Video games were becoming more mainstream in the 1990s. A larger number of households had a console at home, and people were still flooding into arcades.
As video games continued to gain popularity, moviemakers looking to capitalize on the biggest hits started writing scripts.
The results were awesome. And I mean “awesome” in both the modern and medieval ways.
Some of them were cool because you could see your favorite video game characters on the silver screen with all-new stories. Other video game movies were so bad that they should have never seen the light of day.
Now, I’m not going to rate these games for their contributions to cinema or anything like that. You won’t find any award-winners here. The best movies made an effort to appeal to the audience without insulting them or the games they are based on.
The worst movies were the travesties that tried to ring a few bucks out of video game lovers and failed at even that.
We’re going to take a look at five of the best and five of the worst video game movies from the 90s to see what the film industry got right and what they did wrong.
Best: Mortal Kombat (1995)
Mortal Kombat arrived in theaters when the frenzy over the titular fighting game was at its height. When the news of this movie’s arrival spread across the playground at my school, kids went nuts. People were spreading rumors and using their toys to reenact fights— it was a madhouse.
The movie was a live-action adaptation of a video game that vaguely followed the meager storyline from the first game. The casting was good for some characters (Shang Tsung was the best, by far) and not so good for others (The Highlander was a weird choice for Raiden).
The visual effects were not great for the time, but that didn’t stop me from loving Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s special moves. Some of the fights were pretty neat, like Kano and Sonya, and others were a little off the mark, like Goro and Johnny Cage.
As far as films go, this one was palatable as a second-rate effort, but you can tell that the production team actually cared enough to look at the video game before starting. The film was one of the first good entries into live-action video game movies.
Worst: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
Not only is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation probably the worst video game movie from the 90s, it might just be the worst thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The story was bad. The “Raiden becomes a mortal” storyline was bafflingly stupid and only furthered an embarrassingly convoluted plot.
Some of the worst scenes include every single one with Sindel and the final battle with animalities.
The new crop of characters mostly looked bad and they somehow acted worse. The only thing that makes this movie worth watching is when you realize that the guy playing Shao Khan was Buffalo Bob in Joe Dirt. The movie is that bad.
Best: Pokémon: The First Movie (1998)
Pokémon mania was reaching a fever pitch when this movie was released. We had the first generation games, cards, toys, cartoons, and the promise of the second generation game in the works.
The film started with a short episode that featured only Pokémon, including Marill. The rumor mill insisted that this was really Pikablu and that it would play a huge role in the next generation. Oh, to be stuck in the 90s with practically no way to explore such rumors.
The movie itself was very good. We finally got a story involving the two heavy-hitters, Mew and Mewtwo. The action was cool and the inclusion of so many Pokémon made the film a delight for people that were new to the series.
The film dropped some pretty heavy lines, too. For example: “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”
The movie gave us a lot to love, and I can’t find a whole lot to complain about, but that’s definitely the nostalgia talking.
Now that we climbed to the peaks of video game movies from the 90s it is time to take a header and go far in the opposite direction.
Worst: Super Mario Bros. (1993)
I want to be really clear with this one. This isn’t like pineapple pizza or Nickelback. I’m not just hating on this movie to hate it and add it to the list. This movie sucked.
Why was it one of the worst? Well, if you want to look at where the trend of terrible live-action video game movies started, this is patient zero (at least in Hollywood). So, Super Mario Bros. loses points in my book for original sin.
This movie sucked so bad that we are lucky that any other production company in Hollywood or Japan didn’t just back out of this subgenre entirely.
The story is a garbage fire. Seriously, go read the synopsis and marvel at the sheer gall it took to produce the script.
Another thing I didn’t like about the film was the personification of President Koopa and his underlings. That was such a weird and poorly executed aspect of the film that I had to sit back and laugh a bit. Who thought this could be good?
Best: Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994)
I grew up in a Mortal Kombat household, but Street Fighter was still a great series. This movie took the characters from the game and gave them an interesting story that didn’t stretch past the point of believability.
Guile was trying to take revenge on M. Bison, Ryu was dodging Shadowlaw as they wanted to control his mind like they did Cammy, and Chun Li is an Interpol agent trying to make sense of the whole thing.
The story wasn’t revolutionary, but it made sense given the rather barebones story available to the creators. By the time this movie hit the shores of the U.S., it had been updated with contemporary music that made the fight scenes pop a little more.
The movie was fun and predictable, but it did a lot better than some live-action video game movies that tried too hard and failed. Speaking of such live-action films, the ending teased the release of a Street Fighter film that starred the incomparable Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Worst: Street Fighter (1994)
I guess the lack of controversy surrounding the game compared to Mortal Kombat made a live-action version of Street Fighter somewhat palatable to movie-makers. Unfortunately, they bungled the process.
