Here’s a confession that I’d prefer you didn’t share with my boss: I haven’t seen many movies this summer. Iron Man? My Lost obsession still owned my attention when the movie opened. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Long lines kept me away at first — and bad buzz scared me away thereafter. WALL-E? Been saving that for when my out-of-school kids really start driving me gonzo.
But who needs to keep current with cinema when you can just play the game? (I think I just made Martin Scorsese cry.) Indeed, movie tie-in games are big business. They also have a rep for being hastily assembled pieces of cash-in hackwork. In fact, the genre’s paterfamilias, Atari’s E.T., was such a bust it nearly crashed the industry back in 1983. Yet the medium has evolved since the wokka-wokka era; the 1997 GoldenEye 007 game is considered a masterpiece. And last month at Comic-Con, Marvel legend Stan Lee made geek-culture headlines when he declared: ”In many ways, [videogames] have gone beyond movies…. I get the feeling more work goes into these videogames than even goes into the movies.”
Encouraged, I decided to sample the recent crop of movie games — then check out the movies to see how they compared. I began with Sega’s Iron Man, adapted from the hit flick inspired by Lee’s own superhero. Score one for cinema, because this Iron Man is a lemon. With almost no setup, the poorly paced, poorly rendered game begins with the player garbed in the hero’s ugly original armor (which even the comics quickly junked) and forced to fend off generic terrorists in gloomy caves while trying to destroy their weapons stockpiles. Not exactly an exciting call to adventure. The game gets better as it progresses, but it never does what you really want it to do — something, in fact, that the movie does thrillingly well: simulate the experience of being inside Iron Man’s locked-and-loaded threads, executing challenges while multitasking repulsor rays, turbo-boosters, and bionic punches. If I were to jump to a conclusion about the movie that spawned this ”adaptation,” I’d say ”nothing special.” That isn’t true: Once I saw it, I realized that Iron Man is a total blast, and in the flesh, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance proves there are still some feats of movie magic that a PlayStation can’t reproduce.
By contrast, THQ’s WALL-E game works overtime to flatter Pixar’s fable about apocalyptic consumerism. The developers clearly went to painstaking lengths to replicate the film’s smoggy orange skies and epic urban decay, and the gameplay is inventive and rigorous. Early levels take the form of simple tests that exercise the garbage-gobbling robot’s laser and tossing mechanisms, prepping you for the puzzle tasks that follow. Even so, it too doesn’t live up to the movie. The film WALL-E engages mind and heart; the game version, just the noodle. Kudos to THQ for turning the film’s landfill landscapes into mind-bending, interactive obstacle courses, but in the words of my daughter, ”the WALL-E movie is better because it tells you what the videogame is about.” See? Linear narrative isn’t dead!
Truth is, the only movie game I’ve played this summer that actually fulfilled Stan Lee’s bold claim is Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures, a videogame theme park rendered completely in Lego iconography and built from blocks of Indy movie mythology. A visual delight that keeps you busy with madcap adventuring — digging up treasures, collecting hidden objects, sidestepping booby traps, battling baddies?this wonderfully whimsical game reminds me of the loony-‘toons fun defined by the Mario Bros. and Sonic franchises, albeit articulated in officially licensed Lucasfilm argot. When Lego Belloq shows up to steal the golden idol from Lego Indy, the defiant hero tries to placate him with…C-3PO’s head. It’s the kind of clever and wholly original communion with source material that I wish all movie games could be — and that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been. A