Not all licensed games are created equally. There are lots of bad licensed games that, for many, have ruined the franchises that they used to love so dearly. But lots not forget that there also lots of surprisingly great licensed games as well. The list for both sides is surely long and varied, but it seems like the game industry might be slowly bettering itself in terms of licensed games. While it will undoubtedly be a long time before a good licensed game is the norm, it’s difficult to say that they are all bad. Unlike the not so distant past, many of the best current series our medium has to offer are based on preexisting properties.
Hopefully that trend doesn’t stop. It’s hard to say exactly when it all started, but the first high-quality licensed game I can remember in relatively recent years must be Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. It was a true revelation for gaming as a whole to be able to explore a massive city with so much verticality using webs that actually reacted to the environment realistically. This marked a trend that many other superhero games were able to follow, with entries such as Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and so many others. Now with our most recently passed generation of consoles, it seemed like licensed games were at the top of many gamers’ lists of the best of all.
I challenge you to find someone that played The Walking Dead Game: Season One and didn’t absolutely love it. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City may very well go down as some of the best superhero games of all-time. X-Men Origins: Wolverine actually ended up being better than the movie it was based on and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t greatly enjoy the action RPG, Lord of the Rings: War in the North. Not to mention how great of a fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us turned out to be. Rather than simply list a bunch of good licensed games, though, instead I want to analyze why this shift has occurred.
Ultimately, it would be easy to say improved technology has allowed for a more accurate realization of the source material, but that simply can’t be the case. I have many fond memories of playing the original Batman game back on the NES, or Lion King and Aladdin on my Genesis and SNES as a kid. No, there were great games back then, so why did licensed games suddenly take a dive for the worst over the past decade? The answer can’t really be anything other than pure developer laziness.
Instead of creating unique experiences in preexisting universes (something that literally all of the games I mentioned were able to do) many of the licensed cash-in games we’ve come to know have just been poor rip-offs of the movies and characters that they’re based on. In fact, the LEGO games have been able to so perfectly hone their engine, they can crank out several quality games over the course of a couple years and no one bats an eye – because they’re actually good. There are so many more properties we would love to see the LEGO series tackle and we’ve played so many entries already.
When developers take the time to create a unique story in an existing universe, that’s where the magic happens. As much as I love the story in my favorite books or movies, I don’t necessarily want to go through the motions of rehashing that same exact plot over and over again. However, there is an extremely delicate balance at play here. If you stray too far from the source material, the experience no longer feels authentic and meaningful to fans, but if you follow the plot too closely, the experience is boring and predictable.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is set to release this week in what many hope to be the next great licensed game. However, it’s been stuck in development limbo for so long, will it just end up sucking like all the other South Park games before it? Hopefully not, but only time will tell. Let us know some of your favorite and least favorite licensed games of all-time — do you think there is hope for us yet?