The medium of video games is ripe for some licensed nonsense. With budgets inflating and success being a necessity, the days of cobbled together cash-ins are long gone. These days publishers bank on licenses they know will earn and usually put some development muscle behind them. When looking at previous generations, however, it was a very different landscape. It seems whatever license could be made into a game was. At times quick attempts to cash in, others oddly misguided attempts to snatch a fanbase or even just out of love for a brand, there were many reasons licensed video games.
While there are the obvious licenses that lend themselves to video games as a whole, there are those oddities that somehow got green-lit. Even stranger is when those oddball licenses that shouldn’t work end up presenting a pretty great product. So today we decided to take a look at five examples where the strangest licensed video games were successfully executed. When we speak about a weird licenses to get an adaptation, we are looking at the property itself, its relevance at release, the genre it is going to and finally how on paper, this should have been dead on arrival.
Let’s start off with a classic that has gone overlooked for some time. Capcom’s Disney NES games are beloved interpretations of popular animated shows of the time. Duck Tales still stands as one of the best games of the NES and this year saw a collection of all these game release for modern systems.
One of the strangest ones that is neglected was 1993‘s Goof Troop for the Super Nintendo. Where all the other Disney shows worked as video games due to grand adventures, the Goof Troop television series was a sitcom set in suburbia. Staring everyone’s favourite pants wearing dog Goofy and his son Max, it didn’t lend itself to a video game. A Goof Troop game is weird enough, but when looking at what it turned out to be, it is head scratching.
So since the show is set in the suburbs about a father and son pair, let’s send them to an island to fight pirates!
Goof Troop was Capcom’s take on Zelda and more specifically A Link to the Past which released two years earlier. A top-down view of the father and son pair as they solve puzzles, grab items and work their way through dungeons The game could be played entirely in co-op and actually made the puzzles more engaging. The game is a lot of fun and almost criminally overlooked when considering the Disney licenses Capcom put out. Goof Troop is a weird sales pitch but ends up a very enjoyable co-op experience that is worth looking for today. Oh, and it was directed by Shinji Mikami, the father of Resident Evil. Despite everything else, that is the weirdest facet of this game.
Grand Theft Auto III unleashed a whole new manner for developers to implement old licenses. Many saw the open-world sandbox as an opportunity to milk a license while trying to get that sweet GTA cash. In many cases, the open-world sandbox is the most versatile genre allowing for a lot of unique takes on the formula. The genre becomes a logical place for an older film to get a second wind in a new medium. This is especially true for crime movies as most the time they inspired GTA in the first place.
Yet of all the examples that were able to pull off the GTA formula, EA’s The Godfather in 2006 stands as the oddest duck to tackle Rockstar’s massive series. Where Scarface is already a dumb cartoon, the Godfather is considered cinema royalty. Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the novel of the same name is considered one of the greatest films ever hit the silver screen. So a video game based on it is already a tall order. Of all the properties EA could get, they go with one that was too high-brow for the video game treatment.
Going into the plot, players take up their created character and play alongside the film’s plot. Basically, you are always around the big moments and have a direct impact on the crucial plot lines. It is dumb, and I mean really dumb. For most purists, it was a hard slap in the face. Yet if you can turn your brain off, there is actually a really fun game here. More so than other open-world sandboxes, The Godfather really played up the Mafia lifestyle in gameplay design. Yes, the story is stupid, but getting rackets around town was an absolute joy and even the story missions are fun to play. The gunplay was solid and it had some great hand to hand combat. The Godfather name might have actually done more harm as a really fantastic little game could not overcome that barrier.
The game would get a sequel in 2009 that was also well liked. While not fondly remembered, the Godfather did feature more gameplay elements within its world that could be seen as forward thinking. The Godfather game was developed by EA Redwood Shores who would later go on to be Visceral Games who recently was shut down by EA.
So now in a weird twist, the studio behind what spawned off many licensed clones of their game now tackle a licensed game of their own. Sam and Dan Houser are the writers and directors of the Grand Theft Auto series. Dan Houser who originates from the UK spoke to the New York Times in 2005 about his influences and fascination with American culture. He would rent many films trying to capture that American lifestyle, but one he kept going back to was 1979’s The Warriors.
