Nov 2 2012 10:30am

11 Essential Video Game Movies

11 Essential Video Game Movies

With Wreck-It Ralph poised to bring video game-related inside jokes to a whole new level on the big screen, I figured it’s a good time to look at which video game movies define and create this specific niche genre. Whether it be 8-bit classics, or wacky cinematic gaming creations, good movies or bad movies, here are 11 films essential to understanding the phenomenon of video games adapted for the screen. 


11 Essential Video Game Movies

11. Street Fighter

Hey, what’s your favorite video game movie featuring Kylie Minogue? What? Don’t have one? Okay, we’ll give you this one for free: Street Fighter, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme! (Yes, that hyphen is in the right place.) Like Mortal Kombat, the inevitability of Street Fighter getting made into a movie was pretty much on par with a Spice Girls reunion: it was only a matter of time. There’s something charmingly 90s-ish about this movie, an era where action movies seemed more willing to be cartoonish. Its faithfulness to the video game is astonishingly low, but then again, I’ve always taken a bit of an issue with Street Fighter’s faithfulness to its own premise: do any of these people truly look like they came from the streets? The knife-wielding dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” have more street cred than this cast of characters.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

10. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Perhaps the most controversial and beloved video game heroine of all time, Lara Croft was bound to get some kind of Hollywood treatment if only because of the widespread gamer obsession with her and all of her darn tomb raiding. It also would have been sort of insane had anyone other than Angelina Jolie been cast in the lead role, but a weird little tidbit we tend to forget about these movies is that Mr. Daniel Craig is here, too, as Jolie’s right-hand man.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a movie now in which Craig would be Jolie’s second fiddle, but behold! It exists! Beyond introducing us to Daniel Craig and having Jolie do exactly what you’d expect her to do in a movie like this, the question remains: does it do anything else? Does it hold up as an adaptation to a video game people like and as a movie, too? I’d say time will not be kind to Lara Croft, as she seems to represent an outdated take on the idea of kick-ass females. As for the movie? It’s kind of fun, if only for the novelty of seeing both Jolie and Craig in roles that they’ve grown way beyond, on Hollywood's seriousness scale.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

9. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

One could describe Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within as a great experiment, insofar as it attempted to mainstream the idea of a serious feature-length live-action movie depicted entirely by CGI graphics. This was a natural extension of cut-scenes from games around the turn of the millennium, which got better and better at depicting CGI people and environments, and the audaciousness of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has to at least be acknowledged and commended. How do you adapt a super-popular and extremely complicated roleplaying game series into a mainstream movie?

Because this movie was directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi—the creator of the Final Fantasy series—it may be the purest video game movie of all time. For 2001, the CG characters look fairly realistic, and the cast, ranging from Ving Rhames to James Wood to Alec Baldwin, hardly lacks Hollywood cred. The only thing you can really say negatively about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is that it doesn’t quite become a film but instead firmly remains a big-budget, star-studded cut-sequence. But maybe that’s what a video game movie is supposed to be...


11 Essential Video Game Movies

8. WarGames

The idea that video games desensitize young people to actual violence might be up for debate, but WarGames focuses right in on the issue, depicting the joy behind playing a game that you think is fake, but would have terrible consequences in real life...such as launching a nuclear strike. There’s something novel and Twilight Zone-esque about the premise, in which a hacker starts playing a game and then ZING, it’s not a game, it’s DEFCON 1! But, as much as it’s lauded, I always find War Games to be a better movie to think about in theory than to actually watch. On this list of video game movies it doesn’t really seem like it would necessarily appeal to people who truly love video games, but at the end of the day it is a good movie.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

7. Super Mario Bros.

Though this is probably one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, if you were to describe its premise to me without the cultural context of knowing it was a Mario Bros. movie, I’d think it sounded awesome. An alternate universe were intelligent dinosaurs are living? And they’ve kidnapped a princess?! Yes please! Also, despite its badness, the cast is sort of amazing. In terms of Dennis Hopper playing a bad guy, there’s an argument to be made for a direct tie between his psychotic turn as King Koopa in this movie and his villainously insane portrayal of Frank in Blue Velvet. Come to think of it, what would a Blue Velvet video game be like?


