beat ‘em up with a little bit of adventure thrown in, but it’s either too easy or too broken to be worth anyone’s time.
The one aspect of the game which seems to have received any kind of effort is the poses that Catwoman takes on the pause menu.
The best way to describe this game would be to imagine Tomb Raider as if it was remade by someone who only had the game described to them, yet never played it. It’s like a dollar store version of Tomb Raider, but wearing the skin of the Catwoman film.
21 AWESOME: The Definitive Dark Knight
As the best game in the Arkham series, Batman: Arkham City gives you plenty to explore and truly makes you feel like you actually are Batman on patrol in Gotham City. Every sidekick and villain worth mentioning from the Dark Knight’s history is there too, so it feels like the definitive version of that universe. The fighting is second to none, as with just a few presses of a button, you will end up performing crazy combos and impressive techniques that will make you feel like a martial arts master. There is just so much to do in this open world game that you never quite feel like you are completely done, even as your play time gets close to three-digits hours territory. If you need even more Arkham, then the downloadable content is a great example of DLC done right.
20 WORST: A Series Of Unfortunate Decisions
The second-best Pierce Brosnan-led James Bond movie yields the worst game the franchise has ever seen. Tomorrow Never Dies was released exclusively on PlayStation in the late 90s, and it did nothing to take advantage of the system’s large user base. It features an awkward third-person camera which gets stuck every time you turn a corner.
The world feels empty and the shooting feels unnatural. It also lacks a multiplayer mode, which is baffling on many fronts.
First of all, the multiplayer mode is often the best thing about Bond games, even the bad ones such as Rogue Agent. Second, Tomorrow Never Dies is one of the few movies where Bond’s sidekick is also a spy and equally as dangerous, which would have made for a great cooperative mode. Still, the game has enough problems with its existing components that a bunch of what ifs is the least of its problems.
19 AWESOME: Just Don’t Pick Oddjob, OK?
GoldenEye 007 is not only the best James Bond game of all time, it is also probably the best shooter available on Nintendo 64. The fact that this game turned out good is a miracle by itself, as its development was famously delayed by a change of platform and a complete makeover of its engine. In the end, we got about as close as one could get to being 007 without actually being in the movie. The game has actual stealth missions, real spy objectives beyond “eliminate the target,” and a plot which follows the movie without being shackled by its plot. The game is of course also famous for its multiplayer mode, which probably sold a few consoles all by itself. I wouldn’t argue against anyone who would call it the best multiplayer game on Nintendo 64.
18 WORST: Yellow Snow
The first South Park game was produced when the show was still in its infancy, which means that the humour within is still very basic. I’m sure everyone has good memories of the first few seasons, but the truth is that they become harder and harder to appreciate when you compare them to some of the material that has been put out recently. As for the first game, it means that you fight aliens, turkeys, and other early South Park staples.
Played in the style of a first-person shooter, your weapons include snowballs, on which you can pee to make them more damaging.
The game is just the most basic of FPS, with dull environments and graphics. It just serves as an excuse to repeat the best jokes from the early episodes in a different context, so it’s extremely repetitive too.
17 AWESOME: New Kid On The Block
Well, South Park’s humour is still juvenile twenty years later, but it also has more to say, and a richer universe in which to tell these jokes. Because of that evolution, South Park: The Stick of Truth comes off more fully realized than early spin-off games from the same show. In this one, you are the new kid in town, and you get to participate in the gang’s fantasy of a Tolkien-esque world. Sure, the gameplay is great, but it’s the story which is the real attraction. Instead of simply repeating gags from the show, The Stick of Truth treats you to a brand new story and original material that if shown as a single cut-scene, would last for hours. The fact that it’s fun to play is really just a bonus.
16 WORST: Some Features May Not Appear As Shown
Advertisements as games are nothing new, but these are usually relegated to a browser-based game, or at worst, small apps that can be deleted as quickly as they were installed on your phone. Yaris instead pretends to be a full-on game, one in which Toyota offers you to pilot three different models of the titular car. The object of the game is to shoot your way (cause your Yaris has a gun on the hood) through futuristic looking environments, which when you think about it, are nothing more than grey tunnels.
Your enemies include a few motorcycle riders, some flaming tires, toasters with legs, and an MP3 player?
It sounds crazy, and it is, because none of these elements have anything to do with Toyota’s compact car. It’s like a bizarre-runner in concept, but with the fun elements replace with a Toyota dealership employee’s fever dream.
15 AWESOME: Overcoming Expectations
Like Yaris, Beetle Adventure Racing is also a blatant advertisement for a car, though it was made much earlier, and it had the advantage of at least being fun. Instead of a showcase for Volkswagen, it feels like an actual racing game where every car just happens to be a New Beetle. By the way, the New Beetle is probably the least threatening car to ever exist, with its flower on the dash and optional headlights eyelashes, but when it’s going 150 miles an hour in a dense jungle, it somehow becomes exciting to drive. The game also distanced itself from the pack by focusing on the element of exploration. Every track is filled with shortcuts, and you actually get to unlock rewards for finding them. I don’t know how if it sold any New Beetle to young gamers, but it was one of Nintendo 64’s sleeper hits.