Thus he jumped at the chance to recreate one of his favourite films. Unlike other licensed products, this was a case where the license didn’t have much sway in terms of monetary value. The film about gang warfare in an urban dystonia was long and forgotten by 2005. This was a passion project for the brothers, and it shows. While odd in nature, the game could bank on Rockstar’s name attached. It was not really done to draw in those Warriors fans, but done simply because the Houser brothers wanted to do it.
Many assumed that the developer would just be taking the Warriors and working them into their Grand Theft Auto sandbox. Instead, players got a more controlled and focused experience from mission to mission. The Warriors was first and foremost about brawling and hand to hand combat. Even the genre has some debates with certain people believing it is a fighting game, while others will call it a 3D brawler. There was an intensity through beating another gang member that evokes the same raw sense as the film delivered. If it was any other developer, The Warriors might not be as well regarded as it is now. When you have the sway of the Houser brothers, you can do pretty much anything, especially in the mid-2000s. This might be the most obscure license on the list but yet Rockstar made the Warriors franchise popular again.
The Walking Dead
While it might be a stretch to think back on it, when developer Telltale announced they were working on a game based on The Walking Dead, many were sceptical. The developer back then had dealt with big licenses before including Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, but The Walking Dead was something else. The show was in its second season and was already turning into a monster hit. Telltale was tackling a modern property and not a classic one. With that in mind, players were hesitant of an adventure game developer tackling the popular zombie genre. Many expected a survival horror where ammo is limited or a first-person shooter.
What we got as players was a revolutionary way of storytelling in games. Like the comic, Telltale’s The Walking Dead was more fascinated by the people living in this world than a zombie murder spree. While this made sense with regards to the comic and show dealing with the human element, video games never had the same drive with zombies. In the video game world, zombies had become the new fodder for players to mow down – stories and characters be damned. Pitching a narrative based choose your own adventure was assumed to be a niche market but boy did Telltale hit it big.
The Walking Dead became hit with critics and fans. It started what would be the Telltale formula we know today. There is no denying that the original pitch was a weird one and yet it struck a chord in the gaming landscape. The game even nailed the episodic format by introducing the continuation of choice through each episode. The first season of The Walking Dead worked some magic despite early apathy or concerns.
The Simpsons: Hit and Run
Now we end off with another GTA clone and this one is only weirder. Where The Godfather at least made thematic sense with the gangster genre, The Simpsons: Hit and Run is a whole new level of crazy. Simpsons games have been around before but Hit and Run went in a very different direction.
Of all the genres one might associate with The Simpsons, a GTA clone was not one of them. Developer Radical Entertainment had a solid pitch at least: by combining one of the most popular television series ever with one of the most popular game franchises ever, they could strike some gold. Hit and Run was spawned off from the studio’s previous game, The Simpsons: Road Rage, a Crazy Taxi knock-off. The story of how one turned into the other is quite the tale, and it all started with a kick.
And yet The Simpsons: Hit and Run turned out to be a hilarious and fantastic match up. Players for the first time ever had the opportunity to explore Springfield like never before. With so many references, it turned into a love letter for fans. While it had more video game trope missions, it ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. While weird in premise, somehow the freedom to roll around Springfield was a match made in heaven.
At one point, the developers feared they gave the player too much freedom in the realm of The Simpsons. The team was concerned that with a kick button, some players might go too far on some characters. They worried that creator Matt Groening would stop the entire project since players could use Homer to kick Marge to the ground. When Groening got the game, reportedly the first thing he did was kick Marge and start laughing.
That tale indicates just how bizarre The Simpsons: Hit and Run was in theory. It broke all the Simpsons rules and played up the lunacy found in GTA albeit with no guns. The Simpsons Sandbox is just so bafflingly weird yet the game is a riot. If you are a Simpsons fan, you should definitely be on the lookout for it. If anything, Hit and Run proved you don’t have to embrace the violence to get the sandbox working. Well, at least no violence with guns, kicking is fine.
So there you have it, just five examples of unlikely properties that turned out be pretty great games. Whether they were weird in license, genre or any other factors, these games were a welcomed surprise. Any weird license games that you loved? Let us know in the comments below.