Opinion: Mario and the Perils of Modern Video Game Movie Adaptations

Mario is about to give Hollywood another try, but the landscape for video game movie adaptations is much tougher to navigate than it was in 1993.

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I'm still having some trouble wrapping my head around the news that I'm seeing another Mario movie in my lifetime. I still remember the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie, the one that had the honor of being the first video game movie adaptation ever made.

More than that, it was the first video game movie adaptation that was also terrible.

It was a notorious flop. It was a big disappointment to anyone expecting any kind of faithful adaptation to the source material, but more than that, it failed as any kind of entertaining movie. The script was cringe-inducing, the acting was terrible, and the effects were laughable. With that kind of legacy behind it, I was genuinely surprised that Nintendo would open one of its premier mascots for a second tour of duty in Hollywood.

Seeing the name "Illumination" has given me some reason to be cautiously optimistic. Whatever opinion one may have about the oversaturation of the Minions, there's no denying that the Despicable Me movies have been enjoyable entertainment for kids and for many adults. Aside from a couple of stinkers (Hello, Hop!), Illumination's projects have been acclaimed by critics and moviegoers alike, with box office receipts to reflect their quality. So Illumination should be able to hit a home run with Mario, right?

Not necessarily.

As time has gone on, making a good video game adaptation has become a much tougher task. It's mostly because of the evolution of the video game medium itself. In the days of the original Super Mario Bros. movie and subsequent adaptations, like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and... sigh... Double Dragon, video game narratives were mainly conveyed via text. There was a quick cutscene at the start with a simple objective, like "Go save the princess" and the player was off and running. But for the most part, a game's backstory was left largely to the player's imagination. Games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past featured one of the most epic stories in games, even to this day, but much of it wasn't told strictly via cutscenes or animated sequences. Imaginitive players filled in the blanks in their own minds. Or if they were really interested in the full narrative, they could check out the game's instruction manual.

The Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie from 2001 came out in a bit of a sweet spot period. Cutscenes were in their infancy, so there was a certain thrill in seeing Angelina Jolie take on the role of Lara Croft and shoot at bad guys while exploring dangerous ruins. But over the past couple of generations, video game cutscenes and storytelling has hit such a point that making a video game adaptation is now a more perilous task than ever.

Let's put it this way. If a movie strays too far from its source material, it's another Super Mario Bros. It's something that's both disappointing to fans and baffling to average moviegoers. But now the issue is that if it stays too close to the source material, then the hardcore fan might as well stay home and play the game. And most times, the movie's plot will still be baffling to average moviegoers.

The biggest example of this is 2016's Warcraft. This is Azeroth come to life. It sows the seeds of the Alliance vs. the Horde. It's every Warcraft fan's favorite characters on the big screen. The problem is, for those hardcore Warcraft fans, all of it treads old ground. There's nothing here that they haven't seen in one of Blizzard's gorgeous CGI cinematics. And for the non-Warcraft fan, there's so much exposition and fan service thrown their way that they grew confused and started to tune out.

The same principle can also be applied to 2016's Assassin's Creed movie. God help the poor non-gamer who wanted the faintest idea of what was happening with the Animus and Abstergo and what the point of any of it was.

It's no longer enough to deliver a cinematic experience that gamers feel they can get at home with the source material itself. I felt this was the problem with 2016's Ratchet & Clank movie. I went into theaters greatly anticipating this story, but walked out of the theater thinking I could have gotten the same thing out of a Ratchet & Clank game, with a lot of satisfying gameplay to boot. That's the peril of perfecting the cinematic experience inside a video game: Those fans no longer need to see the video game hit the big screen. And yet, it could potentially happen again with this year's Tomb Raider movie, which looks like the same exact Tomb Raider story that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics told in the 2013 reboot.

So where does all of this leave the Mario movie? With creator Shigeru Miyamoto helping co-produce the project, there's no need to worry about a repeat of 1993. This one should definitely be closer to the source material. But this is where the Mario series' more minimalistic approach, in terms of storytelling, may work in its favor. The Mario games were never so much about plot and exposition in the same way that Warcraft and Assassin's Creed were. The games were more about platforming, power-ups, and the spectacle of new worlds.

It's much more possible to create an experience unique to the big screen. There's more story potential to Mario than one might assume from the simplistic "Save the princess" narrative. It should be easier to create something that won't have hardcore fans going "Well, I could have just played this at home on my Switch." And Mario is enough of a household name that the average Joe should be able to follow along with any plot without feeling like they're getting left behind for the hardcores.

That's not to say there aren't elements of Mario lore that should help inspire the upcoming movie adaptation. But that's a story for another day.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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