14 WORST: Too Cheesy For Its Own Good
If you feel like there are way too many first-person shooters on the market right now, well we felt the same way about platformers in the 90s. Not only that, but every platformer had to have a cool mascot with an attitude as the main character. We had Sonic, Bubsy, Aero the Acro-Bat, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, and countless other imitators that had nothing new to offer.
Even when developers couldn’t come up with their own mascot, they just borrowed one.
And that’s how the Cheetos mascot ended up with its own game, Chester Cheetah: Too Cool To Fool. It’s as generic as games came be, with backgrounds that look like they belong in another game, and enemies which are just assorted nondescript animals. The graphics actually remind me somehow of Ren & Stimpy, which would probably have been a better game.
13 AWESOME: The Little Mascot That Could
While a cheesy snack mascot makes for a bad game, somehow, a mascot for a soft drink company starred in one of the most entertaining platformers of the 16-bit era. Cool Spot, the titular character, is nothing more than the tiny red dot from the 7-Up logo, but with sunglasses. That’s what makes him cool, you see. As a tiny dot, basically the size of a dime, you try and make your way through everyday locations. However, simple places such as the beach, or a bedroom, or a basement, become intricate mazes because you're so small. You need to explore and backtrack to find all the collectibles, and the levels are exquisitely designed. It’s not as epic, but in terms of gameplay, it’s almost like a sunnier, happier version of Castlevania.
12 WORST: Extinction Level Event
And here we have the oldest game on the list. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is so legendarily bad that hundreds of thousands of copies were buried in a landfill. It was one of the contributing factors to the video games crash of 1983.
It almost destroyed an entire business!
The game barely resembles the material it is based on. I don’t remember E.T., for example, going down a bunch of pits to find pieces of a phone, nor do I remember him being in danger of passing out if he stopped eating Reese’s Pieces. Honestly, the lack of tie-in could have been forgiven if the gameplay was any good, but it’s ugly, tedious, and impossible to finish because of the controls. Howard Scott Warshaw, the poor programmer who made this mess, was only given five weeks to bring this game from concept to completion. It’s a miracle it was even playable.
11 AWESOME: That Disney Magic
Early 90s Disney movies were on another level. The decade produced classics like The Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the subject of this entry, Aladdin. It is still surprising to me that the developers were able to recreate the visuals of the movie so faithfully on 16-bit consoles. The game follows the plot of the movie in a broad sense, but it gets inventive in some areas to fill in gaps in the action. These creative sequences are where it truly shines. The level based on the inside of the Genie’s lamp is the highlight of the entire game, as you are asked to navigate multiple layers of madness with the Genie’s face plastered all over the place. The gameplay is challenging but never cheap. The game was so lovingly made, it still holds up today.
10 WORST: Cheap Thrills
The early 2000s remake of Charlie’s Angels was far from being a classic, but it was popular enough to warrant a sequel. It also spawned a video game adaptation, and thankfully no sequels were made for this one. Charlie’s Angels is a dreadful game, which attempts to be your typical beat ‘em up but even fails at that. The action is just so, so slow, and the game includes voice acting, so it really just feels like watching the movie if all the actresses were on NyQuil.
The Angels look like ghastly clones of the real people they are supposed to portray.
All the attempts at making the game titillating, such as a level that takes place in a beauty pageant during the swimsuit portion, end up being inadvertently eerie.
9 AWESOME: No Way Out
Vin Diesel sure is an entertaining dude, but we have to admit that most of his movies fall into the “mindless entertainment” category. Chronicles of Riddick was surprisingly watchable but Escape From Butcher Bay, the game based on the movie, was an even bigger surprise. As Riddick himself, you try to escape from prison, which means that you must use stealth if you want to make it out alive, and you must improvise weapons as you go along. These mostly end up being melee weapons, and if you sneak behind your enemies’ back, they can be used to silently dispose of them. In style, and sometimes in execution, it feels like Manhunt. However, it is done so much better than it ends up fulfilling the promises that Manhunt simply couldn’t keep.
8 WORST: Cooperative Catastrophe
I am among those who actually enjoy the new Star Trek movies, but the accompanying video game is so broken that it retroactively takes joy away from the JJ Abrams reboot. Though it is supposed to be a story that bridges the gap between the 2009 film and Star Trek Into Darkness, you don’t actually learn anything that has any impact on the series. The object of the game is to show how Spock and Kirk learned to work together, so the whole experience relies on cooperative scenarios.
It’s a good idea, but the AI is so dumb that it makes the game nearly unplayable unless you have a second human player.