11 Essential Video Game Movies

6. Resident Evil

Alien anthropologists from the future will doubtlessly conclude that shooting zombies in the head with a shotgun was a national pastime of the United States of America. And while it’s hard to pick one epicenter of zombie-mania in pop culture, the Resident Evil video games certainly controlled a good amount of shambling undead enthusiasm for good period of recent history. While the longevity of the Resident Evil movie series remains somewhat baffling (check out a great recap on Red Letter Media here) the low-budget and exploitation-film quality of the first movie isn’t unwatchable. Who is being exploited? Poor Milla Jovovich? Perhaps, but I’d say the zombies are even bigger victims. To be honest, if forced to choose between sexy-lady flicks based on video games, I think I’d take Resident Evil over Tomb Raider any day.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

5. The Wizard

You can either look at this as a shameless plug for the original Nintendo gear (which it is) or you could view it as the video-game version of Rain Man. I mean, there is something sort of charming (and disturbing?) about an autistic video game wizard, right? Doesn’t this movie tell all the kids out there they can  be that good at video games, particularly if they can shell out for the Nintendo power glove? Certain cult classic films are cinematic ouroboros where your opinion of the movie keeps shifting, causing the relative goodness/badness to be devoured by the paradox of the movie’s existence...Mac and Me is like this, too. And as much as I love Fred Savage, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to reconcile how to feel about this movie in my mind.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

4. Mortal Kombat

The staff here at has an unabashed soft spot for Christopher Lambert, and there’s no real good rational reason beyond his presence to actually watch this movie. Obviously, there’s a certain thrill every teen and pre-teen in the 90’s had in response to seeing live-action incarnations of the various kombatants of Mortal Kombat. But does Mortal Kombat the movie make any sense? No, but the game doesn’t really either, so it really comes down to what you enjoy more: making your friend experience a fatality via a video game controller OR listening to Christopher Lambert’s creepy/hilarious laugh. Personally, we’ll take the laugh any day.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

3. The King of Kong

Were you aware there is a real life organization called Twin Galaxies, which keeps track of high scores on arcade games? I don’t think any list of video game movies could really be complete without this one. This documentary about a man trying to topple the reigning high score on the Donkey Kong arcade console is absolutely awesome. If you’re unfamiliar with video game nuts, the movie will blow you away. If you ARE familiar with video game nuts, the movie will still blow you away. Why Donkey Kong? How does it all shake out? Does Steve Wiebe take the title from Billy Mitchell? Why is Billy Mitchell so fiercely protective of this title? Grab this great documentary and find out.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

2. The Last Starfighter

In the grand scheme of science fiction, I tend to feel like every original idea has been done before in some way, shape, or form. But, for all of its kitschy borrowing from the aesthetics of other 80s movies, I can’t really knock the originality of the premise of The Last Starfighter. Briefly: an awesome arcade game about a spaceship taking on an entire armada ends up being a recruitment device for a real space fighter organization in need of hotshots.

This movie also gets extra props for having all the space action look like an extra-realistic video game. Did it look realistic? No! It looked like a video game, but it was still awesome. The movie also wins points for thinking though the science fictional consequences for the young guy who suddenly leaves his trailer park to go to space. What would happen? Well, they’d leave behind a “beta-unit” clone which would serve as target practice for the Bounty Hunters. Tragic!


11 Essential Video Game Movies

1. Tron

There will probably never be a better video game movie than Tron, if only because its premise was way ahead of its time and because it was coupled with an aesthetic that is so bonkers that it ends up being totally charming. The idea that computer programs are sentient and “believe” in the idea of users is just plain awesome. Add to that the idea that their belief in real humans is suppressed (by David Warner, no less!) Only a video game designer and a guy who writes security programs can save the virtual world, which by extension will save the real world: You can’t ask for a bigger shout-out to hardcore nerds than that. Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner are both young, skinny, and sexy and even though the special effects aren’t “cool,” they are still recognizably Tron-ish, to this day. For me, Tron created its own vocabulary of what a video game movie could do, and there’s really nothing quite like it. You can read my gushing about it even more over here.


