Licensed games have typically been bad. So bad, in fact, that you may have a sour taste in your mouth just from reading the two words “licensed games” just now.
The worst licensed games are the ones hastily thrown together to capitalize on a given franchise’s popularity.
In recent years, though, licensed games have gotten better.
No longer is it a given that a game will be bad just because it’s based on a popular media property. In fact, we’ve even seen some fantastic games based on popular media licenses recently.
Let’s take a dive into the history of licensed video games, why they’ve traditionally been terrible, how licensed video games are changing, and what the future holds.
The First Licensed Video Games
The first licensed video game was Death Race, an arcade game based on the movie Death Race 2000.
As for home gaming systems, the first licensed games were Tron: Deadly Discs and Tron: Maze-a-Tron, both of which were released for Mattel’s Intellivision.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, relased in 1982 for the Atari 2600, was the first home console game that was licensed directly from a movie rather than a media franchise. But this one was overshadowed by another high-profile movie-to-game title…
ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, released in the same year, isn’t so much famous as it is infamous. It’s remembered as a game so awful that Atari buried thousands of unsold copies in the desert.
Licensed Games for NES, SNES, and Genesis
During the Atari era, licensed video games differed wildly in format and genre, depending on what was licesned.
But then came the era of the NES, the SNES, and the Sega Genesis, when pretty much all licensed video games were sid-scrolling action-heavy platformer games.
Sometimes this worked out well. Disney’s adaptations of The Lion King and Aladdin, for example, were great whether you played them on the SNES or Genesis.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers for the NES wasn’t bad either. But the NES’s licensed games were pretty terrible overall.
Fester’s Quest had almost nothing to do with The Addams Family and wasn’t much fun regardless, while The Adventures Of Gilligan’s Island was based on a sitcom that was roughly 25 years old when the game was made.
Even Worse With 32-bit/64-bit Systems
Aside from a few gems like Super Mario 64, the games of the early 3D era were fairly rough compared to what we see now.
After all, this is the period of games like Superman 64, a contender for “one of the worst video games ever made.” And while plenty of this era’s video games were terrible, it was the licensed video games that were the worst offenders.
The worst part is how clunky the controls were. Nobody had yet figured out how the camera in a 3D game should work, meaning it was tough to see where you were going most of the time.
And so we got some of the clunkiest of licensed video game cash-ins, like The Simpsons Wrestling which made no sense and played horribly, and Rugrats: Scavenger Hunt which was snoringly slow.
Sure, the era also gave us amazing memories in games like Goldeneye 007, but try playing that game again now. You’ll be quite disappointed by how poor the controls feel.
The Rise of Good Licensed Games
It wasn’t until the PlayStation 2 took hold that we started seeing some worthwhile licensed video games.
For example, the Lord of the Rings games for the PS2 (the ones based on the movies, not the ones based on the books) were kind of short but plenty good.
And there’s also Spider-Man 2 for the PS2. There had been countless attempts at superhero games before this—and many of them failed—but Spider-Man 2 surprised everyone by how good it was. Like, really good.
Things continued to look up and took us to new heights with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, starting with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum.
That game was not only shockingly good for a licensed video game, but it was groundbreaking in its own right with its innovative combat system design that’s still used today.
For example, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor—also another great licensed video game—uses a style of combat gameplay that was pioneered in Arkham Asylum.
Sony returned to the Spider-Man series with Marvel’s Spider-Man (on the PS4) and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (on the PS4 and PS5), both excellent games based on the license.
Even Marvel’s The Avengers, which fumbled in some areas, is still a far better game than the licensed video games of old.
The Future of Licensed Video Games
Game development has never been cheap or easy, but today’s AAA games with big budgets are more expensive and time consuming to create than ever before.
This means it isn’t as easy to shovel licensed video games out the door, at least to the same degree that we saw before, if only because companies just can’t afford to do it anymore.
What does this mean for us?
Well, on one hand, it means we can expect to see more high-profile disasters like CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 (itself a licensed video game, except based on a tabletop game).
On the other hand, debacles like that mean that developers and publishers will hopefully be more careful when it comes to their game development projects and timelines. Oh, we can hope.
In short: If you’re a fan of licensed video games, you’re in luck because the ones we’re going to get from here on out are probably going to be better and better.