Even then, some levels have to be restarted not because you failed, but because your character got stuck in the scenery. When even Abrams thinks the game actively hurt the series as a whole, you know it’s bad.
7 AWESOME: In A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Though the entire series released on the Super NES could be mentioned here, I will concentrate on the first one. Super Star Wars is a great platformer which not only builds on the familiar settings from A New Hope, but also expands on them. For example, you have to fight your way through the Sandcrawler to rescue C3P0 and R2D2, and you also face the Sarlaac pit monster at the end of the first level when the creature is not seen until Return of the Jedi. These stages are a beautiful mix of platforming and shooting, and I would easily consider it in the same league as Metal Slug or Contra. Though it was released early in the Super NES’s life, it remained a highlight because it was so lovingly crafted and offered an unmatched challenge.
6 WORST: Only For Atari Jaguar
White Men Can’t Jump is a pretty good movie, and the two-on-two basketball theme is the kind of thing that translates easily to video games. Just look at NBA Jam. That’s why it’s a mystery that so many things could go wrong in the making of what seemed like a can’t-miss release.
One strange fact is that it was exclusively released on the Atari Jaguar.
The console used the game to promote their multi-tap accessory, providing four-players action at a time where it was uncommon. As far as gameplay is concerned, the game is so disjointed that it barely plays like basketball, and the graphics are a blurry mess of neon colors and poorly-defined sprites. To get a similar effect, just play NBA Jam with Vaseline smeared across your TV screen, and you might actually have some fun.
5 AWESOME: A Visit To Free Country, USA
For those who love the peculiar sense of humour of the Homestar Runner web cartoons, your perfect game already exists: Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People was created by Telltale Games, and plays like most of their other releases. The difference is that the game, released in five chapters, seems to always up the madness with each subsequent chapter. You get to participate in a battle of the bands, ruin Homestar’s life, and of course, you eventually come face to face with the infamous Trogdor The Burninator. It’s like a greatest hits version of the series, with new materials thrown in to keep everyone happy. It’s as funny and impressive as anything else The Brother Chaps have put out over the years.
4 WORST: A Game Based On A Movie Based On A Game
Street Fighter 2 is a great game. Street Fighter: The Movie is objectively bad, but gets better depending on your appreciation of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s body of work. Street Fighter: The Movie’s game adaptation is probably the worst thing to ever have the venerable series’ name attached to it. It’s a fighting game all right, but that’s where the similarities with its source material end. It features digitized versions of the movie’s actors, so it actually plays more like Mortal Kombat.
You get to fight as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue, which could have some novelty value.
However, their movements are so stiff that there is no enjoyment to be found. The game also leaves out Dhalsim and Blanka, who have prominent roles in the movie, but features Sawada, a character with one line of dialogue, and adds Akuma, who wasn’t even part of the film. It’s bad.
3 AWESOME: Around The World On A Pogo Stick
I never particularly enjoyed Ducktales as a cartoon, as I never quite connected with the adventures of an exceedingly rich duck and his nephews. The NES adaptation, on the other hand, was such a good game that I was able to look past its source. Ducktales is a classic platformer which distinguishes itself because it is short, but extremely challenging. The game can be cleared in less than an hour and features only five levels, but if you want the best ending, some of them will need to be revisited to find the secret treasures. It’s a game so good that it received an HD remaster from Capcom a few years ago, including new voice acting from most of the cartoon’s original cast. How many games based on a cartoon can claim to have this kind of legacy?
2 WORST: Superman’s Shame
Superman 64 is definitely the worst game on Nintendo 64, possibly the worst video game of all time, and without a doubt the worst thing to ever happen to Superman. Having rented up one time too many as a teenager, I can say with confidence that there are absolutely no redeemable qualities to this flaming pile of garbage. The city of Metropolis seems to be surrounded by a permanent fog, the color of which changes from time to time.
It leaves the impression that the game takes place in the middle of a toxic spill.
The flying missions, where Lex Luthor somehow forces Superman to fly through rings for no real reasons, are repetitive and frustrating because of the unresponsiveness of the controls. Quite frankly, the game is just downright ugly to look at, and it also happens to play as bad as it looks.
1 AWESOME: Handheld Treasure
Surprisingly, one of the best side-scrolling action games of all time was a Game Boy Advance exclusive, and it also happened to be a licensed game. How is it possible? Astro Boy: Omega Factor is based on a manga that has been running since 1959, and which first became an anime in the 60s. Despite the material having a lot of history, the game feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s full of in-your-face action, with flash colors and non-stop waves of enemies rushing towards the player. It was developed by Treasure, who also created classics like Gunstar Heroes, Sin & Punishment and Ikaruga, and their trademark relentless gameplay is once again on display. Despite being released on a portable console, it showcases gorgeous sprites and environments. If you enjoy beat ‘em up games, you owe it to yourself to try this gem.