11 Essential Video Game Movies

Bonus Level: Wing Commander

So, in the 1990s there was a series of computer games called Wing Commander. They were all about space pilots dogfighting with cat-people in space. When the games got fancy, Mark Hamill portrayed the player’s main character during cut-scenes, Thomas F. Wilson (Biff!) played your wingman, and Malcolm McDowell played the Admiral who ran everything.

But when they decided to make real movie out of it, did they cast these amazing nerd-tastic SF staples? Nope! Instead, Christopher Blair was played by Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Maniac was played by Matthew Lillard. Now, surely they could have gotten Malcom McDowell to play Admiral Tolwyn, right? Nope. For some reason, in the movie it’s inexplicably David Warner. Wing Commander represents to me a confounding example of the cast of a video game being way more legit than its movie adaptation, at least for the supposed target audience.

So that’s the list, but be sure to check back in all next week when we’ll be paying tribute to a few of these movies, and some additional favorite old school video game movies, throughout the week!

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for and is really bad at video games.

A.J. Bobo
1. Daedylus
Interesting choices, Ryan. You've got some really good stuff here, and some stuff that is so bad it deserves the MST3K treatment.

I had a group of friends that I went to the movies with in high school. After I convinced everyone that we should go see Street Fighter one weekend, I was banned from picking our movie for the next few months. Awful, awful movie. And that picture of Raul Julia as M. Bison is really freaking me out.
Steve Hussey
2. deihbhussey
Can't believe you have Spirits Within in there but left off Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. That one fit as a continuation of VII perfectly. The characters where spot on as well as the maneovers. I know the animation in Spirits Within was supposed to be state of the art at the time, but the story was utter dross!
3. NickM
I have to say I'm surprised Silent Hill didn't make the list. I thought it was a good film, visually interesting and far better than some *cough*SuperMarioBrothers*cough* that made your list.
4. Mouette
As a movie about a video game (albeit one that doesn't yet exist, and hopefully never will), I would have thrown Gerard Butler's Gamer into the mix.
5. tigeraid
Silent Hill remains the best video game movie ever made. It's certainly not perfect, which says a lot about video game movies, but it's really friggin' good. I'll put Resident Evil a close second.
6. C Oppenheimer
You forgot to mention Ginger Lynn Allen in Wing Commander 3. A pornstar in a video game?!?
7. Sanagi
The really baffling thing about Street Fighter is they included all these shout-outs and explanations and revelations that only fans would care about, and screwed the pooch on every single one.

In my mind, there's a continuum between Street Fighter, where pointless plot detours inform us that Dhalsim is a mad scientist who created Blanka, and X-Men, where when Wolverine punches a guy, it makes a CLANG sound, and I'm overjoyed because a simple sound effect shows that they cared enough to get the details right.
8. Megpie71
"Spirits Within" was very much the warm-up for Square Enix when it came to Final Fantasy movies. The finished product was "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children" (which was, incidentally, the first indication of a heap of new product out of the FFVII plotline, as it got swiftly followed by "Before Crisis", "Crisis Core" - both prequels - and "Dirge of Cerberus", which, like AC was an actual sequel to the main game plotline). Advent Children is, to my knowledge, the second full-length CGI feature which has actually been produced by a game company (and apparently some of the early work on AC was used to create the PS3 demo shots, which have been so very responsible for the ongoing rumour that FFVII is going to have a re-release someday with updated, Advent-Children quality graphics) and the impression I get from going through the commentary is that the corporate feeling about it was "yeah, we've done this, but don't expect any more; we're a game company, not a film studio".

