It’s long been common knowledge that movie licensed videogames are usually terrible. From low development periods to being limited by poor source material, there are different factors that go into making these games awful. Of course they’re not all terrible, mind you. For every E.T there’s an X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and for every Superman 64 there’s a Spider-Man 2 and finding these gems drifting among a sea of crap can often be a daunting task because there’s just so much crap.
Of course, there is one licensed game- or, should I say games, that really stand out against the others, in my opinion. You see, one of the biggest problems that movie licensed games face is that they are often limited to the source material. They often don’t take risks and creative liberty with the material and just take things from the movie and stick them in the game,turning the set pieces into playable sections as they go along. The best movie licensed games are the ones that go beyond what’s in the movie and original content to expand on the already existing base.
My favorite example of such things is the Harry Potter series of games, more specifically the first three. I won’t really be talking about the later entries in the series because they essentially dropped all that made the first three good, and also because I’ve only played the first four anyway. Developed by our old friends at EA Games, the Harry Potter games were free-roam action adventure games primarily set in Hogwarts school (and some surrounding areas.) The gameplay seemed to have taken quite a bit of inspiration from the 3D Zelda games, with the same button layout and movement such as automatic jumping when you reach the edge of a ledge. There was a range of different spells to unlock and use throughout the games, each having their own effects and bonuses that you could use while exploring the world. For this post I will be talking about the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance versions of the games because those were the versions I played. There were PC releases, but they were vastly different to the console editions.
I remember when I first got into the series. I had just received a brand-new Gameboy Advance SP for my birthday, alongside Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I loved it. The music was catchy and exploring Hogwarts and uncovering its many secrets kept me interested for hours on end. The game featured things that weren’t included in the movie such as an entire section inside Gringott’s bank and a massive, bizarre void inside Fred and George’s shop in which you had to avoid ghosts and collect beans.
A while later I purchased a Gamecube, as a self-bought birthday present. This time I got Chamber of Secrets, but this time it was in 3D! I was blown away. I was new to the idea of open world games at that time, and being introduced to the massive, sprawling environment of Hogwarts was a major eye-opener to my young self. I spent hours upon hours exploring the castle, uncovering all of the hidden passages and spells, collecting every wizard card I came across. It felt like a real sense of progression as I made my way around each nook and cranny, never quite sure if I’d already been there before and I loved every second of it.
At this point I should let it be known that I haven’t played The Philosopher’s Stone because to be honest, I wasn’t much of a gamer at that time and as a child I never felt any urge to play it.
The third game, Prisoner of Azkaban was more of the same, really but with the addition of Ron and Hermione. You still had to explore Hogwarts (though with architectural changes to fit with the movie) and there were still lots of collectibles to uncover in the castle’s twisting and hidden passages.
The fourth game, Goblet of Fire was where the series began to go downhill for me. I think EA must have believed that because of the film’s darker tone, because the game they made leaned much heavier onto the action side of the series, ditching the open world setting entirely in favor of a group of smaller levels in which there were multiple objectives to complete. Though the game looked nice visually, it felt like a massive step down from the previous games. I’ve been told that Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince returned to the open world gameplay, but I didn’t play those games so I have nothing to go on.
As an adult that has played many, many more games since then I feel like I can look back at Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban with a more critical eye. Back then I was just an excitable child who had no idea whether a game was good or bad, I just liked playing them. I’m not even ashamed to admit that I enjoyed a lot of movie-licensed games back then, even ones that weren’t very good. I feel no regret for having played those games because I felt enjoyment playing them and that’s the main thing. Looking at them now, it’s easy to see the faults in the two games. They often neglect to explain certain plot points because you are expected to have read the books or seen the films in order to know what’s going on but honestly, why would you even be playing if you don’t know the story? Graphically they haven’t aged amazingly well, with janky textures here and there, occasionally odd facial animations and poor voice acting among the main cast. The controls can be especially fiddly, with awkward jumps and unreliable auto aim. Where the games succeeded though, they really excelled. Though the graphics themselves admittedly haven’t aged gracefully, the games featured a vibrant, almost cartoonish style that really lent itself well to the whimsical and wondrous atmosphere of the early stories. Hogwarts featured both friendly and welcoming well lit corridors, alongside creepy and dark passages that were often littered with wandering ghosts and other nasty critters waiting to pounce on you.
What makes these games feel special to me is the fact that they don’t feel like an exact adaption of the movie. They feel more like their own thing, a secondary adaption to the books that exists alongside the movie, with its own atmosphere, spells and set-pieces. Of course they are movie licensed games because they were released around the same time, but that’s the way they feel to me. Its clear a lot of love and effort went into giving the games their own unique take on the franchise. The games are full of things that each contribute to the atmosphere and overall feel of them:
-The highly enjoyable and memorable soundtrack (composed by famed Elder Scrolls composer Jeremy Soule, no less!)
-The lengthy collectible sidequests (I absolutely love the fact that the developers took the time to create a card for each famous wizard complete with a mini bio!)
-Other students around Hogwarts react to you using spells on them. While their responses are limited to being verbal without any physical reactions, it’s still pretty fun running around and hitting all the Slytherins with ‘Flipendo!’ and hearing them yell in pain.
While a lot of movie licensed games feel like nothing more than shameless cash grabs, soulless products made by a company scrambling to ride on the success of a big movie release to scrape together as much profit as possible, the Harry Potter games stand out to me as videogames that have their own distinct identity. As I’ve already said, the best movie licensed games are the ones that do their own thing that adds to the baseline experience and I think Harry Potter is the best example. They may not be perfect games but they do a great job in establishing themselves as fun adventures set in a wonderful and creative universe that the developers clearly took a lot of love and care in crafting. It’s just a shame that that level of detail and care seems to have been lost in the years since then.
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