Street Fighter did just about everything wrong in terms of casting, story, special effects, and trying to keep the cheese factor a little low. The movie constantly struggled between not taking itself too seriously and giving Guile heroic speeches to up the ante.
The movie did two things right. One was casting Raul Julia as M. Bison. His character didn’t resemble anything close to the video game character, but we were gifted with some crazy acting and lines like:
“For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday”.
The other thing the movie did right was to have a relatively short running time.
Best: Sonic the Hedgehog the Movie (OVA) (1996)
The Sonic the Hedgehog games were always some of my favorites, and they helped keep the Sega Genesis in the fight for console supremacy in the 16-bit era.
The chance to see Sonic in a movie, actually an OVA, was very interesting to me. The movie included Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Dr. Robotnik, and more. The story was standard anime fare— go save the day and use lots of faster-than-sight cuts to do it.
Still, we got to see the world of Sonic brought to life as he fought through challenge after challenge including several callbacks to the game.
The movie did have a weird feeling to it since it was an anime at a time when, like many people in the U.S., I was still unfamiliar with the style and conventions. Other than that, it was enjoyable and a good reflection on the video game series.
Was it enough to turn the tide in the ongoing battle between Mario and Sonic? Probably not, but it was still cool.
Worst: Wing Commander (1999)
Taking a very good video game, commercializing it for broad appeal, and releasing it as a video game movie in the 90s seemed like a good idea. Wing Commander offered yet another piece of contrary evidence.
The cast wasn’t bad, either. You had Freddie Prinze Jr. from I Know What You Did Last Summer along with Matthew Lillard from Scream. Maybe the signs were there in the beginning. Just kidding, the actors were fine but the script was not.
The story had some similarities to the game in that there was the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire along with some young guns looking to save the day. Like many other movies of the time, the film glossed over the story and dug in deep for the action and burgeoning romance.
The special effects were awful and have the tendency to pull you out of what little immersion the movie can provide. I understand that the budget for this movie was relatively small at $30 million, but it looks like it was made for TV.
Best: Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (1999)
Yes, it was released in Japan in 1999, so it made the list for the 90s, so it’s staying on the list as a palate cleanser from the last entry.
In the U.S., we were still waiting for the second generation of Pokémon games to drop. The film features the legendary birds from the first generation as well as the legendary Lugia from the second generation, so everyone wanted to get a look at it.
The movie was really entertaining for a few reasons. First off, we get to see someone actually capture some legendary Pokémon. That makes nature go haywire, but it was cool to see.
Secondly, the familiar members of Team Rocket show up, but they try to do the right thing to save the world…so they can keep being bad. I love that dedication to Machiavellian villains who do bad things because it feels good, and that’s what we got.
The movie’s animation wasn’t that great. The dialogue wasn’t pretty. The story, to a non-fan, would be mostly incomprehensible. Still, I’ve always thought that people either won’t or shouldn’t bother seeing movies about a game series they aren’t invested in.
The success of the movie is not rooted in its greatness as a film but in the ability to entertain and stay true to the games.
Worst: Double Dragon (1994)
That caption is literally what Billy says when they see their transformation, and that says more about the movie than I ever could.
Anyway, it’s time for the last one, folks. Mostly, this movie committed the sin of being too complicated. The director had the perfect story for a video game movie handed to him from the games, but he wanted to push the envelope and we ended up with garbage.
The film is set in 2007 and has that annoying post-apocalyptic punk style that pervaded the film industry around the time. It even had a chase scene straight out of Mad Max.
The story is just dumb. One really strong medallion was broken into two pieces thousands of years ago. A bad guy wants it to do more evil. The brothers Billy and Jimmy fight to stop him from getting it. Weird transformations, poor costumes, and bad fighting ensue.
The story, visual effects, and choreography were all rather bad. The movie’s villain was played by Robert Patrick (T-1000), but the all-around awful dialogue made him more goofy than menacing.
Personally, I don’t even think the fans of the series cared for this one.
Video Game Movies from the 90s Paved the Way
While many of the live-action video game movies from the 90s were atrocious, they did contribute to the future of the sub-genre. These movies showed future directors what not to do, and they helped justify bigger budgets for future attempts at box office glory.
In short, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation walked so Mortal Kombat (2021) could run.
Sure, we had some absolute garbage movies in the 90s, but we were a few short years away from Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. Now, we have cinematic hits like Warcraft, Sonic, and Detective Pikachu.
None of them are cinematic masterpieces, but they were successful enough to entertain their audiences without insulting them.