I'd be putting up Advent Children as a good effort at getting gameplay into the constraints of a real-time film environment, and also at solving the gameplay/plot loopholes. For example, they do some rather interesting stuff with various Limit breaks for various characters (we see at least two of Cloud's limits, and one each from Barret and Tifa; we sort-of see one of Vincent's, although I'm more inclined to put what we see down as a combination of Vincent's Turk background and a couple of well-timed Haste and Confuse spells), and the Summon visuals for Bahamut-SIN are brilliant (pity we don't get to see some of the other summons - I'm curious as to how Choco-Mog would have looked in the situation). But they did a lot of good work to change a turn-based, static combat system into something that works well in the dynamic and mobile situation of a cinematic environment.

About my only complaint with the whole film is that Steve Burton voicing Cloud Strife has a rather Shatner-esque delivery, although I've a suspicion this is more an artifact of dubbing English over Japanese mouth movements.
Melissa Shumake
9. cherie_2137
i watched the king of kong with my boyfriend a couple months back, and man, i knew people could be obsessive, but those folks seriously take it over the top. i will admit though, while i was somewhat repulsed by billy mitchell, the way the story was told totally drew me in. pretty great documentary, really.
10. Kenny Cross
Wing Commamder IV is still my all-time favorite PC game. With the awesome cut scenes (started in Wing Commander III and continued on through to Wing Commander: Prophecy) and multiple different endings depending on how you played, still my favorite. When I heard there was gonna be a movie I lept out of my skin! All I could think of was that it would naturally have Mark Hamill in it along with the rest of the actors. But no!!! I really don't understand it especially since Chris Robers the director was the creator of the Wing Commander series! What the heck! It was long after the movie came out that I actually saw it. I was shall we say underwhelmed.

But being an old fart, WAR GAMES should be number #1, the true classic of video game movies. I was in high school when it came out. Who didn't want to hack into the school's computer to change their grades after seeing that movie. Not on my apple ii plus at least. Although I would accept THE LAST STARFIGHTER as #1, number #2 aint bad. I never liked TRON when it was first released. The only thing I loved about TRON was when my friends and I would wait in line for Space Mountain at Disneyland one of us would save our place while the rest of us dashed inside into the arcade next to Space Mountain and play TRON the video game on the botton floor when they had about 8 Tron game machines and video monitors above the games showing the current game in progress.

Good times.
JS Bangs
11. jaspax
I loved The King of Kong, but it should be pointed out that the plot was broadly argued to be a fabrication. The filmmakers cut together events out of order in order to create the impression of a much more dramatic conflict than actually existed, and making it seem like Wiebe got screwed out of holding the high-score record, when in fact he held it for several years. The response to the controversy from Twin Galaxies is very eye-opening---but alas it seems to have disappeared from the internet. Wikipedia has a very short summary:
12. Felix Gill
On War Games:

Its a movie based on fact. My junior year at college I was taking a software engineering class taught by an ex-air force programmer. This was tauted as a lesson in reprecussions. Sometime ago and still today parts of the control systems for nuclear launches is controled by an AI. There was a concern where we raised one level of Defcon because of confusion if the AI 'knew' it was only a simulation.

All similarities end there however. There was no million games of tic tac toe played or anything as abstract as that. I thought he was making it up to prove a point to a class of geeks that would know the movie reference.... then around mid terms when I actually opened the book and did my reading's there it was in the text. OO

His other major lessons was that sometimes bad coding can lead to people dieing. And the US unfortunately lost soldiers and a few civilian causualties were caused by errors in code.

Computer Science is a heck of a drug :-)
13. wolfkin
*reads between the lines*
so you're telling me Tron is the reason we got Reboot? man I really need to watch this Tron

Boo the Mortal Kombat hesitancy. I loved MK when it came out and I love it now just as much as The Wizard... well maybe not just AS much. After all The Wizard not only premiered Super Mario Bros 3 but it also showed how to get the warp whistle. There's literally no way you could get bigger than that today. Games today a) don't have those kinda of killer awesome secrets and b) would never give first look to a movie like that.
14. Kaleidoscopio
I find it odd you havent mentioned Double Dragon.
It was bad, but still way better than Mario.
And it was the most played game in the arcades around 1987/88.
15. fragrant elephant
Am I the only person who liked Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within? Very well then!

I agree that the original Tron should be number one. That movie blew my mind when I saw it last year before going to see Tron: Legacy.

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