One of the mantras I keep repeating in my current Willow LP is that it’s one of the only really good licensed games that have been produced. That’s actually a bit of an exaggeration, I suppose; there have been lots of games based on licensed properties that I’ve enjoyed. Furthermore, it seems like the further back I go in my gaming history, the more licensed games I’ve liked. Once you’re back into the NES era, for example, chances are as good that any given licensed game is as enjoyable as any other game you care to name.
I suppose part of that is related to games being a lot simpler twenty years ago. Used to be you could just slap a platformer together and call it gravy. It’s apparently not difficult to make a moderately fun platformer. Platforms, monsters, gold coins to collect — booya. Call it a game. My theory is that some companies just kept shelves of ready-made platformers with generic sprites which could be quickly and seamlessly replaced with sprites from whatever hot licensed they just happened to get.
Nowadays, though? Licensed games only really come out playable if they aren’t rushed to coincide with a movie release date. Did you play Marvel Ultimate Alliance? I did, and I don’t even read comic books. It’s not a great game, but it’s pretty fun. At least as fun as a mediocre 8-bit platformer anyway. And Batman: Arkham Asylum? That is a great game, made greater in that it wasn’t just a watered-down version of whatever the newest Batman movie was at the time.
And, of course, any game with LEGO in the title is guaranteed to be a blast.
I wonder if that might be the key, though. Willow is fun, but it’s absolutely nothing like the movie. The whole point of the movie was that Willow was the unlikeliest adventure hero this side of the Shire. A scene where Willow went head-to-head with General Kael, each armed with swords and facing off in a wide-open arena, would have been absolutely laughable. But how else could you have really translated the experience of playing Willow onto an NES cartridge? There aren’t buttons for determination and quick wits. You get a sword because that’s what games are — and the game didn’t suffer because of it. If there were Willow purists out there who refused to play the game because it of the liberties it took with its source material, nobody was paying attention to them. The rest of us were all busy playing our awesome new game.
It seems like game companies try to market their licensed games directly to fans of the license. Which, on its face, sounds like the most logical way to do things. But perhaps they’d find a larger audience if the games themselves were actually fun? Okay, so you have this game where, I dunno, My Little Pony flies through outer space blasting aliens. You lose the core pony fanbase, sure, but the rest of us like blasting aliens well enough.
This is all assuming, of course, that folks care about the playability and/or artistic merit of the games they’re producing. Could be I’m giving them way too much credit. I’m an optimist at heart.